Overshare Beware: How to Create Healthy Emotional Intimacy

Boris came to me at the behest of his new girlfriend, Cecily, whom I’d known for years. Since most people dislike being pushed to see any sort of adviser, I expected Boris to be reticent, if not downright hostile. How wrong I was! After a few minutes of chitchat, Boris himself raised a very personal issue. 

“I know why Cecily’s confused,” he said sheepishly. “We’ve been dating for months, and we still haven’t slept together.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously, not wanting to disrupt a delicate moment.

“You see,” Boris said, looking at the floor. “Ten years ago I had a cancer scare. My, um, prostate. It turned out to be benign, but mentally, it affected…you know.” Eyes still averted, Boris described his sexual difficulties and the vicious mockery he’d endured from his former wife. I felt terrible for Boris but also secretly pleased that he’d felt safe enough to divulge such personal information.

The next day, Cecily called to thank me. “Boris seems happier,” she said. Then her voice dropped. “You know, ten years ago…” She repeated Boris’s prostate story, including all the gory details. “I know we have a really special connection,” Cecily said, “because Boris shared that with me on our very first date.”

“Ah,” I said, developing suspicions.

Weeks later those suspicions were confirmed when Cecily called me in tears. “Boris hit on my best friend,” she sobbed. “After I introduced them, he called her and they talked for hours. He told her about his cancer scare and everything.”

I felt myself blush. How many other girlfriends, counselors, taxi drivers, and random airplane passengers had Boris seduced into intimacy with the mournful ballad of his achy-breaky reproductive apparatus? It called to mind Broadway megastar Dame Edna’s comment about her (fictional) late husband Norm: “Oh, the years I spent with that man’s prostate hanging over my head.” Boris, it seemed, whipped out his, uh, issues every chance he got. He wasn’t just a sharing person. He was an emotional slut. 

Of course, I was less upset about this than Cecily, partly because Boris wasn’t my significant other, and partly because previous experience had taught me to recognize and cope with people like him. To help you avoid falling for an emotional tramp—or, worse, acting like Boris yourself—I’ll give you the same advice I gave Cecily. 

But first, maybe I should explain what I mean by emotional sluts: They aren’t sexually promiscuous folks who also tend to be moody, like, for instance, every single character on Sex and the City. True emotional sluts are psychological wolves in sheep’s clothing. They consciously or unconsciously manipulate others with displays of openness and vulnerability. 

We all have an innate tendency to mirror the level of intimacy presented by others, so when someone confides personal information, we feel social pressure to reciprocate. This can put us in deep social water with people who might simply be enthusiastic swimmers but could also be sea monsters. Experts who study predatory criminals advise wariness when anyone shares too much information too soon. Such people may be using a tactic called forced teaming, pulling others into ill-advised intimacy and gaining information they can use to embarrass, exploit, invade, or control. For example:

  • During an ordinary water-cooler conversation, Kip’s coworker Theresa confided tragic details about her sequence of abusive boyfriends. Kip felt obligated to keep listening and offer comfort. As she confided more, he volunteered stories of his own romantic traumas to help her feel at ease. With all this talk of love, Kip soon realized that Theresa considered their relationship a romance, something he’d never intended. When he told her, as gently as possible, that he wasn’t on the market, Theresa did not react well. Kip later learned from a third party that Theresa had been regaling friends with the story of her all-time worst abuser—him.
  • Amy was 16 when her 40-year-old soccer coach told her about his depression and anxiety. Amy fell for Coach Greene like Juliet on estrogen, telling him all about her own life, including details about her friends. Their intimacy, while never physical, was so emotionally fraught that Amy’s interest in boys her own age evaporated (to this day, she dates much older men). Then a teammate informed her that Coach had not only confided in several other soccer players, the entire cheerleading squad, and a comely female bus driver but had also shared Amy’s personal disclosures with others—comments she had never meant for any ears but his. Coach Greene’s emotional sluttiness left her feeling both exposed and jilted, an adolescent heartbreak that still stings many years later.

