By Sara Eckel, published October 14, 2019 – last reviewed on November 6, 2019

Sharing personal information brings people together and helps them like one another more. But in an age of self-disclosure, how do you know when you’ve gone too far—or when someone else has ulterior motives?

When Tom Kealy signed up for a day-long personal essay writing workshop in Berlin, the data scientist saw it as an engaging way to fill a Saturday. “I thought it would be good fun—trying interesting exercises, learning how to make something out of your experiences,” he says.

Then his classmates went around the table to share what they’d be discussing: a racist father, an S&M relationship gone bad, an abusive boyfriend. Kealy, slated to be the 14th of 15 in the group to speak, had planned to write about learning to draw. “By the time it got to me, I realized this was not the class I’d signed up for. As the day went on, I increasingly felt, Oh my God, this is way too much.”
One could argue that in a personal-essay class, each participant should be prepared for whatever topic arises, and Kealy suspects he was just unlucky that the subject matter in this particular cohort was so dark. But his gut reaction—whoa, TMI!—is one many of us know well.

We live in a time of unparalleled personal expression. Long-lost co-workers and high school acquaintances daily invite us into their homes and their psyches. Traditionally marginalized groups are speaking out. Victims are confronting abusers. Addicts are owning their pasts. The freedom to “speak your truth” and “give zero f*cks” brings a lot of benefits, but it can also lead to some thorny questions, like how much we should reveal about ourselves—and how much we should want to know about others.

Each of us tries to erect a boundary around the parts of ourselves we want to keep private, or at least shielded from those with whom we’re not intimate. Some people are more vigilant about raising those firewalls than others, however, which can lead to discomfort, if not open conflict, because it’s harder to keep others’ revelations out than it is to keep our own within. “We think about boundaries as a self-oriented concept: This is my boundary. But it’s not just a matter of what you’re willing or not willing to say, it’s also what you’re willing to let in,” says Mariana Bockarova, a psychology researcher at the University of Toronto.

In healthy relationships, romantic or otherwise, Bockarova says, we attune ourselves to others’ boundaries by making gradual “bids of trust.” For example, on a first date, you might confess that you’d had a tough day at work because your boss was snippy to you. “If the other person doesn’t say anything back, chances are you wouldn’t further extend,” she says. “Bids of trust are lessened when there’s no reciprocity. You’re suddenly not safe with this person.”

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