“When I was little, I ate gum off the ground.”
“I hate cats but act like they’re okay.”
“I put a dent in my neighbor’s truck with a hockey puck.”
“I have cheated on a college test.”
“I said the f-word to a friend when I was mad.”
“I’ve spent too much time ‘on the clock’ at my last job.”
“I was thirteen the first time I tried marijuana.”
“My dad’s an adulterer.”
“I experimented with drugs one time. Didn’t know I was pregnant. Six months later I delivered a deformed, dead baby boy.”
“I was involved in ugly sexual acts under the age of eight.”
A number of years ago I tried an experiment with one of my Interpersonal classes that has since evolved into a practice that I do with all my sections every semester. What began as an attempt to get students acquainted with the idea of self-disclosure has evolved into a study that is simultaneously fascinating and heart-breaking. Each time I conducted this activity I realized even more that I do not fully appreciate the students we teach and the influences they deal with as they enroll in our courses, sit in our classrooms and subject themselves to our assessment as teachers. The disclosures I began with might give you an idea of what I’m blogging about.
Early in my Interpersonal course I address the importance of defining the interpersonal self through a constructivist application of the Johari Window, a model used to illustrate how we might define ourselves through different levels of disclosing information about our selves.
What might sound like an ancient Asian or Toltec method of self-discovery was actually developed by a couple of Stanford professors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in the late sixties. The name of this model is derived from their first names, Joseph and Harry, making it the Johari Window instead of the more sterile Luft/Ingham Window.
The concept of the window is relatively straightforward. Picture a window with four panes. The The X axis of that window deals with what’s known to others and what is unknown to others, and the Y axis (atop the window) is what is known to the self and what is unknown to the self. The convergence of these categories creates four ways to categorize self-knowledge (Luft, 1969). For instance, what is known to others as well as to the self is considered the Open pane. Information found in this pane is open or free to all. We both know that I teach Communications here at Dixie State. By my appearance you know that I’m male, at least I hope there’s no question in your minds about this, and you know that I am, by government standards, Caucasian, non-Hispanic. Anything else would be an assumption and we all know what kind of trouble we get into when we make those. You might be able to predict a few things about me knowing my profession.
Aside from assumptions and predictions though, whatever else you might find in my Open pane is strictly by my choice, by my disclosure, or perhaps someone else’s disclosure. Witness my other pages on this site. Through this you may learn that I’m a film maker, a father and a cook. Many of you might know much about me through someone else or third-party information, the credibility of which could be the topic of another lecture at another time. Years ago my son’s kindergarten teacher set the rules with us at the beginning of the year by saying, “I’ll believe only half of what your son tells me about you if you’ll believe only half of what he tells you about me.” Deal.
The scope of the information in the Open window is determined by what we’ve extracted from the pane beneath it. This pane is defined by the content that we know about ourselves but conceal from others. It is appropriately called the Hidden pane. For example, if I were to tell you about the bridge I have on my lower left jaw, I would be in effect moving information from my Hidden pane to my Open pane. This is self-disclosure. Usually self-disclosure is a bit less innocuous than dental work, unless we’ve run out of other things to talk about – a relational myth, by the way.
These panes are dynamic in their scope or size and they change depending on the relationships in which we engage and self-disclose and the time we spend doing so. I have a huge Open pane with important people in my life along with a diminished Hidden pane. On the contrary, I have a diminished Open pane with my former spouse and have decided to keep much safely tucked away in my Hidden pane. Generally, I’m a pretty open guy, all you have to do is ask or hang around long enough, as my Interpersonal students quickly find out.
To illustrate self-disclosure to my students, I bring them to this very point in our discussion. (For the sake of this discussion I’ll not delve any further into the remaining two panes of the Johari Window.) I ask them what kind of information one might keep in their Hidden pane and their responses are typical; secrets, behaviors one might be ashamed of, desires, thoughts and feelings, beliefs, vices, and virtues. Rarely does a student identify or describe Hidden pane content in a positive voice. At this point I distribute three-by-five cards, one for each student and I ask them to disclose, write on that card something that exists in their Hidden pane that they’ve never shared with anyone before, or if they’re unusually open, something that they’ve only shared on a limited basis. Most regard me with a look that says, “Seriously?” I just smile and shut up.
