Please explain this style of emotional disclosure/intimacy to me.
June 2, 2013 3:28 PM   Subscribe

I have been getting closer to a friend of mine recently. He has a very particular way of sharing his feelings or more meaningful thoughts that I find a bit off putting and perhaps a little wary? Can you explain to me this one-sided monologue style of sharing when I am used to more of a back and forth?

At first this style made me think he was going to tell me of a horrible childhood trauma or some equally devastating and intimate matter, but the disclosures are usually just normal feelings about various day to day events, though somewhat dramatically presented. To my mind, they are things friends normally share with one another, like how he feels about his life, things that have been troubling him lately, etc. For me I am used to these types of conversations taking place in a back and forth, freely and mixed in with more mundane conversation.

Whenever he is of the mood to share something personal, he gets very quiet, does not make eye contact and must 'have the stage' if you will, meaning any interruption from me ruins the openness and he feels 'unsafe'(not his words, my observation).

He will say I want to share something with you, then pause for a very long time as though it is very difficult for him to say these things at all, then proceed to speak very slowly and deliberately often taking many pauses to collect his thoughts while talking. He will stare out into space or down at the floor. The whole time I seem to have to stay quiet, or he will quit talking and get a bit sulky.

These disclosures have sometimes gone on for a good 15-20 minutes, often getting so abstract and full of pauses that I am not even sure I know exactly what he is referring to. The few times it has happened, I have expected to get to some 'big ending' to warrant all this, but there has never been a big reveal. I find myself feeling impatient while he is talking and pausing and talking, sometimes annoyed that he requires such delicate handling, and really sort of forced into this intense focus on him which is kinda strange in a friendship- then I feel badly for having these reactions, after all maybe it's just a cultural thing?

Strangely, otherwise he is a very boisterous person, always laughing and joking with people. He is full of energy and very animated, so this other side of him puts me a little on edge because it's such a contrast-

For some reason it feels like a red flag for me, though I'm not really sure why.

He has so much trouble talking openly about feelings that I'm very hesitant to ask him about this and make him feel even more uncomfortable.

Can anyone explain this behavior to me? Is he actually planning to tell me something else, then chickening out and saying other stuff? Is he just not normally close with people, so feels very vulnerable?
posted by abirdinthehand to Human Relations (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: He will say I want to share something with you, then pause for a very long time as though it is very difficult for him to say these things at all, then proceed to speak very slowly and deliberately often taking many pauses to collect his thoughts while talking. He will stare out into space or down at the floor. The whole time I seem to have to stay quiet, or he will quit talking and get a bit sulky.

It's possible that it is in fact very difficult for him to express his own needs. Sometimes, people learn in childhood that expressing their own needs directly and openly will be met with hostility and even violence. For people like this, it can be taxing and even frightening to open up, even about little things.

This is true even when such people are otherwise socially very facile. Indeed, it doesn't surprise me at all that your friend is animated and talkative with people: being able to read people and match and control the emotional energy in the room can also be a survival strategy for children in abusive environments who don't have a lot of other options.

I don't know whether that's what's going on with your friend, but I recognize these traits sometimes. Helping them feel safe expressing their needs is probably the best thing for you to do, if you want to help them manage this.
posted by gauche at 3:34 PM on June 2, 2013 [16 favorites]

Red flag, he is attempting to "control" you by not allowing you to participate in the conversation. He sounds exactly like my ex-husband.
posted by JujuB at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

The two diametrically opposed answers above should tell you that there's no way for anyone other than your friend to know this with certainty. It's not like there's a service manual for people.
posted by Nomyte at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2013 [25 favorites]

after all maybe it's just a cultural thing?

What is his cultural background? And what is yours? Do you mean that he comes from a place where it's not done to share feelings, but he knows it is done where you're from, so he tries it with you but isn't used to it? Or something else?

That question aside, my guess is he's gotten bad reactions after sharing stuff like this in the past.

Or he's just dramatic and annoying.

But it could be a million things. Like Nomyte said, it's probably impossible for people who don't know him to guess.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:08 PM on June 2, 2013

We don't know.

I think either he is attention seeking and controlling, or he has something serious going on with his mental state that he needs professional help with. It's not normal for adults to share their emotional stories in the way you describe.

