“What goes on in this house stays in this house.” “Family business is family business.” “Loose lips sink ships.”
As Black people, especially women, we’ve all heard those sayings before. Like it’s been ingrained in us since we were yay high to keep stuff to ourselves.
There’s a reason this code of silence has been passed on from one generation to the next. “History has a long debt of silencing the Black woman,” says Markesha Miller, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist at Holistic Psychological Associates in Columbia, South Carolina. Some examples she points out: During slavery when Black people weren’t supposed to make a sound as they or their loved ones were beaten; elders in the church feeling like women shouldn’t be in the pulpit; and the long-running “Strong Black Woman” trope that essentially teaches Black women to hide their pain and disappointment.
Even in our present lives, we’re essentially trained to keep our mouths closed. “This society creates an environment where the Black woman may need to protect herself from potential discrimination, stereotyping or negative judgments,” says Dr. Miller. “Many Black women may feel that what they share could possibly be used against them and bring further shame and oppression.”
As we all know, we aren’t allowed the same grace as other women. Think about it: If a white woman is upset about something and expresses it, often, she’s coddled and consoled (you know, the power of white woman tears). Let you or I do the same and we’re seen as an angry Black woman or we’re blowing things out of proportion.
And let’s be real, as a Black person, some folks will try to use what you do, say or reveal about yourself (whether good or bad) as a come-up or, worse, to take what’s yours.
So, believe us, we understand the urge to keep things on the hush. We do.
However, the heightened sense of privacy prevents you from being your true, authentic self.
First, signs you’re too private …
According to Dr. Miller, these are some signs you may be overly private:
You keep almost everything close to your chest. Even your closest people don’t really know much about what’s going on in your life or what you’re feeling. The stuff you share about yourself tends to be light and superficial.
Your response to personal questions is “Nunya.” Maybe not exactly, but anybody asking about your personal life gets major side-eye.
You win in silence. When you set that goal or earned that achievement, you didn’t really tell anyone. After all, there’s a chance they’ll see it as bragging or try to use it to benefit themselves in some way.
You’ve got it all handled. Even when you’re going through it and need a listening ear or a helping hand, you try to tough it out by yourself. After all, you don’t need anybody to be all in your business or see you as weak.
Your social media is locked down tight. You share close to nada. People don’t even know you’re in a relationship and have kids. And your friends and family already know not to tag you in anything. Ever.
To share or not to share?
Now, before you get the wrong idea, we’re not saying you should have all your business out in the streets. You have to strike a balance between expressing vulnerability and oversharing.
In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brené Brown, Ph.D., who’s studied vulnerability for decades, says, “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust.” In other words, sharing your feelings and experiences with people who you’ve developed trusting relationships with, like your close friend group.
Oversharing, on the other hand, is kind of like throwing it all out there, revealing personal matters to people you aren’t close to, sharing in inappropriate situations or sharing too much too soon. Imagine telling a work colleague about your past-due bills, spilling all the tea about a fight between you and your ex to your social media followers, revealing a major childhood trauma on a first date or other TMI disclosures.
In her book, Dr. Brown explains that vulnerability helps strengthen trust and connection; whereas oversharing can make people feel uncomfortable and brings distrust and disconnection.
Dr. Brown has said a good way to decide whether you should share something is to ask yourself what are your intentions in sharing, why you’re sharing with that person and whether it’s the right thing to do.
The positives of embracing (healthy) sharing and vulnerability
You’ll be able to form deeper bonds. “When you’re a closed, locked book, as in a diary that’s locked with the key thrown away, people have no idea what you need, what you want, what they can help you with, who you really are,” says Dr. Miller. The result: Your relationships tend to be superficial. By opening up more, relationships can blossom.
Your dating life may improve. Oftentimes, women don’t talk about the negative issues going on in their love lives, says Dr. Miller. But if you open up to a trusted person, you may find you’re not the only one going through it. And that person may be able to give you helpful advice (or even just allow you a vent session) that could make your relationship better.
It could boost your mental and emotional well-being. Being too private can put you in a dark, lonely room filled with sadness, anger and hopelessness, says Dr. Miller. It also makes it difficult to ask for support when you need it. Being candid with trustworthy people can help relieve some of those negative feelings and help you realize folks have your back.
It can help your career. In an article about the benefits of small talk, Nicole Murray Psy.D., a neuropsychologist at New York Neurobehavioral Services, said people are more likely to move up the career ladder if they have good job performance and a good social relationship with their bosses versus someone who performs well but doesn’t have that rapport.
How to step away from the pattern of excessive privacy
Don’t overdo it. Remember, being open doesn’t mean spilling your deepest and darkest secrets to all who will listen. It’s OK to keep some things private. And you have the right to choose how much of yourself you give to different people, says Dr. Miller.
Choose your person. Identify someone you want to be more open with, such as your partner, best friend, family member or therapist. If you don’t have a trusted person to confide in, try an anonymous support group.
Do a test run. Dr. Miller recommends starting with something small. So you might share with your partner that you were terrified of the dark as a child and used a night light until you were a teen.
Watch and teach. Starting small allows you to see how the person handles your vulnerability — and respond accordingly, says Dr. Miller. Say your partner went into a full-on laughing fit (knee-slapping and all) when you revealed your fear of the dark. Or you told a friend something and then heard your business back from someone else. Let them know that’s not OK. Then if it happens again, “that’s confirmation that’s not your person,” says Dr. Miller.
Keep trying. Don’t retreat back into your shell of privacy if your initial attempt doesn’t go well. Choose someone else and try again. If the first round turned out good, gradually open up more with that person. And work on being less private in other spaces and with other people. If, despite your best efforts, you can’t shake being super-private, professional help from a therapist or counselor can be beneficial.
Although it will take some time to get comfortable with being vulnerable, the benefits of not hiding your true self are worth it.