A secret is something that is kept hidden.
We all know about secrets. There are quite a variety. There are good secrets; those we keep about the surprise birthday party or the special gift you have for someone you love. Good secrets can also be the confidences we keep for others that will not cause harm.
Therapists keep secrets, siblings keep secrets, employees keep secrets, friends keep secrets, and there are secrets about the past that one or two people may know, but they keep this private out of respect for you.
There are bad secrets as well. Bad secrets are those things that usually mean someone is getting hurt. In counseling teens ask me to keep things secret that sometimes cannot or really should not be a secret. Sometimes these are secrets that are about child abuse, sexual abuse, or other harm that has come to the young person or someone they know.
Let’s take a look at secrets; the good and not so good. Let’s take a look at the significance of shame and the difference between shame and guilt. All of these involve anxiety, worry and fear.
The origin of secrets dates back to the beginning of human interpersonal communication. The soon as human beings began living in groups it became necessary to have secrets. Somewhere along the way, usually through an unfortunate circumstance, a human discovered the dire consequences involved in not keeping a secret. It may have been taking a rock from a pile a neighboring tribe had used as a collection site for eventual tools. It may have been hunger related. It may have been part of a strategy to have kept a secret. We have had secrets as long as we have lived in groups.
Secrets have a long history. There are secret societies, secret rituals, secrets involved in Shamanism, and secrets used in Game Theory. There are secret cults, secrets in government, secrets with regard to spies and spying, and secrets in nature. Animals often build their den or nest in a concealed, or secret place in order to protect their home from intruders. Animals bury their food or hide it, as in the example of dogs burying a bone, squirrels hiding nuts, or pack rats hiding just about anything they find including bright pieces of aluminum and candy wrappers.
People consciously keep secrets about themselves due to shame, or perhaps guilt. We don’t want others to know everything about us for fear of being judged, harmed, ridiculed, embarrassed, or even exiled in some fashion. Sometimes people keep secrets from themselves concerning something they cannot accept and therefore cannot fully incorporate into their knowing about self. We keep secrets about harmful or bad things we have done to others. Families keep secrets and often these are secrets with dire psychological consequences for everyone.
There is a difference between shame and guilt.
Shame is when you feel like you’ve done something wrong but you don’t know what it is that you’ve done wrong.
Guilt is when you feel you’ve done something wrong and you have. You can feel guilty about breaking into Marlowe’s Department Store when you were 13, because you really did do this.
You can feel shame about the way someone talks to you, looks at you, or when someone shows disapproval. Shame is formless, ethereal, floating, and penetrating. It is hard to wrap one’s hands around shame.
The origin of shame is believed to be in early childhood. It is a technique used by many, if not most, families to obtain obedience to authority. Remember being told not to do something because of how it would make your mother, father, brother, sister, or someone feel? Do you recall hearing that you needed a certain behavior because, ‘What would the neighbors think.’ Shame is a secondary feeling related to the primary feeling of fear. Shame always involves fear.
It may not be possible to have a world without secrets. It may be that too much information is shared. Do we really need to know everything about everyone? Couples often ask me if I think it is healthier for them to disclose everything to one another. My response is, “Absolutely not, please don’t.” I believe in keeping secrets as long as the motivation for keeping them is one of good intentions. I believe secrets can keep us safe and secrets can hurt. Again, it depends on the motivation behind the secret.
More importantly it is essential to look at shame. Shame usually involves something that wasn’t said and wasn’t done. When parents use shame as a form of corrective discipline they are not thinking about the secret they are keeping. When mother says, “You should feel really bad that you made noise and your dad couldn’t sleep. He works hard for this family.” The secret is that mother is not telling something about her. Perhaps she is afraid of father’s anger. Perhaps she is just afraid. Likely she doesn’t know a better way to ask you to keep down the noise and so she resorts to shame.
In the end I think we want to make an earnest attempt at being honest with ourselves. Embrace the dark sides, the errors, the horrible mistakes and costly miscalculations. This releases shame and with it the secrets we may no longer need to keep.
Beginning quote is from Zahan, 1979, p. 112, as quoted in Piot, 1993, p. 353 from zeroanthropology.net.