ask polly

‘I Can’t Stop Oversharing!’

Photo: Nuzulu/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’m really struggling with a serious case of TMI. I’m 27 years old, working full time in my desired field, I was lucky enough to go to grad school. I have wonderful parents and many great friends. Overall, I’m very fortunate and try to remain grateful for what I have.

My issue is that I overshare. About my life, my friends’ lives, etc. I don’t feel that I’m doing it in a gossipy way. It isn’t malicious. It’s just that I can’t stop myself from sharing. Even insignificant details will come tumbling out of my mouth. If I’m telling a story and some of the details are unnecessary or unflattering, I don’t omit them. It’s one thing for me to overshare about my own life, but I find myself revealing intimate details about people close to me to others all the time. I’m starting to feel really icky about it. I just can’t not tell everything.

I know it isn’t mine to share, but I just love being in the storyteller’s seat, having everyone pay attention to me and laugh along with me. My co-workers have said that they love my stories, but I worry that I share too much and too often, because I don’t know half as much about them as they know about me. I recently went on a date (that I wasn’t particularly feeling) and instead of simply excusing myself at the end, I felt I needed to share the exact reason I needed to leave, which was that I needed to run an errand for a friend. This resulted in my date offering to run it with me, which I didn’t feel super-comfortable with but felt bad saying no. I wish I had just kept my mouth shut and not said anything! I don’t know why I feel the need to be so honest all the time.

I have struggled to make and retain quality friends for a long time. Around my early teen years, I was bullied pretty incessantly and didn’t have many friends as a result. I definitely had some pretty poor self-esteem for a while, but I’ve worked on that and feel much more confident in myself. During my early 20s, I had a hard time finding quality friends — I had several conflicts and breakups with friends that were very difficult for me. I’ve always been a bit of a doormat, and I let people take advantage of my people-pleasing nature. As a result, I sometimes attract manipulative people. Because I was bullied, I try to take in “lost puppies,” people I feel like could use a friend or are struggling themselves, and sometimes it bites me in the ass.

I’ve struggled to have healthy friendships for years, so I might be a little confused about how you start them in adulthood. For me, sharing personal stories and bits of your life is how you bond with people, so I assume that I am doing this as a way to open up or invite people in, but usually I find it’s only me doing all of the opening up. Lately I’ve been feeling foolish about how much I blab on about my life, but as much as I chastise myself and beat myself up afterward, I just can’t seem to stop. How can I get myself to stop putting my foot in my mouth and embarrassing myself with my oversharing?


Dear TMI,

Oversharing is like drinking too much: You don’t recognize you’re the only one doing it until it’s too late. And just like looking around at midnight and realizing you’re the only one at the party with a drink in your hand, there’s this feeling of shame that washes over you when you look back on a conversation and realize that you emptied the contents of your brain all over the place and the other person revealed nothing.

I’ve suffered from this affliction for decades. Oversharing was always my opening gambit and my parting shot. Oversharing constituted my warm-up calisthenics and my social cool-down. Oversharing, for me, lived at the red-hot center of any good friendship: You tell me way too much about yourself and everyone else you know, and I do the same.

And if you’re guarded, careful, reserved, mincing your words? I’m suspicious. I wonder why I’m at a fun chatty dinner and you’re at some kind of a formal professional engagement. But to be honest, I’ve also had trouble understanding what professional socializing even looks like. People are either my close friends or I don’t know why we’re talking to each other. As you might assume, this leads to a lot of optimism and open enthusiasm that often curdles into disappointment when I don’t find myself in the company of another puppy dog ready to pounce and play and tell each other everything. It’s a little bit unrealistic and it’s definitely 100 percent out of sync with the way most people live. And I don’t need to tell you that it’s usually a big mistake to tell other people’s stories or to gossip about mutual friends. It’s not worth the trouble. Half of the time, you’re not even that invested in what you’re saying — but that’s not how it sounds when it gets back to the person you’re talking about.