While they’re writing, I bring a garbage can up to the front of the room and tell them when they’ve finished to throw the card away in the receptacle. After several moments of consternation on both our parts, students comply and write after a bit of soul-searching, and then come to the can and discard their disclosure. I try not to mention the significance of throwing such disclosures away – the metaphor is rarely lost on these students.
I wait until everyone has had an opportunity to participate. There’s the occasional withholder and I respect their decision to abstain and I move on with the activity. An uneasy air settles over the room. Most eyes vacillate between me and the garbage can. I ask them how they feel and most responses include vulnerable, uneasy, nervous, or better, relieved and happier. I’m always surprised by the contrast.
This is where I take a risk. After they’ve expressed the above sentiments, I empty the contents of the can on a table. I sort the cards, turning them all face up and in the same direction. While I do this you can feel the barometer in the room rise, the pressure is that tangible. More often than not at least one will ask, “You’re not going to read those, are you?” I don’t respond but continue to sort and try not to let them see my hands shake while I do. Once I have all the cards neatly stacked, I hold them up and prepare to read them, but before I do I ask them, “How do you feel now?”
It’s rather cruel, I know. Some of you might even think unethical. But the effect that follows is worth the ethical infraction, and this is why I call this a card trick.
“I am depressed. I can’t remember the last time I was truly happy.”
“I am very intimidated by a girl I have a crush on. I mean terrified.”
“I found out that my mom did cocaine.”
“I was raped and got an STD.”
“I wish I were dead.”
“I guess the one thing I could disclose is something that isn’t very dramatic, just the fact that I am scared and really lonely a lot of the time (and) my insecurities are huger (sic) than I let on to others.”
“I don’t know if I want to believe the things I have always been expected to believe about the Church.”
“I have never kissed a girl.”
“I have never told anyone that I weeded my neighbor’s yard.”
“I have been extremely distracted by nudity on TV and magazine covers which lead to searches for real-life nudity.”
“I lost my virginity at age 16 with another man.”
“I don’t think anyone could love me in a romantic way, because I have nothing to offer. I don’t love myself so why could anyone love me?”
“I can’t stand my mom.”
“When I was 10, my mom put me on a diet because she said I needed to start watching what I ate. This led to an obsession with what I put into my mouth. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at the nutrition facts on the side of a box or think about what I ate. This led to a battle with bulemia and anorexia that I don’t know I will ever see the end of.”
“I may never live up to the standards of the type of person I wish to marry.”
“I am tired.”
“I kissed my boyfriend more than I really wanted to one night.”
“Sometimes when I babysit kids I can get so frustrated that I want to hurt them. Sometimes I have a hard time stopping myself from doing that, but I always feel guilty for those types of feelings.”
What you’ve been reading is representative of the types of disclosures born in this activity, the breadth and scope of which have always been surprising.
As I read the cards back to their authors, the eye behavior in the room becomes restricted, they’re all either looking at me or at their notes, but no where else. I try to concentrate on the cards in my hands. When I do look out at the class, I see nothing in an attempt to protect the identity of the current card’s author, not from the rest of the students in the class, but from me. It’s the least I can do.
Occasionally I’ll come across a card that allows everyone to breathe for a moment, like, “I almost had sex,” or “I hit a car in a parking lot and didn’t leave a note.” Everyone in the room almost wants to say, “You too?” The experience is oppressing, but at the same time the enormity of what one withholds and the relief that one can feel in the disclosure of the mind or heart or soul – however you want to qualify it – eclipse the oppression.
After the last card is read there is a tangible relief in the room. I’ve always found it impossible not to be affected by what I just read back to the class and it takes me a few moments to pull myself together. Composure regained, I ask my class again, “Now, how do you feel?” Their sustained silence usually makes me nervous, because I can’t ignore the danger that lies in this activity.
