To Tell Or Not To Tell, That Is The Question

I always enjoyed chatting with Karen when we’d sit next to each other while we had manicures or pedicures, or when we’d run into each other in the street.  We knew each other for years, but we really didn’t know each other.  

“Karen died last week,” Angela told me as she was applying polish to my nails.

I was incredulous.  I hadn’t seen Karen in a couple of months, but that wasn’t unusual since our mani appointments often didn’t coincide. Turns out Karen had cancer.  She had it years ago, Angela said, and it was in remission, but the cancer returned. She chose not to tell anyone, certainly not acquaintances.

Darlene (not her real name) is different than Karen. They’re polar opposites, at least when it comes to publicly discussing their illness.  Darlene has metastasized cancer, and talks about it often, at least on her Facebook page. She shares information about her experimental treatments, asks for help getting to and from her appointments, and calls out people whom she regards as callous towards her.

“Some of you just watch me, lots of you help me, and some of you are scared of my raw feelings and how I express them. This is me (on cancer).  I ain’t changing now,” she recently commented on Facebook.  Having cancer has actually made her an “extrovert,” she wrote.

Why do some of us share our feelings, with just about anyone, when we’re most vulnerable, while others wouldn’t dare?  I have a few thoughts on the subject.

Sharing makes us feel even more vulnerable. When we tell others about something bad or unpleasant that has befallen us, it might make us look less in control of ourselves and the situation.  A successful, controlling woman I knew never would admit to problems she was having at work because she always had to appear “in charge.”  Being “in charge” gave her leverage over others, which she didn’t want to lose.

When my aunt was dying of colorectal cancer, she steadfastly avoided the subject simply because she couldn’t face it, even to her family.

Sharing opens us up to hearing things that we’d prefer not to hear.  I think most of us would agree that we don’t know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, or had some other horrible thing happen to him or her.  “People always ask me ‘how do you feel?’” a woman with cancer told me. “How do they think I feel?” she rhetorically said. Or, they’ll go into detail about what happened to someone else they know with the same disease; offer non-stop medical advice, or give us disingenuous offers of help.  

Openly sharing makes us feel less lonely. Although some of us would prefer not to hear every last detail about an acquaintance’s sickness or other problem, it might actually be a relief for her or him to discuss it.  Sharing, however, is different than oversharing. “The difference between being authentic and oversharing stems from your intentions. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown summed up the difference by saying, ‘Using vulnerability is the not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite—it’s armor,’” wrote psychotherapist Amy Morin on www.forbes.com.  

Amy says some people might “cross the line (sometimes unintentionally)” from being authentic to being oversharers to gain sympathy. “If you share your mistakes in an effort to help others learn, you are being authentic. If, however, you share your hardships to gain pity, you’re oversharing,” she said.  

Oversharers often want to relieve the anxiety they feel when “pain is raw,” and it feels like everyone sees something is “wrong with you,” Amy noted. “Oversharers relieve their anxiety by revealing their pain. Authentic people, however, tolerate that anxiety and carefully consider whether it’s good idea to share,” she explained.

If you care to share your personal feelings about this subject, I’d love to hear from you.