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The Science Behind...Self-Disclosure, Relationships & Personal Development

My doctoral research as background

There’s a tentative suggestion in the world of psychology that psychologists specialise in their own area of personal weakness. Well, I couldn't possibly comment... but... my doctoral research was focused on personal development groups and for anyone who knows me, they may have noticed that I don't tend to open up too much in those types of group situations (unless I have a drink in hand, that is!). Give me a one-to-one any day!!!! But if I’m facilitating a group and if I have ownership of it in some way (a purpose, if you like) then I find this soooo much easier so I really empathise with those in my mindfulness groups who are a little more silent because this is usually me too! Those round robin moments where you know you're going to have to introduce yourself at some point and you're just waiting your turn, they're just agony!!! Who's with me??!!

So, this blog will come in two parts (possibly more!) as I won't be able to do justice to it in just the one. Part 1 will be focused towards i) the reasons why it can often be very difficult to take that risk in opening up; and ii) what this means for relationship development.

So, I completed this piece of research over 15 years ago, so things have moved on a little in this area since but what this work enabled me to do at that time was to construct a theory based on doctoral counselling psychology trainees who were required to attend a mandatory personal development group (think therapy group full of trainee psychologists!).

For information: Counselling psychology training requires that we understand ourselves before we can fully appreciate and understand someone else, hence the mandatory personal therapy and personal development group requirements. I re-posted a wonderful link to my Instagram stories a few days ago (which I now can't find to be able to quote it directly!) that went something like, "expecting a therapist not to undergo therapy is like expecting a fitness trainer not to undergo fitness training". And for counselling psychologists it's one of the things that differentiates us from other practitioner psychologists.

So, firstly I’d like to share with you part of the theory that was developed in this research and I'll focus particularly on this first part, which involves the development of relationships. Then I’d like to expand the theory for a moment by taking the science out of the lab, so to speak, and ask that you consider how applicable this theory may be to your own situation and development of relationships.

The Theory (Part 1)

To make it more relatable, I’ve broken the theory down into chunks… Imagine that you have a goal of relationship development or growth and that you want to make some kind of change in your life (this latter part will come in my next blog but is important to mention here too). According to this theory, this is how it happens… Through your own self-awareness, you identify an individual goal for change or development. This may be something that you’ve struggled with for a while, something you’ve contemplated attending therapy to focus in on, or something that a friend or partner has pointed out to you, perhaps. How likely you are to work towards or fulfil this aim is arguably dependent on a few intervening processes and they look a bit like the diagram below. What this diagram illustrates is that sharing is key to the whole process and when I say sharing, I mean disclosing issues to someone, whether that’s opening up about your life, challenging someone about a mis-deed, confronting someone or simply just keeping quiet. We all have different areas to work on and so the content of our sharing is reflective of our own needs and idiosyncrasies. Also, the person we choose to share with is important. We may have a friend or family member that we turn to, it may be a therapist or a group of like-minded individuals.

Take a moment to think about what it may feel like to open up to a close friend or therapist. I often hear individuals say that "a weight's been lifted", but think of this in contrast to sharing with an unsupportive colleague where the feeling may be very different. My research suggested that there is usually either a sense of ease ("I'm so relieved to get that off my chest") or unease (“there’s absolutely no way I’m divulging that” or an “oh no! I really shouldn’t have said that”). If we feel at ease with the person we are disclosing to, we’re more likely to feel able to share our vulnerabilities and emotions with them, to let them know how we really feel. (Note: There are obviously individual differences here based on personal variables).

With this feeling of ease and emotional expression, we are likely to feel an immediate sense of surface level connection with the person we are disclosing to, this can then lead to emotional connection and then to the potential for discovering common experiences (we often find that if we disclose to someone, it’s likely that they will then reciprocate and we find commonality in those experiences). As an aside, have you ever heard the phrase "bitching is bonding" (another topic for a future blog post!), well this is a similar process where, as a result of getting something off your chest, the listener then reciprocates by sharing on the same topic and a sense of commonality then begins to develop.

