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Secrets…everyone has some, right? And, as long as you keep them locked away, as long as they don’t escape and end up in the wrong ears, they’re harmless, right?
You start by keeping a secret; but the bigger the secret (in other words, the more vigilantly you feel you need to guard it and the more keeping it violates your values), the more likely it will end up “keeping” you.
Before we go any further into exploring the labyrinthine inner world that secrets create for the secret-keeper, let’s look at some reasons people keep things secret in the first place.
Why secrets are born:
This is obvious, right? You’ve done something (or are doing something) that makes you feel ashamed and somehow flawed as a person. It’s a hard enough thing to admit to yourself—to really and truly, without verbal sleights-of-hand, admit it—so admitting it to someone else would be excruciating. Therefore, you keep it secret.
Think of the example of someone regularly attending Overeater’s Anonymous meetings, only to make it a habit of visiting a fast-food drive-through on the way home from the support group. Overeating in this furtive way may trigger shame, and when the people in the individual’s life ask about the progress with managing the overeating (out of genuine concern), s/he will likely feel motivated to keep the unhealthy habit secret.
Or, rather than an individual engaging in a behavior over which they feel shame, they might be the victim of a crime or a harmful act perpetrated by another. There has been much written on the shame victims often feel, even though objectively they did nothing wrong. This isn’t an easy thing to undo, and even admitting what happened to another person—thereby making oneself more vulnerable to shame—can take a great deal of courage.
Fear of external punishment
Most of us have had the experience of being ashamed of something so deeply that it starts to feel like self-punishment, but what about when the behavior at hand doesn’t necessarily inspire shame (or not only shame), but it’s breaking a law or a rule?
We learned to fear punishment in childhood. (Hearing the angry question: “Who broke this?” probably didn’t encourage your child-self to step forward, even if you were hiding the tell-tale shards in your pockets.) But with adulthood come bigger stakes. So if we know we’re doing something that can earn us a fine or land us an arrest or some other kind of extrinsic, punitive action, we’re likely to keep it hidden under the cloak of secrecy.
Think of the example of cheating on one’s taxes or stealing office supplies or forging important documents.
Fear of emotional “punishment” or upheaval
Sometimes secrets are seen as a means to protecting harmony in one’s life. For instance: a wife has an emotional affair with a co-worker and ultimately ends it, but doesn’t want to tell her husband about it. She fears his reaction, not only because she knows the knowledge may hurt him deeply, but that he may reject or “punish” her.
Imagine that she decides to keep this secret, believing that no damage has been done, but over time, she starts to feel wracked with guilt. At first, the guilt may feel manageable, like it’s just edging the boundary of her marriage. But it’s likely that over the long haul, and with all the psychic energy she needs to expend in order to maintain the secrecy, the edges of guilt will advance and impinge on the center of her relationship.
That can result in a disconnect she feels from her husband and from the self she wants to be, and her husband will probably feel that disconnect as well, though of course he’ll have no way to understand what’s causing it.
Fear of social ostracism or rejection
In this case, you’re not ashamed of what you’re doing or what you’ve done—and you know it’s not illegal—but you worry that others will judge you or ostracize you if they knew about it. Because the need to belong and the need to meet others’ approval are strong human drives, you may keep the issue tucked away in secrecy so that you don’t risk being shunned by people important to you.
Think of the example of a couple that steers their relationship to the realm of swinging or consensual non-monogamy. Since traditional monogamy is still the norm in mainstream society, those couples or individuals trying out some aspect of consensual non-monogamy might feel that because others won’t understand their lifestyle, they’d rather keep it secret and spare themselves that judgment.
Keeping secrets from ourselves
Guilt about keeping something from a loved one or worry over being “discovered” can come with a heavy burden. One way to lighten this burden is to inwardly deny that we’re even keeping a secret.
In other words, the secrets we keep from others can turn into the secrets we keep from ourselves. Self-denial involves the compartmentalization of our emotional lives.
Imagine that you feel a great degree of stress at work, and your one-glass-of-wine evening routine becomes a one-bottle-of-wine habit. Your partner points this out to you, with concern, and you want to allay your partner’s concern not only because you don’t want him/her to worry, but also because it makes you feel like that would be one more thing for you to worry about. So you state that there’s no problem, denying the physical toll the excess drinking is taking on you, as well as the emotional fallout (you start to rely on this habit more and more, and it’s impacting your work performance, too).
This type of internal shell-game comes at a cost, causing increasing fragmentation as the individual keeps the “secret” from him/herself.
When an individual is struggling with an addiction (to substances or gambling or sex, for instance), but swears to him/herself—and others—that there is no such addiction, that the behaviors are not interfering with life at large, as long as the secret is being kept from oneself and as long as the self-deception of “I don’t have a problem” remains in place, there is no way for addiction-recovery to begin.
The problem with secrets
Having a long-standing arrangement of keeping secrets, especially from those close to you, typically involves, in addition to omission, outright lying. And nurturing a framework of lies over time can cause even the savviest thinkers to unravel. As the saying goes, “If you tell the truth, you don’t need to have a good memory.”
That’s on a practical level. On an emotional level, we can start feeling awfully bad about ourselves if we’re regularly lying to the people we care about, the people who count on us to tell the truth. We can get to the point to where the web of lies keeping the secret in place becomes a new secret in and of itself.
Maintaining secrets requires mental and emotional energy. Although addressing them out loud, even with a trusted someone, can be terrifying, it eventually can lead to a feeling of freedom, to the feeling of having gotten out from under the secrets (even though there might be negative consequences in the short term).
When you’re focused on protecting a secret, the worst thing you can imagine happening is someone finding out about it. And you may have a whole host of reasons—many of them convincing—for the secret to stay in the dark. In a sense, you’re blackmailing yourself.
But if/when you are ready to drain the secret of the power by telling someone you trust, you are in essence looking at it straight on; you are thereby actively deciding to risk the worst thing that can happen, on your own terms, rather than passively wait for it to happen in some way that’s beyond your control. In that manner, you take the power away from the shadowy unknown future—and from the secret itself—and reclaim it for yourself. Again, it doesn’t mean it’s easy or immediately gratifying. But, in the long run, it can be transformative.
And to underscore an important point from the above paragraph: when you are ready.
You’ll know when that time comes, if it comes. If you feel constrained by the secrets you keep, if you feel stuck by them and stymied by them, you’ll arrive at the readiness for unburdening yourself on your own.
Once the willingness to free yourself from the secret’s grip is established, your next step will be to find someone you trust—someone you have reason to believe won’t shame you or harshly judge you—to help you step out of the secret’s murky pit. After all, what keeps a secret a secret is that it’s never shared.
Wishing you all the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)