I’m very curious to learn what others think about this topic. Despite my extensive formal education in psychology, I cannot recall learning about this behavior as a sign of a personality disorder or other psychopathy, although I believe it has to fit in somewhere. It is, at the minimum, a defensive posture and, if deployed with malice, an astute way of assessing someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. To what am I referring? Namely, asking personal questions without offering any emotional intimacy or depth in return.
I’ve encountered this phenomenon in two areas of my life. The first, the more benign but still infuriating of the two, happens when someone posts a question on social media but does not offer their own stance, opinion or response. I’m learning to stop myself from responding to first check whether the person “put themselves out there” and shared where they are coming from before responding. I think I’m beginning to formulate a flexible rule of “you go first” when someone asks for vulnerability. Obviously, in situations such as healthcare, I do not expect my medical doctor or therapist to tell me their problems before I share mine. There are some relationships that are meant to be one-sided. I keep having a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, though, that those posting certain types of questions on social media either have ulterior motives or are not brave enough to start from a place of showing up authentically. “Sure, I’ll share….., but you go first” feels right in some contexts.
The more ominous of the situations occurred in a face to face situation in which I found myself the past few years, in which someone I once counted a friend and now only consider in our professional capacity repeatedly asked me prying questions while sharing minimal vulnerabilities in exchange. He would sometimes be arrogant and unrelenting in his questioning, which led to a traumatic experience and a whole host of other fallouts for me. I realize now that a giant red flag should have been raised internally simply from him asking too many questions without opening up in a corresponding manner. I don’t want to over-simplify here–every question does not need a like exchange. A pattern, though, of asking highly-personal and emotionally-charged questions, coupled with very little openness by the questioner, is a concern that the person is gathering information not being a friend, and is not interested in and/or capable of developing emotional intimacy.
I’ve always been alert to potential scammers. If I answer the phone when I don’t recognize the phone number, I will not even give my name or acknowledge anything until the person tells me who they are. If there is a paranoid to gullible continuum, I am far on the paranoid side. Where I’ve been lax, however, is in treating emotional and personal queries as being asked out of kindness, since so much of my experience growing up was of being ignored. “They’re interested in me” tracks way too quickly into “maybe they care about me” when in fact there can be all sorts of motives as to why someone wants to know more about another person. In this case, there is a relatively clear-cut way to know whether to lower my guard–am I being entrusted with secrets or only asked to unearth my own. I felt violated in the former friendship I described above when I realized the person had succeeded (for a time) in hiding so much of what they really believed and who they really were from me. I am someone who typically only needs to experience something like that once to get it. At the same time, I don’t want to over-react in future situations and get lost in inventorying how many vulnerabilities have been traded. I think I’ve shared a good deal of my own perspective here, so I hope my readers will share theirs!