If an emotional slut manages to hook you, consider yourself lucky if you merely devote time and attention to someone who hasn’t earned it, or reveal a few embarrassing secrets. There can be more serious fallout: You offer your heart, making the relationship far more important to you than to the emotional slut. There’s also a slim but real chance you could fall victim to a predator who’s deliberately luring you into a vulnerable position, gathering information that can be used to control or victimize you. Realizing that someone you trusted intimately sees you as someone to be manipulated is like walking full speed into a glass door: shocking, probably humiliating, and possibly quite painful. 

How To Avoid Emotional Sluts

Manipulative people often rope others into games of conversational strip poker by relying on implicit courtesy—the equivalent of “I took off my shirt, so the least you can do is peel off your socks.” Two words: Don’t play. 

You need preparation to resist this kind of peer pressure. Resolve right now that the next time someone divulges inappropriate details about her sinus-flushing compulsion or aberrant body hair, you’ll resist the impulse to feign polite interest or share something equally intimate. Instead you’ll say, “Oh.” That’s all. Then maintain silence. If possible, walk away. 

This simple approach is amazingly difficult, partly because our therapy-soaked, tabloid-reading, reality-TV-watching culture encourages emotional intimacy in many contexts. It’s easy to join in the exhibitionism, putting yourself in bad company. 

How to Recognize a Descent Into Slatternliness 

My primary care physician, a woman I’ll call Dr. Pearl, is right out of Grey’s Anatomy. Lovely, humane, and concerned not only for her patients’ physical health but for their overall well-being, she’s almost too good to be true. Sadly, I know she probably braces herself every time I visit her.

You see, before my first get-to-know-you physical with Dr. Pearl, I was instructed not to eat or drink, lest I mess up my blood tests. I also knew I’d be subjected to the most agonizing of all medical tests: the weigh-in. So perhaps I fasted longer than technically necessary, avoiding even water, which is really heavy. 

My memory of that appointment is kind of blurry, but I believe that when Dr. Pearl asked me about my stress levels, I began compulsively describing everything that ever happened to me in my entire life. Dehydration and low blood sugar turned me into a disclosure train with no brakes. Somewhere between discussing my dread of developing gas during yoga and my detailed description of my childhood hometown (which, in my defense, was rumored to boast of the world’s highest per capita consumption of both chocolate doughnuts and antidepressants), Dr. Pearl politely mentioned that therapy was an excellent place to discuss such issues. Well played, Dr. Pearl. 

Hours later, filled with chocolate doughnuts, fluids, and horror at my own behavior, I swore to make something positive come from my shameful exhibitionism. I reviewed the appointment mentally, paying special attention to the moment I knew I’d gone too far (sadly, this was very early in the conversation). In hindsight I realized it was the moment Dr. Pearl had flashed a certain micro-expression, basically the nonverbal equivalent of the word oy. 

How to Read Lips (And Eyes, and Foreheads…) 

If you’ve never heard of micro-expressions, it’s time you did. They’ve been famously studied by Paul Ekman, PhD (the real-life model for Dr. Cal Lightman of the hit show Lie to Me), who found that all humans display the range of emotions with identical facial expressions. Even when we’re trying to be inscrutable, our true feelings involuntarily flash across our faces for about a fifth of a second: a micro-expression. 

Most of us aren’t aware of other people’s micro-expressions, though we see them subconsciously. To evaluate your ability to read these expressions, take the cool Web-based test at Cio.com/article/facial-expressions-test. Not only is it fascinating, it underscores the fact that we can train ourselves to see and read micro-expressions. This, I concluded after my shameful doctor’s appointment, is a skill that can help us all avoid becoming emotional sluts. 

Try this exercise: Imagine that your grandmother is visiting (from Detroit, Bosnia, the afterlife, or wherever). She takes a prescription sleep medication that, according to the manufacturer, “can cause amnesiac sleep housekeeping in rare cases.” During the wee hours, you awaken to find Nana, stark naked, at the foot of your bed, folding your laundry.