If, however we feel uneasy, then we may feel uncomfortable expressing experiences and emotions. We may still choose to take a risk in the situation by expressing emotion anyway (sometimes it’s too difficult to keep it at bay, right?) but this may result in no change for the risk-taker with the potential to retreat away from taking such risks again. However they may then find that as a result of taking a risk, their disclosure was met with understanding and they may then feel more at ease and follow the cycle of emotional connection and discovery of common experiences anyway. Hope you're still with me (????) as here comes the important bit...

Therapeutic and Impeding Elements

...The important part in all of this for the personal development groups I was investigating for my research was that there were certain elements which made an impact on this whole process and this tended to be down to the members of the group and also the group facilitator. Bear in mind however, that this particular situation is often compounded because many psychologists-in-training experience a case of 'imposter syndrome' (one for another blog!) and therefore being in a personal development group where they are required to open up in some way about their vulnerabilities whereby they are also potentially being assessed in some way can leave them feeling very much off-guard and uncertain. However, if the personal development group members were considered to provide safety, acceptance, support, empathy and if the group facilitator had the capacity to facilitate exploration, then the individual group member(s) would likely feel more able to disclose and be more at ease doing so. But, if a group member(s) and/or facilitator were seen as threatening or dangerous, non-accepting, unsupportive or lacked empathy, then this would negatively impact the development of the other members of the group (see diagram below!). Makes sense, right?! So, why is all of this important? You may not ever find yourself in a personal development group, so why does all of this matter and what does this mean for you???? Well.......

So, what does this mean for the real world and relationship development?

... Take this out of the personal development group context and into the real world and you can see how it can be applicable here too. After all, a therapeutic encounter, whether it's a one-to-one session or a group context, can be seen as purely a microcosm of the outside world; and it's pretty obvious that we are likely to feel more comfortable speaking with people in whom we trust and feel supported.

Personally for me, I only tend to open up when I feel safe enough, safe that my disclosure is going to be heard, validated and contained, and therefore not in a group context unless it’s a group that knows me very well or in one that I trust (or randomly to those who don't know me at all! If this is you too, look up 'stranger on the train phenomenon').

So, let me introduce you to the onion skin metaphor....

I often use the onion skin metaphor (sometimes known as the onion skin theory of personality, which is a part of social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973)) in my clinical work. I ask clients to think about personality being a little like an onion and that self-disclosure as being a little like peeling back the layers of the onion. To the outside world, we show our public self in the first instance and this is the outer layer of the onion, but the more we open up and divulge experiences and/or parts of our personality which may not be immediately obvious to others, we gently, gradually peel back the layers towards our private self at the core. The more we are able to engage in this process with others, the more likely we are to enter into meaningful relationships with them. With each disclosure, the likelihood is that this disclosure is then reciprocated and vice-versa, with individuals therefore becoming closer and closer. Note: The caveat to this in therapeutic work of course is that the relationship is very much one-sided due to the nature of the relationship.

So, if you are ever wondering how to develop a friendship or relationship further, one way may be to step outside of your comfort zone, to take a risk by opening up about a personal issue and see what happens. We're not talking a complete offload of verbal leakage and overwhelm here but rather a tentative or gradual opening up. In doing so, you will ideally hope for containment and support as you self-disclose, but if you feel that this is unlikely for whatever reason (perhaps it's our own preconceived ideas holding us back), you may find that you are pleasantly surprised. And, I think sometimes these sorts of unexpected surprises are even sweeter than those we come to expect. In turn, if you are able to provide the appropriate conditions to others so that they feel heard and their experiences are validated, then this is equally likely to contribute towards a meaningful relationship or connection.

Of course, this may not necessarily happen but ultimately we have two options in life, to "either step forward toward growth or back into safety" (Abraham Maslow). It can sometimes feel dangerous to take a risk but feeling discomfort is part of the human condition and if we take a tentative step forward, it can potentially lead to wonderful things (more on this in Part 2).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the concepts raised here, so do leave a comment below if any of this resonates with you.


Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York, NY: Holt

Galbraith, V. E. (2006). Experiences of personal development groups in counselling psychology training. Doctoral thesis.

Galbraith, V. (2016). Engaging with academia and training programmes. In Douglas, B., Woolfe, R., Strawbridge, S., Kasket, E. & Galbraith, V. (Eds). Handbook of Counselling Psychology (4th ed). London: Sage.

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