How does he respond when you share something emotional about yourself?
posted by tel3path at 4:09 PM on June 2, 2013

What does he say when you talk to him about this? Have you told him how/why this makes you uncomfortable?
posted by asciident at 4:10 PM on June 2, 2013

I don't think it's controlling or anything. He just wants to vent and isnt interested in feedback per se. He probably feels that in his day to day life people don't listen to him or that when he's interacting in a crowd he is doing it for their benefit not his. If it makes you feel weird there's not a whole lot you can do about it - his talking to you like this is his way of feeling close to you and is part of his alienation with other people in general.

Ymmv but from my experience with people of this sort that's what it is. If he's not a bad person otherwise I wouldn't be too worried about it. He just needs someone to listen to his "deep thoughts". If it's a deal breaker for you or it's how your together time is completely defined I'd end it though - he's not going to change being this way.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 4:10 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with gauche. Regardless of why, it sounds like he doesn't feel comfortable relating his feelings, but trusts you enough to try to share.

I suspect he interprets your interruptions (from his perspective — I don't mean that critically) as a sign of disinterest or hostility. Confirmation bias means seeing criticism or dismissal even when it's not there.

It probably goes without saying, but this is all supposition. If you want to know what's really going on, you'll have to continue listening and figure out a way to ask questions to confirm or invalidate your guesses.

I'm a make things explicit and then talk it to death kind of guy, so that would be my approach. I wouldn't bring it up during or right after one of these episodes — I'd wait for another comfortable time when he doesn't feel so exposed.

Perhaps most importantly, you don't have to take this on. He trusts you enough to try to share, but that doesn't mean you have to accept the burden.
posted by danielparks at 4:10 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like performance art to me. Roll with it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:27 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think everyone is going to bring the weight of their experience to how they interpret this, and experiences vary, so grain of salt, but my first thought was 'bullshit artist'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:28 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

For some reason it feels like a red flag for me, though I'm not really sure why.

He has so much trouble talking openly about feelings that I'm very hesitant to ask him about this and make him feel even more uncomfortable.

I think you've answered your own question here (as far as why this feels like a red flag). If you are getting closer in the sense of becoming romantic, and he cannot talk openly about his feelings with you, that would definitely be a red flag. Imagine how hard it will be to talk about birth control, who forgot to do the dishes, etc.

Is he actually planning to tell me something else, then chickening out and saying other stuff?

Possibly? If he is circling around something that's really hard for him to say to say, that might explain why he is getting frustrated when you interject (though whether you are interjecting with a brief acknowledgement word or a story of your own might make a difference). I have a style of storytelling which circles around the point, and when people don't realize that I'm trying to actually get to a point and interrupt me with advice or tangents I get frustrated - though I realize it's not really their fault.
posted by bunderful at 4:31 PM on June 2, 2013

I think he may be attracted to you and may want to be more than just friends, but gets the vibe that you may only want to be friends. Ask him directly if he has romantic feelings for you and see if anything changes. That is, if you are also interested.
posted by happysocks at 4:34 PM on June 2, 2013

This sounds like the opposite of a red flag to me. He has trouble sharing but trusts you enough to do so anyway!
posted by Justinian at 4:44 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does he share intimately with others? There is no way to know what's happening unless you ask him directly, but he sounds deeply insecure. It is possible that growing up he learned sharing feelings was shameful, and now he sees you as a safe space.

You should try discussing it at a neutral time - not when he's in share mode - and say something like, "I enjoy when you share, and it would be even better if I could ask some questions next time. Are you receptive to that?"
posted by fireandthud at 4:53 PM on June 2, 2013

Best answer: I suggest you think about what you want your role to be when he's talking about personal things. Also find out from him why he tells you these things, and ask why he needs to have you listen silently. If he feels unsafe when you comment or ask questions, it's possible that his trust in you is too delicate for you to be his confidant.

I don't mind listening to a friend who needs to talk, IF my listening seems to help them to make a change or get a new perspective. But I've defined a few boundaries for myself, for example: I don't keep listening if someone keeps talking about the same problems and makes no move to change; I don't listen if talking about things seems usually makes them feel worse.

I think it's okay to set limits based on how you see your role in the friendship. Your friend sometimes needs to talk for a long time with long pauses, and with no input from you. That's asking a lot of you. In your position, I might suggest that he try writing as he thinks out an issue by himself, and then maybe talk about it afterwards.