Picture this vividly, allowing your face to do whatever it wants. Good—now, freeze. Memorize your expression. Study it in a mirror: the widened eyes, the wrinkled nose, the head pulled back like that of a startled heron. This is the reaction of a person who’s receiving Too Much Information. Remember it!

If you do this, you’ll notice far more accurately when someone flashes a warning that you’re overexposed. Even if the micro-expression is so fleeting you don’t see it, your gut will shout, “Danger! Turn back!” Promise yourself that if this happens, you’ll immediately say, “But enough about me! What about the weather we’re having?” This preparation can save you from behaving like an emotional strumpet—even in situations where you’re disoriented by the threat of, say, a weigh-in. 

Emotional intimacy is one of the greatest joys of human existence. Still, it’s best to let it develop gradually, with each party revealing more as confidence and mutual trust increase. If I sound like your grandma (before she went on that crazy sleep medication), so be it. Old-fashioned caution can preserve your reputation, dignity, and self-respect, so slap on that emotional chastity muzzle by practicing your micro-expression skills and conversational deflections until they’re practically reflexive. Then, when an emotional slut pressures you to go too far, too soon, you can save yourself for someone who deserves you more. 

23 replies
  1. Tanene
    Tanene says:

    Oh Martha, very timely. Just saw myself–sharing something to get another’s sympathy. Got it. Will.Get.Over.It. Thank you one more time for your kick a*s insights and shares. Sure helps: it is so freeing to clean up one thought form after another. Your writing style is a delight; just get it, apply, and move forward.
    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Renee
      Renee says:

      Hi Martha,
      Thank you so much for that caution message on inappropriate sharing. Unfortunately I just had an episode of it. The woman asked me for help and when she questioned me, I told her more than I planned to. However I did ask her to keep my information private which she agreed to. Hopefully she will as I planned to keep her information private.

      Now I will be better prepared to not give up more information than I want to and is appropriate. I think we share to express empathy but I think we have to be careful.
      Thanks,
      Renee

      Reply
  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    I really needed to hear this! I am sometimes the recipient and sometimes the over-sharer. I’m fairly private, so I think my over-sharing occurs when others over-share with me…like Kip in your example. Thanks for the tips – I’ll definitely be more alert!

    Reply
  3. Britta Arnold
    Britta Arnold says:

    Thank you for holding up the mirror to me and still make me smile and forgive myself in order to really stop manipulative ways of my own. I love your humor, your style – and your timing: Your writing seems to always find me at a perfect time in my life for me to feel touched, caught in the act, acknowledged, shaken and encouraged to clean up my act for many years now. Thank you for the warmth and the laughter sweeping over from so far away!

    Reply
  4. Maike Bohlen
    Maike Bohlen says:

    Interesting. I remembered the uneasy feeling i experienced when a woman out of the blue shared a story with me i sensed was unapprobiate at this moment. Something about a fellow swimmer she discovered dead in the pool many years ago and how, yes, whatever she was. To me it felt as if she abused someone else´s death to get attention. Scary. But i thank for sharing your thoughts. Now i know my senses were right to alert me on this afternoon.

    Reply
  5. Bridget
    Bridget says:

    Brilliant…I have reciprocated too often – I’m amazed at how many people share their darkest, deepest stuff with me – must have EMPATH emblazoned on my forehead. I’ve always ended up walking away feeling slightly grubby…now you’ve highlighted this I’ll say “oh” and I’ll keep my own dirty laundry where it belongs.
    THANK YOU.

    Reply
  6. Claire MacWilliams
    Claire MacWilliams says:

    This article wasn’t what I expected; it’s certainly not Martha’s usual hip, positive, “be true to yourself” fare. I think the title may be misleading as well. While Martha offers guidance on how to avoid unhealthy oversharing, there’s really not much here on how to do healthy, appropriate sharing (or with whom to do it).

