You know what they say about loose lips, right?
August 13, 2010 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I have a tendency towards gossiping and spilling secrets. How can I get better control of what I divulge in conversations?

Lately, I've been getting increasingly dissatisfied with the level of control I have over myself in conversations. I'm naturally a pretty reserved and introverted person, but once I get into a chat with someone close to me, I'll often find that information comes spilling out which upon sober reflection I should probably have kept to myself. This is never anything really bad-- no state secrets, no birthday-present spoilers-- but it's occasionally stuff that's embarrassing or hurtful to myself or others-- confidential stuff about my own emotions, personal things that other people have told me, etc.,etc.

This mostly happens when talking with with family members (not with strangers on the bus, etc.), and it's particularly problematic because ours is a Guess-Culture family with very complex and fragile networks of confidence. I think some of my tendency towards full disclosure may be a rebellion against this, since I tend to feel as though problems are best solved communally with full information and the enthusiastic participation of everyone in the family. Knowing, though, that others in the family don't feel this way, it does seem kind of like a betrayal for me to facilitate the free flow of information that others wish to keep contained.

For example, my sister is married to a not-great guy whom my parents detest. Occasionally, she'll tell me sad little things about their life together, and on multiple occasions I've slipped up and communicated these to my parents, even though I'm sure my sister wouldn't want them to know. In the moment, it feels partly as though I'm enlisting my parents' help to solve the problem (we all kind of hold out hope that someday she'll opt to leave him, and while everyone's adhering to a strict non-interference strategy, things do get war-roomy at points), and partly as though I'm ridding myself of the burden of an unpleasant secret. Or somebody will be mad at somebody else, and I'll feel the need to discuss it with the person, even when I know it's none of my business. Or something bad or embarrassing will happen to me, and I'll be miserable until I can tell somebody else, even though in the long run I'd much rather nobody knew.

I know gossip in general is often malicious or aimed at stirring trouble, but I honestly don't think this is about low self-esteem or veiled animosities; I just find that knowledge (esp. unpleasant knowledge) creates in me this tremendous drive to share. However, whatever the underlying causes, I really hate not having control over this behavior, hate the pressured feeling of "OMG MUST TELL", and hate feeling alternately guilty and embarrassed after conversations.

Does anybody have suggestions for squelching behavior like this? I'm ADHD-- so, problems with self-control in general, and any solutions will probably need to be more high-powered than "Just think before you speak". But I'm pretty much open to anything and everything. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Life and death is in the tongue as the sages have said. It's a hard thing to control, but not impossible. It's basically self-control, like in any other impulse or appetite - there's an inner guage that we can turn on or off at will. Knowing that there's potential harm in gossip or malicious slander to 3 - the bearer, the listener and the object. Once the words are out it's nearly impossible to undo the damage. Better to speak nothing then speak and do harm. Or keeping things entirely neutral speaking of the weather or making a deal with yourself that you're going on a speech diet where you speak and listen only to positive reports of other people.

That goes also for the internet and the various gossip sites. One thing does have a tendency to lead to another and it all feeds in and filters into the subconsciousness. Better to make a clean break. Gossip and slander is diminishing the worth of another person. Kudos to you for wanting to self-improve and making the world a better place.
posted by watercarrier at 5:35 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the things I was able to ferret out about my own need for gossip was looking at what need was underlying it. When I was younger, I liked knowing everyone's stuff because I think it made me feel needed and important. By "sharing secrets" I could somehow portray myself as "in the know" which, looking back, seemed to be something I needed.

With more understanding of what propelled that need to share secrets, I started doing it less and less. I have my trusted peeps with whom I share my less than "love and light" thoughts but in general, I try not to say anything about anyone that I wouldn't say to their face.

And I'm pretty sure it was the heinous Perez Hilton who put me off gossip sites forever because the mean-spirited stuff was just outta control and the energetic vibration of it just made me feel like I was covered in slime.

Bottom line: take a look at what is causing you to blurt stuff out and see if you can address that need. The other part will take care of itself once you figure that out.

Good luck to you! :)
posted by Mysticalchick at 5:52 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?" -Shirdi Sai Baba (one source; I've always thought of this as a Quaker sentiment).

Perhaps you could use this small test, consciously and regularly, until you figure out the underlying need, as others have suggested?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:05 AM on August 13, 2010 [19 favorites]

I strongly recommend The Four Agreements. It's self-helpy but has some really good language to help you be more careful with your words.
posted by hansbrough at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2010

For example, my sister is married to a not-great guy whom my parents detest. Occasionally, she'll tell me sad little things about their life together, and on multiple occasions I've slipped up and communicated these to my parents, even though I'm sure my sister wouldn't want them to know. In the moment, it feels partly as though I'm enlisting my parents' help to solve the problem (we all kind of hold out hope that someday she'll opt to leave him, and while everyone's adhering to a strict non-interference strategy, things do get war-roomy at points), and partly as though I'm ridding myself of the burden of an unpleasant secret. Or somebody will be mad at somebody else, and I'll feel the need to discuss it with the person, even when I know it's none of my business.