It might help him immensely to talk about difficult things to a trusted person while that person says nothing while listening intently. But you don't need to be the one to help him in that particular way. You can tell him what kind of personal discussions you wouldn't mind having, and see if he wants to try those. Or he might have suggestions of his own.
posted by wryly at 4:56 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

We have absolutely no way of knowing - you're just going to have to ask him if you want to know.
posted by heyjude at 4:56 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree that asking him what's going on is the only way to know. It is also the only way to be fair to both of you since his behaviour is putting you off. While the conversation will probably be a little awkward, it will probably be pretty clear from his response whether you are dealing with a sweet, shy guy or a controlling BS artist.
posted by rpfields at 5:13 PM on June 2, 2013

If you feel like something is a red flag but you can't quite put your finger on it, trust your gut.

He "gets sulky" when you don't act the way he wants you to? Seriously, who needs this shit? Do you really want to walk on eggshells around this guy for the rest of time? I think not; you deserve better. Put some distance between you.

I think he sounds like he's using you as a free therapist. Since it's not your job, tell him to see a professional.
posted by doreur at 5:29 PM on June 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

Ditto doreur. He sounds like a drama queen. That getting sulky thing...that's only going to get worse. Let him bestow his long drawn-out monologues on someone else.
posted by loveyallaround at 5:42 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

People who get sulky when you want to engage them in a dialogue aren't worth your time. I think you could even say to him, "When you get sulky after I ask you a question about yourself, I get really confused because I can't imagine why you would feel the need to sulk just because I am asking a question. What gives??"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:47 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is not necessarily a red flag. It may simply be someone who is doing something that, for him, is very difficult.

I was friends with someone like this; it was nearly impossible for him to identify (or worse, express) his emotions. He was terrified that personal disclosures might result in rejection, so these conversations were long and filled with fitful starts and painful silences. It was like watching someone work up the nerve to jump off a cliff, only to find that they were stepping off a curb. I admit that I sometimes found it trying to be on the receiving end of these conversations but I understood his fear was very real for him and I had to respect that, even if I didn't understand it.

If your friend is like mine, he needs space and focus to work up the nerve to speak; if you spook him he has to start all over to work up his nerve, plus deal with the negative self-talk about how he sucks at this and you probably hate him already for taking so long and you're just going to hate him even more when he reveals this horrible flaw about himself, etc. He can't let on that he's also frustrated or disappointed with how the conversation is going because you may perceive that as "sulking" and he'll feel like he's just handing you even more reasons to reject him. None of this helps him to force the words out any faster.

You can improve this some by giving him the time to struggle with his thoughts. I found that tamping down my impatience and being a quiet listener was the best way to get these conversations to flow faster; in turn, he gradually became less fearful and was able to express himself more easily.

If you care about him and want to remain friends, please do not do what These Birds of a Feather suggested, as it's incredibly insensitive to someone who truly is struggling with emotional disclosures.
posted by stefanie at 6:59 PM on June 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I would have a conversation with him alone when he's not sharing and have it start something like this:

"A, I am really grateful that you trust me enough to open up about your feelings, especially when it seems so difficult for you. I want to be a good friend to you. Sometimes when it's happening i do feel like i want to contribute something to the conversation or maybe share some of my own insight, but that seems to throw you off your train of thought. Is there any way we can figure out a way to make this more of a conversation?"

I mean, of course this is dependent on whether you want to address the problem or just figure out an escape hatch.
posted by softlord at 7:20 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd guess he's really insecure and trying to share the least-shameful version of past events, and he's trying to decide what version you'd most like to hear. I'd also guess that he's interested in you romantically. The best way to connect (based on the wild assumptions I'm making) is to ask him what the reason for the pause is until he can tell you straightaway without any awkward pauses or vagueness.
posted by sninctown at 7:46 PM on June 2, 2013

I am sometimes like your friend. I am slowly overcoming some deep social awkwardness and it can be really hard for me to figure out when it's my turn to talk about my strong feelings, or when it's appropriate- when it's "allowed", basically. I'm not entirely accustomed to being allowed to have feelings of my own about things that may even seem trivial to others. If someone interrupts or interjects, I take it as meaning that they don't really care what I have going on with my feelings, that they are self-centered and not really listening, and it hurts me because I feel like I spend more than 50% of my interactions "caring for" their needs. That's probably not true, it's just how I feel. Maybe your friend feels a similar way.
posted by windykites at 9:21 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

