"You’re only as sick as your secrets” goes a saying in 12 Step Programs. Yet all secrets aren’t dark and dangerous. Some are light and life-giving. Like a surprise birthday party, a life transition about to be revealed, or the treasure of a private memory to tough to put in words. Charlotte Bronte spoke about secrets like this:
The human heart has hidden treasures
In secret kept, in silence sealed;
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
But there’s another side to secrets. They can be hurtful to ourselves and harmful to our relationships. Keeping secrets can compartmentalize our lives creating destructive denial. Rather than telling the truth we take on a false persona that leads to deepening deceit. In relationships with partners, family and friends our little white lies can become big lies that betray trust, ruin relationships and drive destructive cycles that go unchecked. When this happens says Pulitzer Prize winner Fredrick Buechner, “We are our secrets.”When we become our secrets, we run the risk of losing our authentic selves and replacing it with and edited version. Here are 5 reasons why keeping secrets can be harmful:
- Keeping secrets can create a false reality.
To keep a secret requires that we compartmentalize our lives. Sometimes we even lead a double-life. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, found that people hiding traumatic secrets cause the brain to fight with itself. One part of the brain wants to tell the secret and the other wants to keep it hidden. The longer you hold the secret, the more tension becomes a source of chronic stress (“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”). This psychic tension often causes us to compartmentalize our lives and become out of touch with our true selves.
- Keeping secrets can ruin relationships.
Keeping secrets in close relationships can create suspicion, resentment and mistrust. People who know each other well sense that something’s wrong even when nothing is said. This becomes the elephant in the room that’s sidestepped and not spoken. Most people would rather know the truth then find out later. They would rather be told by the secret bearer then to hear about it from a second-hand source. When our secrets betray trust in any kind of relationship, we run the risk of ruining the relationship and all hope of restoring it.
- Keeping secrets causes stress and hurts our health.
Anita E. Kelly, a doctor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame has studied and written a lot about secrets. She and her researchers found that “self-concealers” do show more stress, anxiety and depression as well as overall body aches and pains. Those who were more self- revealing did see health benefits causing her to conclude that “secretive people tend to be sick people (Journal of Personality,
- Keeping secrets can condone harmful behavior.
To the degree that keeping someone’s secret can be seen as support, we can condone harmful behavior. To keep silent in the face of harmful behavior can be seen as giving permission rather than holding people responsible. This is why the difference between holding a confidence and keeping a secret is significant. A secret is a promise to never tell anyone anything at anytime. While a confidence, is a trust to tell only those that need to know in the best interest of all concerned. When a secret poses a threat or can cause harm to oneself or another, we need to cautiously consider our ethical responsibility to all parties involved.
- Keeping secrets not only effects single people buy entire systems.
Secrets create anxiety in a system that effects everyone involved. This is true in families, organizations, synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. When a secret is kept to avoid shame or protect an institution, it invariably goes underground and gains power. In the same way that anxiety spreads through a startled heard, anxiety spreads through secretive systems. In an attempt to restore balance, anxious systems often recycle the same situations (or recreate similar events) in an attempt to work it out and get it right. Psychologists call this phenomenon re-enactment.
In summary, while keeping secrets is easier than telling secrets, it seems smart to think twice. When a secret is stressing you out consider sharing it in a safe place with someone you trust. After all, “It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about (Buechner, Telling Secrets).
©Beverly Weinhold, September 15, 2013