    Reply
  7. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    Thank goodness in I believe better late than never! This is such a wonderful article. I have been quite adept all my life at the “awwww” factor and fall for people’s stories waaaay too much…especially some relative’s stories and have been zapped…big time! I’m 66 and going to put this into practice big time!
    Thank you, Martha, for your down to earth, practical advice on how to negotiate life…along with a wonderful dose of humor you guide us well!

    Reply
  8. Stella
    Stella says:

    Boy did this come at a good time for me. I have a acquaintance who excels at conversational strip poker and she hooks me every time. While I’m generally reticent to over share, when she comes to me with a sad story from her life (of which there seem to be many) I find myself habitually responding by revealing something similar that I’ve experienced to show her that I relate and she’s not alone in her feelings. However, I’ve noticed that she doesn’t offer the same empathy and compassion I offer her and it’s as if she just wanted me to make myself vulnerable to her or to dig in and find out something that proves I’m not together or happy in my life either–sort of bringing me down to pull herself up. She always walks away feeling better and I always feel worse. There is a good example of a character type like this in the film Another Year. “Mary” always has a sad tale to tell and tries to get a few of her friends in the story to “share” with her with the implicit goal to make herself feel better about the state of her life.

    Going forward, I’m going to stop sacrificing my own peace of mind and respond in a much more generic way. As my husband always says, generally speaking adults don’t dump on each other. Wise man.

    Reply
    • DH
      DH says:

      Stella,
      Thanks for sharing that comment. I have very similar experiences to yours and now I know that I’m not alone! I was never able to identify what was going on and now that I can, hopefully I’ll do better to restrain myself when someone overshares with me.

      Reply
  9. annie
    annie says:

    Sorry Martha but I found this a little disappointing. Your use of the word “slut” and talking about women’s sexual promiscuity just didn’t sit right with me.

    Neither did your interpretation of this man’s behaviour. I am personally an oversharer. But my oversharing has nothing to do with manipulation or emotional sluttiness, and I find that reference quite offensive.

    I overshare because I have toxic shame, and sometimes I overcompensate for that. When you have a condition (like the man in this story) that might be viewed by the public as “embarassing” or “shameful” – such as mental illness or a physical ailment – that can be difficult on your self esteem. So you try to convince yourself that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Of course you don’t – you have a medical condition, or mental illness… it would happen to anyone and it’s not your fault. Right?

    And so you share this with people because you feel like you’re walking around, holding it in all the time like some ugly thorn. You fear that eventually, friends will see this thorn, and they won’t want to know you anymore. So you rip of the band aid – you expose it all, in the beginning.

    Does that make sense? It makes sense to me. Sure, it might not be the healthiest behaviour, but there’s nothing malicious, slutty or manipulative about it. So when someone overshares with me, I consider the fact that maybe they are overburdened and need help, or maybe, they are overcompensating for their shame.

    Reply
    • Tracey
      Tracey says:

      I know that this was written some time ago, but thank you for balancing out the view on this.

      I began reading and identifying myself as the derogatory person being shamed in the article and felt myself spiralling into negativity.

      Always examining the underlying reason why this happens helps to create understanding and compassion – and THAT is what gives awareness and empowerment. Unfortunately the language and tone of this otherwise helpful piece did not do much to create that for me.

      Reply
  10. jane
    jane says:

    thanks so much for this Martha… I am trying to sort out a life of codependence and the oversharing thing (no boundaries were one way of ensuring love) is a biggie for me… this is really helpful.

    Reply
  11. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Overshare beware..YES! I find this a HUGE issue in the (2nd time around) dating world today. I am SO tired of men (and I know women do it too) telling/describing/acting out me every single solitary detail of their failed marriage on a first date (or in a first chat). It took you 20 years or more to live that marriage out, why do I need to hear every sordid detail on the first date. I cannot believe what some people will dish out over a first drink. I now look at it as extremely telling if someone is still attached to that story and do not go out with them again. I also become accutely aware that if they will tell me all of this VERY personal stuff about their ex wife…their character is ICK to me.
    My last date lasted 3 hours with him blathering on about his horrible ex and the 1001 things she did TO him. Snore.