He is clearly deeply insecure in some way. That being the case, the question is whether you think that his insecurity is a problem for you.
posted by Dansaman at 10:04 PM on June 2, 2013

Best answer: Does he reciprocate? If you want to talk about your feelings, does he give you his undivided attention and patiently let you speak your piece? If yes, then I would think he's genuinely trying very hard to open up to you. Still though, however difficult it is for him, he needs to understand that he's frequently asking a lot of you. Not even asking, demanding really.

The sulking part... that's a bit off. And 15-20 minutes? Good lord. If it's always him unloading on you and never the other way around, then it would seem more like he's using you as a personal audience for every little drama in his mundane life.

I agree with doreur. Trust your gut on this.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:24 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

he's either a drama llama or is just quite awkward at sharing his emotions. my guess is it is the latter. chances are he's been told by women he's dated in the past that he needs to emotionally open up and he is now trying.
posted by wildflower at 1:50 AM on June 3, 2013

I'm jumping back in to say that my answer above does not necessarily contradict or exclude the possibility that your friend is manipulative, or that you might view this as a warning sign if it is not something that you want to deal with. People's psychological protective coloration is there to help them blend in with their formative environment. If that environment is not pretty (and sometimes it's not), their modes of dealing with their own emotions may likewise not be pretty (read: manipulative, controlling, withdrawn, &c &c). All I wanted to point out is that your friend might have come by these things honestly.
posted by gauche at 6:35 AM on June 3, 2013

I'm going with drama llama. He needs the stage, just as you described, and doesn't really want to engage with you. He just wants an audience. As is often the case, you have to consider your "investment" -- time, concern, friendship -- and whether it is worth it to you to work through being frustrated and boxed out.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:21 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you bring it up gently at a time when he's not mid-share? Like, "I'm really happy that you feel comfortable telling me about the things that bother you, but I'd be better able to continue that if I could occasionally make sympathetic noises or contribute a bit the conversation -- I don't mean to detract from your getting heard, which I think is important, but it's possible to share like that in a more normalized context, and I'd like us to be able to manage that." Not phrasing well, but something that encourages sharing while also encouraging a broader definition of how that happens. This seems like it would allow for growth, if indeed he's just new at expressing himself, while also helping to acheive a more pleasant experience on your end (and/or making clear from his reaction if some kind of drama/jerk issue is at play).
posted by acm at 8:27 AM on June 3, 2013

Best answer: I've been trying to put my finger on what is wrong with this and I'll try to explain, as best I can, what I've come up with.

With no explanation or introduction of why he's doing this, the guy is effectively demanding that you give him your full attention and try to decipher what he says - no easy task - and that you do this for 20 minutes at a time, while staying totally silent yourself, and never interjecting or asking for clarification of his evidently difficult narrative. That is a hugely socially inept and strange thing to do. It is not normal social or conversational behaviour for an adult.

Regardless of why he's doing it, that's also a very demanding thing to do. Someone made the point that you don't have any obligation to meet this demand, and I think that's the most important point of all.

Second, if he has some kind of communication or other mental disorder, then if he were receiving treatment for it you'd think that whatever professional he was seeing would encourage him to introduce his reasons for talking like this before he does so? We're all guessing that he could be doing this from a place of huge emotional or communication problems, and maybe he is, but grabbing the mike for 20 uninterrupted minutes? What or who has given him the impression that this is a good idea? Again, we don't know.

And he's not even asking your permission, it's "I want to do this, I am important enough to require this of you, no questions asked." Well, in the nicest possible way, no he isn't.

There's more that bothers me about this, culturally. I am not in any way suggesting that this guy is abusive, but this whole thing about It Must Be Difficult For Him To Open Up, reminds me from the emphasis in Lundy Bancroft's Why Does He Do That? on abusive men not doing the stereotypically male thing of being out of touch with their emotions. Instead, they're too in touch with their emotions, and insufficiently in touch with everyone else's. Their emotions are so overvalued, and treated as so special, that it's clear that the woman will submit to those emotions or else.

