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. 

How to Defend Against Emotional Muggers

1334964_21004106My client Francine’s husband had started behaving oddly. “I’ll do something ordinary, like offer to check his e-mail for him, and he’ll react as if I’ve killed a child,” she said. Another client, Selma, was a sunny optimist—except when her sister Eve called to complain about life; by the time they hung up, Selma was always exhausted and depressed. Meanwhile, my friend Pamela was getting blindsided at a public-speaking workshop. “I gave a speech that went really well,” she told me, “and then this other woman got up and spent her whole speech mocking everything I’d done wrong.”

Let’s call it emotional mugging: You’re going along minding your own business, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you’re faced with a shocking attack on your mood or peace of mind. Being emotionally mugged can be crippling, but because the damage is so often invisible, few of us are ever taught self-defense. Time to change that. You’re probably aware that the Asian martial arts, with their deft approach to handling attack, are popular practices for warding off physical muggers. Well, karate-do (“the way of the empty hand”) and bushi-do(“the way of the warrior”) have a psychological equivalent I call emo-do (pronounced “ee-moh-doh”): the way of the emotional master. 

An Ounce of Prevention… 

Like all opportunistic criminals, emotional muggers target people who wander around bad neighborhoods. The best way to become a victim is to turn your own mind into such a place—a place filled with self-hatred, unfair criticism, and gloomy predictions. This kind of setting not only attracts muggers but can leave you so emotionally tapped out that you turn to psychological crime yourself. 

By contrast, those who follow emo-do create an inner space of clean, clear self-confidence. To cultivate such an environment, you must keep three brave commitments. First, vow never to deliberately create suffering for yourself or others. (If you can’t do this, count on being mugged frequently. There’s no honor among thieves.) Second, always own your mistakes and do your best to correct them. Third, forgive yourself when your best isn’t good enough. Keeping these commitments creates deep strength that scares off most emotional muggers. And should some misguided thug ambush you anyway, emo-do will help you launch a powerful defense.

If You Are Attacked 

My former karate teacher, Jay Cool (yes! really!), used to study muggers’ patterns to help develop counterattack strategies for the Phoenix police. “There are only so many ways to assault someone,” Jay says. “Every mugger uses some version of a few basic approaches.” This is also true of emotional attackers, and knowing their strategy helps you thwart them. Here are six types of emotional mugger—and, for each, the commensurate emo-do response.

1. Puppy Kickers 

The term sounds brutal, but most of us can understand it—because most of us have been perpetrators ourselves. Picture: The cat’s sick, your husband’s away, you didn’t sleep all night, and as you rush to get your 6-year-old ready for school, she tries to tell you something about her imaginary koala using whispered pig Latin, in which she is not remotely fluent. After five minutes of unintelligible babble, you hear yourself shout, “For God’s sake, talk like a normal person!” You’ve just emotionally mugged your own offspring. It feels, as Anne Lamott writes, like bitch-slapping ET. 

I’m not saying puppy kicking is okay because it’s common. But seeing it from the mugger’s perspective helps you mount an effective defense when you’re the kickee. 

Emo-Do Defense: Start by recognizing that the mugging isn’t about you; you just happened to be standing there, wagging your tail, when someone went temporarily insane. Try puppyish responses: Trot off and find another friend, or (if the mugger is a loved one) offer kindness. Say, “You seem really stressed. Can I help?” This can actually turn puppy kicking into gratitude. 

2. Exploding Doormats 

Cora’s assistant, Angie, had been glum all day. Trying to lighten the mood, Cora said, “You should leave early—there’s traffic.” 

“Leave early?” Angie shouted. “That would mean I have to do everything in even less time!” Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

Angie is an exploding doormat. She doesn’t stand up for herself until her emotions reach a critical limit—at which point she goes postal with virtually no provocation. Exploding doormats are more harmful than puppy kickers because they harbor festering hostility toward their targets. 

Emo-Do Defense: Cora’s attempt to soothe Angie’s anger by being extra nice was manipulative, so it made things worse. The next day, she switched to open, frank discussion, which is all that’s necessary to keep doormats from detonating. “You seem so angry,” Cora said. “What’s really on your mind?” When Angie admitted she felt overworked, Cora realized she’d been taking the young woman’s quiet diligence for granted. Together they came up with ways for Angie to let Cora know her limits. Conflict solved.

