How much “Self-Disclosure” is healthy and how to set boundaries when asked personal questions.


Do you know when to keep your lips zipped???

I seem to be on a big “Boundary” kick with my clients.  One of the topics that commonly comes up is “What do I do when I’m asked a personal question that I don’t want to answer?”  It seems pretty obvious what the solution is…so if that’s the case, why do so many people struggle in this area?

There is a continuum that goes from people who disclose way too much information, and those who share almost nothing about themselves.  I believe that people fall somewhere on this continuum based on the patterns and interactions in their Family of Origin (FOO) as well as other past relationships.   For those who fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum, sharing is a process that moves along naturally.

At some point I’ll write about those who struggle sharing and being vulnerable.

This post is for those who find themselves sharing too much…too soon!  Such people “self-disclose” quickly, either on their own, or when asked a personal question by someone they may barely know.  They share information that isn’t supported by the level of intimacy that exists in the relationship/friendship.  When this happens, the person often thinks “why did I just answer that?” and feels uncomfortable or regretful.  Some others, out of habit or nervousness, fail to recognize when they’ve crossed the line and have shared too much.  They are unaware of their habit of sharing too much, too quickly.

For those who want to work on this, I ask for them to “slow down” in their conversations.  My rule “When in doubt, do nothing” applies here.  I’m often told that a person feels “rude” when they fail to answer a question.  Some say that they blurt out the answer without any filter, only to regret it later.

I once had a co-worker (a very nosy person) ask, after a relative had passed, something like…”Did he leave you any money?”  What’s really sad is that I answered without listening to my feelings of discomfort!

If you’ve always being an open book…closing it a bit will feel odd.  You’ll want a menu of responses when asked personal questions that go beyond what is that person’s “business”.

“Oh, I don’t want to bore you with those details!”

“Oh, that’s a long story that we can discuss some other time.”

“Wow, I’m not even sure where to start!”

Then a redirection…

So, how did your vacation go last month?” or…”What is your favorite past vacation?”   “What was the food like in Peru?”

You can tell that I think people love to talk about their vacations.  Or maybe I do.

Anyway…one idea is to simply say “Oh, I don’t want to bore you with the details” or some varitation of the above suggestions.   I think that most people move on from there, particularly when the conversation has been redirected.  Healthy people respect boundaries!

Some ask the question again.  These people push boundaries.  Take great care when in a relationship with a cronic boundary pusher…they will challange boundaries in all sorts of ways.

If the person says “No, really…I’d like to know….”, you can simply say “I’d rather not talk about it”.   Now, most of the others stop here.   If you end up with a person who then says something like “Why don’t you want to talk about it, is there something you’re hiding (or is unresolved/you’re upset about etc.)” it’s time to leave or to set a very firm boundary (assuming this is a new relationship).  There aren’t many who will push this hard, but some will.  You’ve now said 3 times that you don’t want to share.  3 strikes and you’re OUT!

Other ideas of things to say:

“My that’s a personal question…I’ll leave that for a later time.  So…(redirection)”.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to get into that subject.  So…(redirection)”.

Redirecting after these comments is key.  Bring up what you do want to discuss.  Take charge of the conversation.  Do not feel forced into discussing things that you don’t want to!

Be careful about saying; “Why do you want to know about that?” (because now you’re actually talking about it).

I once knew a person who would just ignore the question.  She’d just redirect and it worked!  I’ve never been able to pull that one off, but it’s an option!

Good luck and keep working on setting those healthy boundaries!

William Strong

Counseling Advice for Children and Families

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