Meanwhile, how often do we get a thread on the green "I'm dating this guy, and he's [not ready for a relationship | has trouble with his emotions and screams at me because of it | etc], how can I learn to be even more silent about my own feelings while I wait out the long months of him sorting himself out? I don't want to be the high-maintenance girlfriend!" According to this model, women's emotions are Bitches Be Crazy, men's emotions are special and require months of patient man-whispering to convince them it's safe to come out of hiding. She must not make a sudden move or she'll scare him off.

See what I'm getting at? If a woman has an emotion, she should shut up about it, and if a man has an emotion, the woman should shut up about it? What is wrong with this cultural picture?

But your situation sure seems to be conforming to it.

tl;dr we don't know why he's doing this, but whatever his reasons, it's weird and demanding enough that he should be seeking professional help for whatever it is, and we don't even know if he is. And you don't have to provide this service to him simply because he wants it, nor can you be a substitute for professional help.
posted by tel3path at 8:48 AM on June 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Give him a chance to explain; don't pre-judge.
posted by amtho at 9:09 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd ask him about it when he's NOT in the middle of it.

"Hey, Rocco, sometimes you do this thing, where you say, 'I have something important to tell you,' then you kind of do this dramatic reading of whatever it is and I'm not to interject or discuss it with you, but rather, let you dominate the conversation. It makes me really uncomfortable because I feel like I'm your audience, not your friend. Please explain to me what you're thinking when you do that."

See if he can explain it.

If not, next time don't go along with it. Or do. Your choice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:29 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like tel3path I'm really concerned that he doesn't even ask if you want to be "shared" with, or ensure that it's a good time to talk (well, monologue really), he just announces that he has something to get off his chest, and then requires huge amounts of undivided attention. Forcing disclosures on others is as much a power play as demanding one is. Combined with the way he performs a jokey front for everyone else, it seems something is wrong, even if we can't say what it is. Maybe he's also performing Deep Emotional Guy for/on/at you, or thinks women = endlessly nurturing emotional repositories. Neither one bodes well for a long-term friendship.
posted by ziggly at 9:31 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds rather dramatic, and somewhat narcissistic. Does he show an interest in you and allow you to talk about your experiences? If not, then he's somebody to spend some fun times with, but not someone who can be a close friend.
posted by theora55 at 12:33 PM on June 3, 2013

Best answer: Yes, he needs help, yes he is opening up to you, yes, it's hard for him.

Yes, it is controlling and manipulative behavior.

It's not your job to repair him, treat him, rescue him, etc. - unless you really want to. Then be prepared to deal with the consequences of your choice. You literally cannot change his behavior, though. Only he can. And it doesn't sound like he is interested in hearing from you.

If you really want to help him, tell him he needs therapy. Do not become intimate, keep him at arms length - or further - until he has sorted things out.
posted by Xoebe at 1:19 PM on June 3, 2013

I've done the speaking-slowly-without-eye-contact thing occasionally, when I was in the middle of a highly-fraught disagreement with a parent or significant other. It was a way of trying to handle overwhelming emotion so that I could say what I needed to say without getting angry, being inarticulate, or starting to cry.

That's not to say that this guy has a right to make you sit and listen to him doing this, and other posters may be right when they say this is a controlling dynamic, especially when he demands the stage for 20 minutes and for no obvious reason. And it does seem strange that he isn't coming to a point.

But purely from the point of view of "what might someone be feeling when behaving this way?", one possible answer is "he's emotionally flooded, it's important to him to express what he's saying correctly, and he's afraid if he stops or looks at you, he will lose control. The slowness of speaking gives him time to find words, but is also self-soothing because it promotes slow breathing and may ease physical sensations of anxiety or compression in the chest."

For context, I was raised in a household where starting to cry meant you automatically lost whatever argument you're having because it was a sign you were being "irrational," and therefore definitionally in the wrong. Since I naturally tend to cry when hurt or angry, it was very important for me to find a way to squelch those feelings and replace them with semi-calm, deliberate speech.
posted by shattersock at 2:37 PM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Divest yourself from people who talk at you for lengths of time that make you impatient. Attention is a currency and you're being suckered.
posted by yoHighness at 6:57 PM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

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