I agree with others; figure out why you are doing it, but really why you are doing it. The above sounds like a traffic jam of rationalizations. I mean, is there any real hope that sharing the latest anecdote about your brother in law is really going to rally the family forces to "solve the problem"? If the anecdote is that he's been blackout drunk every night, maybe it will drive you all to stage an intervention but short of that, you probably are just venting. I think most people can understand the "need" to vent but you know, you can also vent to a friend who is outside the family loop. As far as the second situation: you just say you "feel the need to discuss it." Well, why? What's it going to accomplish? Do you think it will make things better between the two people? I can pretty much guarantee you it will do the opposite.

In both cases, you may also feel that the gossiping gives you some power or creates an alliance between you and the person you share with. In that case, you are probably on your way to being a professional gossip in people's eyes. People may find you amusing, they may fear you, but after a while they will not like you very much. Shoot the messenger and all that.

If it's just a question of feeling uncomfortable knowing secrets, you can address it on that level. A family member of mine is constantly telling "little anecdotes" about people and letting people know what what others have said about them. I have gotten to the point where I say, "Please don't tell me things like that if you expect them to be kept in confidence, because I am going to feel that I have to bring it up with [whoever it is.]" I have another friend who describes himself as a bit obsessive-compulsive about blurting things out, and he tells everyone not to tell him secrets for that reason. In other words, avoid being told the stuff that makes you feel under pressure.
posted by BibiRose at 6:50 AM on August 13, 2010

I've got ADHD, too, and I feel your pain. One thing I try to do when I feel the urge to spill beans is redirect the conversation away from the topic I'm spilling beans about. Another is to avoid things that disinhibit me (alcohol, mainly) if I know I'm going to be in a group where I'd be better off not gossiping (going bowling with work colleagues, for example).

If I find I've already said too much (particularly about co-workers), and that the things I said were negative or unflattering, I try to spill the beans about some little known nice or good thing that person has done. I can't unsay what I've already said, but I can at least try to make my last words about them good ones.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:53 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh! Also I have a few folks (my boyfriend, my sister, my best friend) with whom I have given myself license to say anything, however indiscreet. I am fortunate that none of them have the same impulse issues that I have, and knowing that I can run my mouth in their presence can sometimes give me the fortitude to let the urge pass elsewhere until I can get to one of them.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:56 AM on August 13, 2010

I've been gossipy in the past, but now keep secrets very well. Mostly it was a mind-shift from focusing on enjoying the salaciousness of talking about "forbidden" topics, to being proud of the fact that I have integrity, that I can be trusted, and that friends know they can unburden themselves to me if they need to.
posted by wwartorff at 7:09 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to also caution you about watching your alcohol intake. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and in my case turns me into a blabbermouth. So that's just something you may want to particularly watch out for if you already have a tendency to let things fly.
posted by ladybird at 7:39 AM on August 13, 2010

I think a combination of these solutions is nice. First, try to let people know you have a hard time keeping secrets and ask them to not tell you things. Second, have someone who it is okay to share anything with, so that you can hopefully spill everything to this person, and not feel the pressure of secrets later.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:01 AM on August 13, 2010

Eventually, you will disclose something that either completely humiliates you or will very adversely effect someone's life. The trauma you experience from this will be such that you will be cured of gossiping forever.

It took this happening to me in order to stop me from shooting off my mouth for whatever reason.
posted by Danf at 9:30 AM on August 13, 2010

There's a psychological phenomenon called "spontaneous trait transference" which causes people to assign to you, the traits you gossip about in others.

So if you say "I heard that X has never once showed up to a meeting on time," the person you're gossiping to will now subconsciously believe that you are chronically late.

On the other hand if you say "Y is doing some great work at the animal shelter on the weekends," the person you're gossiping to will subconsciously believe that you're a generous and charitable person.

Whenever you're about to tell someone something about a 3rd party ask yourself, "What will be the results if what I say gets applied to me?"

Cite: "59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot" by Richard Wiseman, better known as "the guy who did that experiment with the basketball game and the person in a gorilla suit."
posted by ErikaB at 9:37 AM on August 13, 2010 [16 favorites]

One of the problems I see is that the people who impart confidential or sensitive information to you have not obtained any formal agreement from you to respect the confidentiality of that information; they merely assume that you will do so on the basis of common sense. If you worked in a profession such as doctor, lawyer, or clergyman, in which it is a professional obligation to keep the secrets that are imparted to you by clients, patients, or members of the congreagtion, you would of course keep those secrets. You would ruthlessly squelch any impulse to divulge them because it would be a horrible crime to do so. I know how this works; I was in a position, many years ago, of receiving some personal information which I could never divulge for professional reasons, and even though I am not even in that profession any more, I will never divulge those particular secrets.

