“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also–if you love them enough.” -George Washington Carver
I’ve been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I have long ago lost count of just how many of my clients have commented–sometimes with appreciation, other times with disbelief–on how they don’t know how I do what I do. How can I possibly listen to so many terrible stories, they wonder. These comments invariably emerge after a patient has shared a deep dark secret.
I reply with my genuine feelings–I am constantly grateful and feel deeply privileged to do what I do. Although I do hear horrible stories at times–those of violence and pain, rife with injustices and betrayals–I also bear witness to the healing that can come when people reveal certain secrets about themselves or their loved ones that they thought they had to carry alone.
People keep secrets for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily good or bad. Each individual, family, and culture has spoken and unspoken rules about privacy vs. transparency. I am not suggesting that it is better to tell everyone everything.
But there are some secrets that become toxic when not revealed to anyone, ever. Underneath toxic secrets there is some fear that keeps that person from opening up. Sometimes the fear is justified but often it is misplaced, magnified or completely false. What are some of the reasons all of us keep information buried inside even when we desperately want to tell someone?
- We keep secrets because we are afraid of being rejected by others.
- We keep secrets because telling the truth will make us appear sick, weak, or inadequate.
- We keep secrets to protect ourselves.
- We keep secrets to protect others that we love.
- We keep secrets to keep from getting into trouble with others or with the law.
- We keep secrets to avoid feeling painful feelings such as rage, terror, grief, guilt or shame.
- We keep secrets because of loyalty.
- We keep secrets because we have been threatened with some punishment if we tell.
- We keep secrets from ourselves when the secret is out of character for the person we want to be.
Lots about sex. Even though it seems like sex should be easy to talk about in this day and age, it is still an area where most people feel uncomfortable revealing themselves. Revealing past and present affairs happens a lot in therapy.
Most people have complicated feelings and inhibitions about what goes on behind bedroom doors or what fantasies play out inside them. (No wonder Fifty Shades of Gray became such a bestseller.) I’ve been told secrets about homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism, and sexual addiction from clients who trusted me.
Equally frightening for some to reveal are facts about the absence of sex such as a lack of sexual desire, inability to orgasm, or long term celibate marriages.
Money. I’ve been told secrets about how much money a person has and others about just how much they have lost or gambled away. Add to that illegal acts such as bribery or embezzlement…using money for power and privilege, or buying things secretly without the permission or knowledge of a spouse.
Stealing money. Hiding it. Secrets about money are sometimes more difficult to reveal than those about sex.
Violence. I am often the first person to hear about sexual abuse, incest, or rape. Or stories of the horrors of war from combat veterans. Or domestic violence, gang crime, child abuse. I am more likely to hear stories of victimization since all my clients come to see me voluntarily.
I am always relieved when someone confesses to me their own violence to others. This is the first step that is necessary to go from denial to empathy to eventually taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Addiction. Almost any form of addiction brings secrets and lies along with it. Add to that all the eating disorders. Since addictions are often driven by shame, acknowledging their existence begins the process of emotional detox. AA is built on this.
Illness and disabilities. Given that I’m a psychotherapist, I sort of assume that every family has some member of their extended family with a past or current diagnosis of depression, anxiety, OCD or ADHD. So what’s the problem with sharing this? The truth is that although mental illness is out of the closet far more than ever before, it still scares many people to share the painful reality.
Surprisingly, even physical issues are often kept submerged. In some families, it is taken as a sign of weakness to complain of pain or sickness. Confessing to chronic, potentially disabling illness can be very difficult for some. Here’s some illnesses that I was only told about only after a client trusted me: fibromyalgia, MS, Parkinson’s, cancer, herpes, HIV positive, chronic pain.
As they say in AA, you are only as sick as your secrets. Holding on to them can often bring even more stress, isolation, and self-doubt. Revealing them, often first to a psychotherapist or spiritual advisor, can be an enormous relief.
One of my favorite metaphors about burying toxic secrets (and the guilt and shame that accompany them) is that it is like constantly carrying around a backpack filled with rocks. It takes an enormous amount of energy to keep hauling them around.
In an unforgettable scene in the 1986 film, The Mission, Robert de Niro climbs up a huge mountain with a backpack loaded with his heavy armor and sword to do penance for being a slave trader and for the murder of his brother. Even when the Jesuit priest pleads with him to let them go, De Niro picks them back up and carries his burden up the steep and dangerous mountain they are climbing. When he finally lays down his bag of burdens, he sobs in deep remorse. And I sobbed with him.
What rocks do you carry around in your backpack? Do you really need to keep dragging them around with you? Or are you ready to take the first or the second or the next scary step of self-disclosure, sharing secrets that may lighten your load and facilitate your healing….