Sharing with Strangers


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Satish Krishnamurthy.

Socialized human beings are notoriously skilled at pretending they’re okay. Whether it’s bottling annoyance when they have to be polite, waltzing through difficult family functions while donning a smile, or simply keeping secrets, humans have perfected how to conceal their true feelings.

Hiding how one truly feels often works to make social situations easier. However, it may not be long before many individuals feel the sharp urge to reveal their genuine feelings to someone–or anyone.

We’ve all seen it, done it, or been at the receiving end of it: the exchange of sensitive information with people we barely know, all for that moment of release. Humans desire that sudden feeling of lightness that results from sharing the burdens of their lives with others.

These moments of truthful exchange frequently happen between two close acquaintances, but can also comfortably occur between strangers. Sometimes it’s easier to share our raw thoughts and secrets with those who don’t know our whole life story, or better yet, with someone who will not be quick to suggest solutions to our problems and judgments to our actions.

For many years, social-network researchers argued that each person’s strongest ties were with people who were within their “core discussion network.” In sociology terms, core discussion networks are comprised of the people that someone turns to first to discuss difficult, important life matters. Although this ideology seems almost like common sense, when empirically tested, it doesn’t hold up.

In a recent study conducted by Harvard University sociologist Mario L. Small, participants were first asked to report which people they believed comprised their core discussion network. They were then asked to “recall the last person to whom they discussed a matter that was important to them.” The data determined that 45 percent of confidants were people whom participants did not consider particularly important in their social world.

Small attributed these results to a number of reasons. For one, confidants could have been knowledgeable on the topic that the participants wanted to discuss. It’s also possible that the confidant was simply available at the time that the participant wanted to talk.

Small believes a deeper psychology could explain why people decided to confide in others not very close to them. For one, the matter or problem could involve the very person they are closest with, thus disabling them from being able to openly talk things through. It’s also possible that the discussion people want to have may worry those they wish to confide in. The worry causes people to withhold from telling their close peers, in an attempt to keep burdens from turning into theirs.

Thirdly, human nature has proven that when it comes to sensitive information, word often travels quickly and into undesired ears. Lastly, the way individuals are perceived by those most important to them is usually a matter of upmost meaning and nary put at stake.

With all the reservations and consequences in mind, some secrets are too dark for people to reveal–even to those not particularly close with them. They are the kind of secrets that one only admits after hearing someone else reveal an equally, if not more, jagged part of their soul.

The desire for a non-judgmental place where people can unburden themselves of their deepest, darkest secrets is a major reason for the long-lasting existence of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The organization has been active for over 75 years. Thousands of AA meetings take place every day. As such, revealing secrets and deeply burrowed feelings is one of the main components in completing AA’s 12-Step program.

The process begins with perhaps the most well known part of the program: the first meeting, admittance of a problem, and the exchange of members’ stories (both successes and failures).

Brian Huggard, a traveling speaker for AA meetings, describes the initial step as “a moment of clarity” for many first-timers. Huggard notices that hearing the success stories of those now sober can be very moving for new members. Oftentimes, the first meeting can be the moment in which they realize “wow, that sounds just like me,” and “if I do what he did, I can get what he got.”

Once members decide to begin the program they are encouraged to select a sponsor. At first, this is usually a member that has been sober for a significant amount of time, which the addict can contact in moments of trouble or discomfort. Similarly to the results produced in Small’s study, Huggard often hears stories of addicts who reach out to their sponsors well before they reach out to loved ones.

“For [alcoholics], family and family events are usually a big trigger,” Huggard explains to BTR. “It’s much easier to talk to someone who’s gone through that kind of pain than to your uncle, or cousin, or whoever, right in the middle of a family get-together.”

After a few weeks, a more permanent sponsorship is established, and the two begin to go through the 12 Steps of the program.

Step Four in particular, is based on extracting secrets that addicts have not shared with many people, along with resentments that addicts have accumulated over the years to those closest to them.

When resentments are revealed and bottled-up angers exposed, sponsors do not simply let the release act as therapy. Sponsors prod the members into evaluating why the resentments were developed and how much of the problem was in fact self-inflicted. Huggard compares the process to pulling weeds out of a garden.

A skeptical argument against AA’s program states that too many of the steps are negativity-based and set out to make the member feel powerlessness.

Huggard mentions that giving oneself up to a “Higher Power” and putting all faith into the meetings and the program is a major component of AA’s philosophy. However, he does not agree with the challenge against AA that its steps put down members too harshly. He adds that the program doesn’t push anyone harder than a religion or concerned family members would.

“First the alcohol was my God, and then when I couldn’t have that anymore the program became my God,” Huggard says. “The program challenges you, but it also tells you that the power is within yourself.”

Perhaps one’s own hidden power is the greatest secret of all.