People always say “Just be yourself!” but the truth is that we all have to strike some balance between our MOST AUTHENTIC SELF and the MOST APPROPRIATE SELF for any given setting. In order to stop oversharing, you need to understand your beliefs about socializing and what you want from different social experiences. Like me, you probably believe that socializing should be extremely open and fun and honest, no matter what. If you’re going to sit with someone, face-to-face, you want honesty. Not only is your shame driving your compulsion to overshare, but your shame also prevents you from taking a closer look at the consequences of saying too much. Instead of slowing down and thinking about negative fallout from these actions, you brush them aside because you’re too embarrassed and angry at yourself to reflect and make careful choices moving forward. In protecting yourself, it’s almost like you’re choosing to remain reckless.

Personally, my most authentic, comfortable self is extremely direct. If you mention that you’re going through a hard time with your boyfriend and then you change the subject immediately, I find myself a little bit stuck. I’m curious about your relationship now. I want to know more. I love talking about heavy shit. But there are situations where digging for more isn’t appropriate. I have to shift gears. Likewise, if you ask me a question — “What do you think of person X?” Or “What do you think of Y’s latest book?” — I’ll start to tell you exactly what I think before I consider whether it’s appropriate or not. What surprises me, though, is that people sometimes ask questions like this even when they have no intention whatsoever of telling you WHAT THEY THINK. They take your opinion, silently approve or disagree, and say nothing.

Once you clear your shame out of the way, these kinds of interactions almost seem MORE complicated. Because you don’t necessarily blame yourself for, say, being curious about someone’s trouble with their boyfriend, or for loving heavy discussions, or for telling the truth about a book you disliked, but you can also see clearly that there’s this elaborate code of behavior that your weird oversharing effusiveness and your insecurity and your shame-fueled confusion never let you see clearly before. And now that you can see the code clearly, you really have to ask yourself, “Do I want to obey this code or should I just do whatever the fuck I want instead?”

Luckily for me, I’m old enough now that I can pretty much choose to be a freak and there aren’t many consequences to that choice. Or maybe there are consequences, but it still feels worth it to me just to tell the truth. And if the only polite and appropriate way to engage in a conversation is to PRETEND NOT TO HAVE AN OPINION or to PRETEND TO BE COMPLETELY NEUTRAL or to PRETEND TO LIKE AND APPRECIATE SHIT THAT YOU HATE, then you can pretty much count me out. For people who socialize professionally or just have very rule-based socializing built into their lives, I guess this stuff comes naturally or it’s necessary. But it makes me feel like I’m visiting a distant planet where everyone is speaking a shared language I don’t understand, and that makes me want to board the next rocket ship into the sun.

One solution is to befriend a lot of oversharers who also choose to be freaks who live on their own terms. I can’t recommend this strongly enough. Because even when you’re all telling stories and talking too much, you also tend not to care if your own stories are getting spread around. Why not? Who gives a fuck, really? Do some of these people think you’re a little bit weird? Maybe. But again, who cares?

So that’s a long-term personal goal for you: Find the freaks and the overenthusiastic puppies. Treat them well. Overshare with oversharers. Protect other people’s secrets, of course, but make it a point to surround yourself with honest people who love to tell each other everything and hate bullshitting. I think once you have lots of friends you trust and enjoy, it’s easier to reel yourself in at work, where oversharing is more likely to get you in trouble.

I also think it’s important to cultivate some empathy for why you grew up to be an oversharer in the first place. Maybe you had some early experiences that made you equate being asked to quiet down or bite your tongue with being rejected and ignored. Maybe you feel that storytelling and telling the truth are ways of being seen and appreciated for who you really are. Maybe you associate oversharing with intimacy, honesty, a rare chance to truly connect.