I’ll stay quiet until a response is offered. Usually their earlier feelings are reinforced. I’ll get an occasional “betrayed” or “I’ll never trust you again,” but the overwhelming response is, “I don’t feel so alone,” with a popular, “I’m more fortunate than I thought,” and the relieving, “I just want to give everyone a hug.”
I’ve collected over fifteen hundred disclosures and have analyzed their content and have tried to organize them into different categories; academic incompetence, infractions of integrity, fear of disclosing, fear of losing a loved one, relational abandonment, sexual indiscretions, spouse or partner abuse, fear of remaining alone, fear of sex, use of illegal substances, addiction to internet pornography, attempted suicide, fear of failure, no identity or meaning, depression, rape, doubts about religious beliefs, convictions about religious beliefs.
Instead, then of studying them by content, I decided to look at them from a standpoint of intent – why did this person choose to disclose this item over any other in their Hidden Pane? What could they gain by disclosing it anonymously, and what did they risk if they were found out? With this perspective I culminated six different intents of disclosure, at least among students enrolled in my class.
Of course, not every disclosure could be qualified, and it’s obviously my interpretation of the intent of the person doing the disclosing, but a clear pattern emerged from this stack of cards that can be seen as Discreet Disclosure, Dark Disclosure, Penitent Disclosure, Fearful Disclosure, Relational Disclosure, and even Beautiful Disclosure.
Discreet Disclosure relies heavily on the anonymous nature of this activity. Persons feeling a risk of judgment due to their particular disclosure have the opportunity to air their burdens that might otherwise brand them or cause them a lot of trouble in their family contexts. This information that one might never disclose to another finds freedom in anonymity. There is a common thread in these revelations:
“I was molested by a close family member when I was six years old.”
“I was raped at the age of eight years old.”
“I was molested by my brother when I was little.”
“I was sexually abused when I was a child.”
“I was molested by my step-brother when I was nine years old. He was never prosecuted.”
“I was molested by my two older cousins from the time I was about four until I was eight.”
“Despite the doubts I have or rather pretend to have about it, I know in my heart that my brother did molest me when I was young, And although I forgive him, it will take me a long time to forgive my dad who didn’t believe me when I told him, so he sent me to a therapist to figure out what is wrong with me. He’ll never know how that made me feel.”
“From the time I was six years old until just this last year I have been sexually abused and have always been afraid to say anything. I have withdrawn myself from people, lost trust in people and have tried to escape my life a few times.”
“I had a sexual encounter with a guy.”
“When I was younger I engaged in homosexual behavior with my best friends and with my cousins. I didn’t know it was a wrong way of satisfying that urge at that young age. I always have that in the back of my mind and hope that I can be forgiven of that so I can move on with my life.”
“I am in favor of gay marriage.”
“I have gone to therapy for depression and have gotten over it, I feel it coming back again.”
“I take Zoloft medication.”
“I have social anxiety disorder.”
“I have depression.”
The first time I came across these kinds of discreet disclosures I realized how much I’ve discounted the life experiences of my students and have since tried to become more aware of what one brings with them into my classroom.
Theologically, disclosure has been a manager of guilt and a way to absolution. In Christianity, to invoke the Atonement, the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus Christ for the redemption of one’s sins and their salvation, one is obliged to disclose their transgressions, to God, to an ecclesiastical authority, to the congregation, or to the person one may have sinned against. The relief of forgiveness and the burden of guilt seem to be the rewards for such penitent disclosure, an effect that is also felt in the classroom during this activity:
“I stole a car.”
“I think I am pregnant.”
“I cheated on a test and lied about it and to this day no one knows but me.”
“I’m ashamed to say that I once stole money from my mom. It wasn’t much, but it bothers me still.”
“In second grade I stole watercolors from the classroom. I did it because the teacher didn’t like me.”
“I lied to my significant other about not kissing anyone else while he was on his mission.”
“I had smoked one time.”
“In my life I have done things that I wish I had not. I have committed some sins and have let a young man take advantage of myself and touch me wrongly. It was scary, afterward I was alone and I knew it was wrong.”
“About a year ago a group of us took a trip to Vegas. We went to a strip club. I was raised to not partake in those types of activities. I am very ashamed that I went and have never told anyone.”