    Reply
  12. Char
    Char says:

    This is a wonderful and validating post for me! I recently separated and filed for divorce from an abusive NPD after 25 years together. This is exactly what he did with me and does with others. I felt such a (fake) intimacy with this man and shared my deepest and darkest only to find out that he’s been using these shares and lies of course to elicit attention from his supply (other women). I’ve been devastated to say the least and feel that my reputation is at stake. I recognize the Red Flags now and especially after reading this post! As I go through the recovery process your posts and books are so very helpful! I am grateful for you Martha! Thank you!

    Reply
  13. Meg
    Meg says:

    Of all the lessons on intimacy, this is a key one for a start up of a relationship. Be an observer, both of yourself and the other person.

    Women, especially, are taught to be listeners, sympathetic, empathetic, and polite. Those four can land you into the arms, or mental lobster trap of an emotional blackmailing, slut before you can see it!

    Learn to observe what’s going down…you do not have to say yes to anything right now. Take time to think it over, absorb, and, say “I’ll get back to you”. This needs oodles of practice, as I well know, having fallen into the ultimate rip-off…a con-person. That’s expensive!

    Furthermore, if you’re tired on that first date, do not get intimate, period! It’s like being on drugs…unclear, and likely to get confused and to commit information about yourself to someone who is inappropriate.

    Now, I’m practicing every day. I still falter, only being a female human being. Now, I catch myself doing it, stop, and try to reset, especially if I’m tired, sick, or grumpy! Didn’t work the other day, when I was caught by surprise by a statement to which I needed to say, ” Fine idea; let’s look at the calendar, and I’ll get back to get back to you”. Good luck, I know we can do it!

    Reply
  14. Lucy
    Lucy says:

    I assume that I am what you call an “emotional slut.” I object to your take on it, though: I do not share to relieve myself of burdens, nor do I share to manipulate, or even to create intimacy. I share when people ask me about, say, my time in Iran, or my affair, or my take on marriage. I have no boundaries except one, it seems: I do not talk about my fantasies. Anything else is history, and if people want to know what happened, or what I feel about what happened, I tell them. They invariably tell me that I should write a book–as if my tales are worth sensationalizing in a best-seller. They are, and they aren’t: My tales happen to have exotic trappings, but they have at their base the ordinary tales that anyone might go through, and I like to process real stories with people–whether my own or theirs.

    I can tell when I talk that what I reveal is more than people expected, or perhaps want, to hear. It’s also interesting that they don’t remember what I’ve said–as if it were a fantasy–and if they hear it again, recounted to someone new, they almost always say, “Oh, I never knew that!”

    I would prefer to live life on this level, where we are sharing the real story of our lives, not the edited one, not the one that it’s best to embroider or to forget. I understand that most people are uncomfortable at such an intense level, and I honor their wishes–until it seems to me that they are looking to me to take them into an uncomfortable truth, which they can either join in or forget. But perhaps I should glean from your post that it is my hubris prompting me to speak, not their seeking; perhaps you are right, and I will consider shutting up.

    Reply
    • Jordan
      Jordan says:

      Yeah… you actually do sound very much like you crave the attention of others. You talk about yourself as though you are your own biggest inspiration.

      Reply
  15. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Great article on setting boundaries!

    I am an over-sharer myself so it is good to see it from the otherside.

    Was a little tough to swallow the term “emotional slut” but I understand your intent 🙂

    Reply
  16. Jo
    Jo says:

    Ugh. Just got out of a relationship plagued by oversharing. He was totally successful in making me feel as though we had some sort of special connection. I am a very private person and was often confused as to why I was so quickly letting this person in. In retrospect I am fairly certain he is some sort of a social predator. I feel ill sometimes that I let him hijack me emotionally. After a year I am finally free, but it is taking some time to regain my bearings. Lesson learned. The hard way.

    Reply

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