But it’s also crucial to recognize when your oversharing is caused by an anxious need to please others. It’s never healthy to just randomly grab at whatever information and stories and opinions you have when you’re in a conversation with someone you don’t know yet. Oversharing without any filter is often a sign of insecurity, a knee-jerk way of entertaining a crowd instead of respecting both your friends’ secrets and your own well-being.

You’re a person who’s trying to figure out how to sustain good friendships. You’re struggling with boundaries — your own and other people’s. You need to think carefully about HOW YOU WANT TO BE IN THE WORLD. You need to look at the people you know and ask yourself if there are any good role models in the mix — friends who bring good energy to the table conversationally without ever selling anyone up a river.

You need to focus on listening more, too. Many oversharers assume that their main value is pleasing others with their stories and jokes. You need to pick that assumption apart. You need to notice that even if you show up and you’ve got zero stories and almost nothing to say, most friends will continue to enjoy your company. Friendship is not an exchange of services. You don’t have to pretend to be in a great mood. You don’t have to come armed with charming anecdotes. You can just exist and be who you are, and most of your friends will appreciate that.

When you can take any social interaction as it comes, that turns you into a role model for other people, socially. You model how to just breathe and listen and engage instead of trying to lead everyone to some mythical land of FUN. Which is good, because feeling like the fun depends on you can be pretty exhausting. It’s hard to leave the house, too, because going out always means doing SO MUCH WORK. It’s hard to be in a bad mood. You feel terrible but you still try to act like the life of the party because you don’t want anyone to be disappointed.

Letting people be disappointed is an important developmental phase. And feeling disappointed in other people without turning it into a moral (“She is bad” or “I fucked up”) is another important phase. Dating requires the same calm, watchful, shame-free zone of acceptance: These interactions don’t always go smoothly. It is not my job to make sure they go smoothly.
Maybe what you really want, underneath all of that oversharing, is some way to tell people the truth more often: I am in a terrible mood. I’ve had a bad week. I’ve been feeling discouraged. Maybe you just want them to tell you the truth more often. How was your week? How have you been feeling about your job? What’s going on with you?

Storytelling is sometimes the farthest thing from the truth. Maybe you think you’re trying to connect with people, but what you’re really doing is hiding from them by performing instead of just showing up as you are, even when you’re a little quiet. Maybe you would rather entertain than be another flawed human being in the room, someone who feels small and unimportant, someone who wants to be loved but isn’t sure how to get there.

“Oversharing” is a misnomer, when you look at it that way. It’s not generous. You’re not really sharing at all. Maybe what you really want is to share, in the purest sense of the word. You want to give something real to the other person, and you want to believe that the person will share with you. You want to believe that you’re worthy of true generosity.

You are worthy of it. You deserve to ask for a favor, to request something that you want from someone else. I know that can be the hardest thing to do. It was basically impossible for me to do that until a few years ago. It made me cringe just imagining having to ask anyone for anything, ever. That’s why it’s such a good exercise to try it.

Because friends share with each other. People connect by giving to each other. True generosity isn’t about opinions and stories. It’s about giving someone else a little space to be who they are, to want what they want, without feeling ashamed of any of it. It’s about believing that someone might care about you enough that they’re willing to give you that space, too.

Friendship and connection are built on caring and love. It’s strange how easy it can be to forget that. We sometimes tell ourselves that everyone is out there just trying to get their needs filled. But that’s not true. When you go out into the world, you’re looking for emotional connection. You’re looking for situations where you can calm down enough to look into someone else’s eyes and feel connected enough to say, “I am here for you.”

It’s important to recognize the real value you already have to others. You might be struggling with friendships partially because you still don’t understand the reasons people value you. You might be struggling because you still don’t see yourself as valuable.

You are valuable. You don’t need a good story. You don’t need to entertain or make people laugh. You can be very quiet and bring nothing to the table at all. You are still worthy of love. It’s so simple, but knowing this will change the way you feel when you’re socializing. You’ll find it easier to bite your tongue. And you’ll find it easier to tell the truth.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I Can’t Stop Oversharing!’