3. Deflators 

When Kimberly told her mother she’d been promoted, the older woman sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to work harder to prove you’re worth it.” Kimberly’s mother is a deflator, a person who sees virtue in pessimism. With one well-placed jab, she can let the air out of any good time, and make a bad time feel even worse. 

Emo-Do Defense: Deflators almost always have a history of feeling crushed. As such, they’re simply upholding tradition. Unlike puppy kickers or exploding doormats, they rarely respond well to discussion, so don’t bother. Instead, simply and cheerfully reject their pessimism. To the prediction that she’d have to work harder, Kimberly calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” Her mother had no choice but to slouch off with her dagger.

4. Secret Keepers 

Remember Francine, whose husband blew up over ordinary behavior? She later learned that he was having not one but several online affairs. No wonder he freaked when she tried to check his messages; cheaters, addicts, and liars attack people who threaten to stumble onto their misdeeds. This kind of mugging feels crazy and surreal. If you’re questioning your sanity after a surprise argument, you may be dealing with a secret keeper.

Emo-Do Defense: A secret keeper’s mugging leaves you with an icky sense that something’s wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore your instincts. (An emo-do master never keeps secrets from herself—for example, by going into denial.) Hold firm to your reality. Ask questions. If more violent attacks ensue, revise your trust levels and watch for more evidence.

5. Cannibals 

To be happy, each of us must create meaning and joy from the raw material of everyday life. This isn’t easy, so some people become cannibals, devouring the positive energy of others. Selma’s sister Eve is an example. She made a habit of calling Selma whenever she was miserable, off-loading her misery and draining Selma’s joy.

Emo-Do Defense: Don’t feed cannibals the patient, sorrowful consolation they expect. Selma eventually redefined her responsibilities as a supportive sister and began answering Eve’s complaints by saying, “You’re so resourceful—I know you can solve that problem!” Eve gagged on this response and went off to hunt tastier snacks.

6. Dementors 

The woman who publicly shamed Pamela after her speech was the most destructive kind of emotional mugger, the equivalent of a rapist: someone who gets off on causing pain. In Harry Potter’s world, such beings are called dementors. They are endlessly unhappy, addicted to the sense of control they get from violating others. They don’t care whom they hurt, as long as they hurt someone.

Emo-Do Defense: If someone attacks with no provocation and seems intent on inflicting maximum harm, you may be dealing with a truly disturbed person. First, eat some chocolate (any Harry Potter fan can tell you that). Then distance yourself in any way you can. This wasn’t a problem for Pamela—she was easily able to avoid her attacker—but may be daunting if you’ve got a dementor in the family or at work. If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship, at least keep your emotional distance. Don’t trust a dementor with your private thoughts. 

Staying away from dementors allows them to socially self-destruct—and they always do. Though onlookers may at first be too horror-stricken to come to your rescue, most people are appalled by dementors’ behavior. This is why cruel conversationalists ultimately end up friendless, and—on a much larger scale—why evils like prejudice and discrimination have slowly but surely become less acceptable in almost every human society. 

After an Assault 

No matter how well prepared you are, an emotional mugger may still catch you before you can defend yourself. In the short run, you’ll feel violated. In the long run, you can use the experience to become a stronger emo-do practitioner.

To start, dispense with any lingering nasty energy by recognizing that it probably belongs to the mugger, not you. If the negativity won’t dissipate, there are two possibilities: Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it. Return immediately to basic emo-do code: Stop causing suffering for yourself by thinking you deserved victimization; correct any behaviors that might have triggered the mugging; and, finally, forgive yourself for the whole misadventure. 

The way of emo-do is rigorous—and hugely rewarding. The more you follow it, the more muggers will avoid you. Instead of a target, you’ll become a walking haven, a place where emotional criminals rarely strike—and if they do, are swiftly rendered harmless. Plan to welcome many of us to walk with you, because that’s just the kind of neighborhood where most people want to live. 

The Empathy Workout

I can’t say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don’t think anyone does. Oh, I’ve seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune. Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist read more…