Confessions from Strangers

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Something about my face or demeanor evokes surprising confessions.

From near-complete strangers—people I’ve just met in line at a coffee shop or on a first date in a café or at a business event in a corporate setting—I’ve heard tales of cheating spouses, drug-addled children committing serious crimes, medical conditions, loved ones dying, prison time, sexual dysfunctions and preferences, and more.

I have no idea what to do in these situations.

I tend not to share much. Stories about past traumas, current struggles, ongoing or occasional sadnesses and anxieties and concerns, and immediate emotional states mostly stay internal.

Why? Myriad reasons: I don’t see why someone should care, I typically only share deeply personal matters in private conversation with select close friends and hectic schedules have kept us apart, or I need to digest the situation in my mind and heart before I can communicate it.

So these tales from others usually flummox me. (It doesn’t help that, in addition to tending to share little, my introverted personality leans to the slightly—or not so slightly—socially awkward.)

My mind races: Why do they tell me this? What do they want or need me to do? What should I say? Do they want me to confess something in turn? Should I pretend that the tale they tell matters to me on some level? That I care about the story or them? Though how could I, other than feeling general human instinctual compassion and sympathy?

Should I feel flattered?

I don’t. I feel slightly overwhelmed and confused. I feel burdened by the weight of someone’s pain or sadness or frustration. I feel a desire to fix the problem—yet how can I? And why should I shoulder the responsibility of a fix?

When my friends share their struggles, I know where to stand and what to do. Gladly, I share their burdens. I want to help. And I feel a sincere honor that they have turned to me for consolation or assistance.

Yet with strangers—not so much.

Am I alone in this? Do others get these types of unburdenings from people they don’t know? If so, what do you do?

In these situations, what should I do?