“When I was in high school I got pregnant and had an abortion. Though it would have been really difficult, I regret our decision.”
“I am not a virgin.”
“There was a time when I would commit the deep offense of pornography and what goes along with it. To this day I still have not forgiven myself.”
“No matter how much I try, I cannot seem to overcome an addiction to pornographic material.”
The most disturbing disclosures, at least to me, are those that confess a discounted soul, a student who feels worthless. These are the ones I consider Dark Disclosures for lack of a better descriptor:
“Sometimes I feel as if I am not good enough, or shouldn’t be, for anyone.”
“I have the feeling of being unneeded, worthless, and unwanted.”
“At night I get really down that I sometimes cry, and I am a person the never cries. I keep my emotions in because I’ll feel week if I do.”
“I’m really self-conscious, and I take seriously what others think about me, even though I pretend not to care.”
“I fear that I will never accomplish anything in this life I truly know I want to do. I will never amount to anything.”
“When I was six my mom yelled at me and beat me and told me to never talk, look, or see her again because I was a worthless piece of garbage.”
“I’m often insecure but I hide it well.”
“I’m scared of not succeeding. I’m terrified of messing up and not being someone special.”
“I am afraid of rejection because of my past.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I will ever have someone love me like I love them.”
“Sometimes I don’t think I am worthy of things I have received. I feel like they are wasted on me.”
“I have had times in my life when I believed that if I just ended it all, it would be easier and better for those around me.”
These are the disclosures that make me want to search the room and find the eyes that conceal those feelings of not being good enough. No one should feel this way, yet it is this intent of disclosure that dominates all the rest in these cards.
Most of us suffer from fear.
“I am scared to be alone.”
“Fear of non-acceptance.”
“I have a fear of rejection and being alone. I want to be loved forever.”
“My deepest fear is being alone.”
“I am scared of the future and what it holds for me. I am not looking forward to working every day of my life, of who I will marry, if I will be looked at as a success or a failure, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring, happiness or sorrow.”
“I am terrified of the future.”
“I am really scared because I have a feeling deep down inside of me telling me that I will never get married. Deep down, I believe it.”
One can’t ignore the social and cultural influences of these fears. I believe this should serve as a kind of wake-up call to all of us who have influence with our young people, no matter their age.
Like Discreet Disclosures, Relational Disclosures are aired under the luxury of being anonymous. The difference for me was the strong pattern of disclosure about this subject in every class where this activity was conducted, a pattern that includes the kind of regret that the discloser cannot seem to escape:
“When my mom was sick and in the hospital there were nights that each of us girls would stay the night with her. When it came to be my turn I was so bothered that I had to do this. Before my mom fell asleep she told me thank you for staying with me.”
“My father is an incompetent dad. He can’t hold a job and he drinks and lives with my grandma. He is a freakin’ bum who mooches off of society.”
“I didn’t kiss mom goodnight when she wanted me to because I was mad at her the night before she died.”
“Dad’s an alcoholic.”
“I always hated my relationship with my mom.”
“I am afraid that one day my mom won’t be there for me anymore.”
“Hate my dad.”
“I miss my dad.”
“I don’t like the fact that my parents spoil me. I am ashamed because of all that my family has. I want to work for what I get rather than have my parents give me everything.”
By this point you can’t escape the heaviness of these messages, the oppression that I spoke of earlier. This isn’t an easy thing to attend, to listen to the thoughts, feelings and fears of the hearts of our students.
There are disclosures that inspire, but their infrequency is a symptom that cannot be ignored. These bright spots in such dark disclosure have hope and kindness, such as the humble confession of an anonymous Santa:
“Every Christmas my family thinks of a less fortunate people and we play secret Santa to their families. We will set things on their doorstep and ring the bell and run away. We would do this for four days before Christmas. They never knew who it was.”
And then there’s the one student who expressed satisfaction with whom they have become. One out of fifteen hundred.
“I believe that I am an amazing person and that I will have the opportunity to do something truly outstanding.”
You can’t ignore the tragedy of how few beautiful disclosures there are amongst the others, a symptom that I believe we need to recognize and somehow treat in our educational process.