If you like, you can consider yourself to be a kind of amateur psychiatrist. People telling you personal information of a potentially embarrassing nature are using you (to some extent) for the psychotherapeutic value of the discussion. You can regard these revelations as being confidential, just as if you had actually joined some medical association which would insist upon such standards of behavior. Give yourself an honorary psychiatric degree. (Hang it on the wall, if necessary.)
posted by grizzled at 9:54 AM on August 13, 2010

The best to keep a secret is to forget it.
posted by nomad at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2010

I was able to stop gossiping so much when I came to realize I was using the information as a chip to gain attention from others. Soon that knowledge lead to a snarky, "Oooh, I heard this drama-inducing thing, aren't I Exciting?!?" popping into my head before I was going to spill the beans, and it made me think twice.

As others have said, it's great to have a few (uninvolved) folks to vent to. Journals (especially online ones that the involved Can Not Find) can also be good for that.
posted by ldthomps at 5:59 PM on August 13, 2010

In my work there are a fair number of secrets, and I have to talk to tons of people. There are three keys here: general policies for sharing information based on your ethics, a clear determination of how confidential something is, and maybe a core high-clearance group.

First, one key thing that stands out to me about your post is that you don't have a policy. You're not even in agreement with yourself. Part of you wants to rebel against the secrets culture, part of you wants to conform. You need to think this through and really determine what you believe is the right way to behave. It sounds like you're thinking you "should" be secretive, whereas actually, your examples are ones I might deem fine to share. So, what do you value? How will you make decisions about what you keep secret and what you won't? You need to think this through and decide. That will make it much easier to evaluate each piece of information in step 2--

The second problem is that it sounds like all your information goes into a gray area. Instead, the secrets should be clearly marked so that you know what types of things are truly secret. When I read your post, it sounds like you kinda think it should all be secret, but then again, of course you're going to say some things. Instead, much of it should be open, but the secret things should be clearly marked. For me, if something is kiiiinda secret, and I have to evaluate whether or not to share it in every single moment of every single conversation, it is exhausting, and I will eventually let down my guard. Because why not? Who knows if it's secret or not? Clearly it's not that secret. So, I try to know very clearly: this piece of information is a secret piece. For it, X is our public position; Y is what we can share with people with clearance B; Z is what we tell people with clearance A. Then, there's this core group that shares info freely and determines those clearance levels. It can be tempting to tell people things, too, but then I get to that CONFIDENTIAL stamp on the door, and I remember the three very important reasons it was marked confidential, and I know my own clearance and honor is on the line. It's all so clear, obvious, and logical that I have to respect it. But if every piece of information was marked "um... maybe you shouldn't like tell everybody?? but some people might be okay?? i don't really know..." then I'd end up telling everyone everything.

Finally, who do you talk with to process this and even make decisions about these questions? it doesn't seem like you have a core group that you can speak honestly and process with. Humans are social creatures, and some people moreso than others need to talk to process things. So, you might think about whether you need a core group for certain issues, like your sister's relationship. That helps reduce the have-to-tell feeling. That group can then be the decision-making body for deciding whether a certain fact is or is not okay for you to tell your parents. I put this last because it is optional, but I do find that the urge to tell is in part an urge toward togetherness, and if I've made a decision not to tell in a setting that itself is its own social setting, then it is much easier for me to keep the secret.

tldr: - decide what kinds of secrets you want to keep. When info comes in, clearly stamp Secret on the few things that should be secret. And find a group with whom you can share your secrets. Sorry this is such a novel here.
posted by salvia at 7:42 PM on August 13, 2010

I was really cured of this when Friend A told me something about Friend B that was 1) incredibly personal and that she would potentially be judged for, and that 2) Friend B had explicitly asked not be shared. For awhile, I was tremendously uncomfortable around Friend B--it felt burdensome to have this information I wasn't supposed to have, and I didn't like knowing it and her not knowing I knew. Realizing that by sharing some things, you can actually lay a burden on the person you tell helped me keep my mouth shut.

Right now, I have a friend whose children have been removed from her home by CPS. She seems pretty open about it, but I don't know who knows and who doesn't, and so I have not been the person to tell anyone about it. At the same time, it is exactly that kind of situation you describe, where you have this story that you want to tell. For me, I also don't think it's malicious--it's partly that I like stories, and the story of how my friend's kids came to be taken from her, and where they are now, and how it's going, and how she is coping with it and dealing with CPS and all that is full of drama and new information--I've known people who dealt with CPS in passing, but never anyone before who has had this kind of thing. I love to tell my own stories, and I love to hear other people's stories. When I have a story, it pushes to be told, and it takes a lot of self-control not to tell it.

If I find I have to get it out--sometimes you can have a story that feels so heavy to you that you want to share it so you will have someone help carry it--I try to share it where it will do the least harm. For instance, I have good friends who live out of town and don't know my friends here in town, and probably will never meet them. So sometimes I use them as an outlet and sounding board, rather than talking to anyone around here where I might be spreading gossip within my circle here.
posted by not that girl at 1:25 PM on August 15, 2010

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