Scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed and you’ll see photos of friends’ children, weddings, and perfectly lit meals. You’ll see updates about careers and relationships. Something might make you smile or feel a twinge of jealousy, but it’s all pretty harmless, anodyne stuff. Sometimes, though, you’ll pause on something and have a thought familiar to all of us in the current age of oversharing: TMI! Too much information!
Your sister posts a detailed description of her sex life, and you can never look at your brother-in-law the same way again. Or your friend posts a video of their home-birth, replete with close-ups and then asks you to watch it. You want to be supportive, but do you need to see every contraction to be a good pal? Or your uncle shares a very personal story about abuse, and it triggers your own painful memories. You were scrolling through your phone, passing time waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket, and now a wave of emotions crashes over you. You feel anxious, sad, angry, or ashamed.
Because oversharing has become normalized, your TMI-prone friends and family might expect you to share, too.
The closeness we feel in relationships is built by sharing parts of ourselves with others. They confess a little then you confess a little, and this creates a bond between you. It all feels fine until someone confesses too much or asks you to divulge personal information that you’re not comfortable sharing. Suddenly, your friend feels put-out because they think you’re keeping secrets from them, or they think your lack of openness is a sign that you’re judging them.
What is it about situations like these that make us feel so uncomfortable?
Boundaries are the invisible lines that draw our self-identity. We draw boundaries around the parts of ourselves we’re willing to share with others and what we like to keep private. Our boundaries depend on our relationships. What we’re comfortable sharing with our significant other is different than what we’re comfortable sharing with our parents. And they can work in two ways. Someone can cross a boundary by prying into parts of ourselves that we don’t want to share, and they can overstep one by sharing a part of themselves that makes us uncomfortable.
How can we set boundaries in the age of oversharing?
First, decide what your boundaries are. It might help to make a list. Get a sheet of paper and draw three vertical lines to form four columns. Title the first column “Significant Other,” the second “Family,” the third “Friends,” and the fourth “Acquaintances/Strangers.” Now, write down the subjects you’re uncomfortable discussing with the people in these four categories. For example, you might put “sex life” under things you’re not comfortable talking about with your family and strangers, or “childhood trauma” under all four categories. It’s OK if there are some things that you’re only OK talking about with your therapist. Once you know what your boundaries are, it will be easier to defend them.
Second, talk about your boundaries with the people whom you expect to respect them. If your father keeps prying into your romantic relationships, tell him plainly that it’s not something you’re comfortable discussing. If your best friend gossips about your other friends behind their backs and it makes you uncomfortable, tell her. Remember, people can’t read your mind. Unless you’re clear about your boundaries, people will continue to cross yours unknowingly.
Having boundaries doesn’t make you uptight.
Feeling uncomfortable when someone overshares doesn’t make you an uncaring person. Everyone has boundaries. Acknowledging, setting, and protecting yours is a kind of self-care. When others recognize and don’t try to cross them, it is a sign of respect. Healthy relationships require sharing yourself with others, but they also require boundaries between what is a comfortable level of closeness and what is TMI.