I don’t know about you, but the pandemic has really tested my boundary setting skills, especially when it comes to physical distancing. Initially, my partner and I had agreed to see my parents on Christmas Eve — but a statewide order that prohibited gatherings with anyone outside our household and a still-active COVID-19 outbreak at my dad’s workplace made us change our minds.
Guilt-ridden, I called my mom to break the news. I launched into an in-depth explanation of our rationale, including mentioning people my age who’d gotten sick and suffered terrible long-term consequences — until she interrupted me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We understand.”
On the one hand, I felt relieved, and on the other, a little silly. Honestly, I probably could’ve left it at, “We don’t feel comfortable meeting in person anymore.” In general, I tend to overexplain as a way to cushion something I worry would otherwise come across as harsh, when in fact, a simple “no” would suffice. Why do some of us overexplain ourselves, and how do we stop? I turned to Alison Nobrega, a therapist in Oakland, California, to help me unpack this behavior.
If you’re unsure whether you overexplain, some good indicators include a habit of apologizing and difficulty saying “no,” Nobrega says. (It’s true: “No” is a complete sentence.) You might also over-anticipate how the other person will respond when you set your boundary, focusing on the absolute worst-case scenario — that they won’t like you anymore, for example.
There are a few reasons why you might overexplain yourself. And it's important to note that the past year of pandemic living has inevitably changed how we communicate, and widened communication chasms for many people.
Overexplaining might be a type of response to past trauma, also known as the fawn response, Nobrega says. (The others, which you might be more familiar with, are fight, flight, and freeze.) “Fawn is a trauma response where a person reverts to people pleasing,” she explains. If you’ve experienced trauma, you might rely on people pleasing behaviors like over explaining to keep you safe. You might also slip into over explaining if you’ve been gaslit. As one Redditor explained, over explaining can be a way to ensure the person doing the gaslighting can’t warp your words and wield them against you.
Overexplaining isn’t always a trauma response, though. If you live with anxiety or ADHD, a hypersensitivity to possible reactions to what you say might lead to overexplaining. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I do often find my brain racing ahead to consider all the possible ways someone might interpret a boundary I’ve set. Or, Nobrega says, you might just have a more passive communication style that makes it hard for you to say “no” and assert yourself. I can relate to this, too — for as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with speaking bluntly.
All this time at home during the pandemic has probably allowed you more time than usual to think, creating the perfect conditions for overexplaining, Nobrega says. “I think when there’s that empty space and downtime, people who experience trauma and anxiety have a hard time sitting with their feelings and sitting with the discomfort of disappointing others.”
And while it might seem like little more than an embarrassing or annoying quirk, overexplaining can take a toll on your mental health. It can wear on your self-esteem and communication skills, “and if you’re already an anxious person, if you continue this communication style, it’s just feeding your anxiety,” Nobrega tells me. By over explaining, you also mask your authentic self and might have a tougher time trusting yourself. And if you over explain in response to being gaslit, you’re implicitly telling yourself it’s ok to take that psychological abuse.
So how do you stop overexplaining? First and foremost, be patient with yourself, Nobrega says. Celebrate the moments when you do set a boundary without chronicling your reasoning in painstaking detail. Most importantly, learn to sit with the discomfort of disappointing others. “It’s unavoidable. We’re going to disappoint other people. As long as we’re not doing it in a malicious way, it’s really just part of life.”
Give yourself permission to feel whatever feelings surface when you say “no” and challenge distorted thought patterns about, say, your friend not wanting to speak to you anymore if you don’t explain yourself, Nobrega adds. Collecting evidence of times when you did assert a boundary with little or no explanation, and the world didn’t end, can help.
You might also want to reflect on where this need to overexplain comes from, whether it’s trauma, anxiety, ADHD, or a more passive communication style, Nobrega says. Have you been invalidated before? Do you have a fear of conflict? If so, it makes sense that you’d want to avoid more direct communication. Talking to a mental health professional, if you have the means, can help you tease apart the underlying factors of this tendency.
Since my anxiety-filled phone call with my mom a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to make a more conscious effort to resist the temptation to overexplain. As with anything that involves stepping outside my comfort zone, it does feel easier the more I do it. At some point, you’ll build enough confidence in your sense of self and your truth that you’ll know when a situation warrants an explanation or not, Nobrega says. The promise of that feeling alone is motivation enough for me to keep at it.