We’ve all kept a secret before. Even if it’s in the form of those little white lies we tell to protect our loved ones from having to hear the honest truth.
What do you think of this dress for the office?
…Oh, it looks absolutely fabulous on you!
Never mind the slit that’s several inches beyond work-appropriate and the fact that it’s about two sizes too small. We’ve all kept secrets to ourselves in one form or another.
Why do we keep secrets? Often when I work with clients who are harboring big secrets, most people will say they are keeping a secret to protect someone else:
It would hurt my husband too much if he knew I was attracted to another man.
My mom would be absolutely crushed if she ever found out that I’m gay.
I don’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings by telling her that her jokes are hurtful to me.
We can do a really great job of telling ourselves that we’re doing good for the world by keeping certain things secret. Sometimes there are things that others just don’t have to know.
I think there is some truth in this idea. There isn’t always a net positive value in disclosing all information to all people at all times. Some people have difficulty knowing how to handle the truth, and not everyone even wants to hear the truth. Not everything needs to be said in every moment to reveal 100% of what we’re all thinking at all times. In fact, we know that we don’t even have the capacity to keep track of what we’re thinking in our minds all the time, let alone be able to verbalize them!
I’d like to push back on this idea for a moment. We often tell ourselves that we keep secrets in order to protect our loved ones. However, experience has taught me that much of the time, especially when we’re keeping a bigger secret, the truth is that we are really trying to protect ourselves.
I’d like to invite you to think of a time in your life when you’ve kept a secret. One that felt like a really big deal. It may even be a secret that you still keep. What are some of the reasons you’ve told yourself you were keeping it secret? Was it to protect someone else? Was there anything you might have been trying to protect yourself from?
Sometimes we’re aware that we’re keeping a secret to protect ourselves. Our body has strong mechanisms in place to keep us from revealing secrets in an attempt to protect ourselves. I’ve seen clients panic at the prospect of revealing a secret, especially to a loved one. This is where our deepest insecurities can manifest:
What if he doesn’t really love me and he leaves me when he finds out?
If she finds this out about me, she’ll know I’ve been living a lie this whole time and she’ll see me for who I really am.
I’m afraid if people find out then I’ll end up alone.
These are the deeper motivations for keeping most of our secrets. We build a fortress of protection around ourselves by hiding some of the parts we think could be ugly. The ugliest parts we hide deep in the dungeon, hoping they never see the light of day.
Sometimes clients will muse what could go wrong if they just carried on with their life while keeping their secret. Everything seems okay – it’s not so bad to simply keep a secret. Or two. Or twenty. Life is pretty good.
Here’s the problem. Even if our life around us seems to be going great, and even if our family and friends truly do care for us unconditionally, keeping parts of ourselves in hiding robs our loved ones from being able to most fully see us, and robs us from the sense of feeling fully known and fully loved. As long as there are still secrets, we will not be able to experience the depth of joy and freedom from the shame that is quietly eating away at us.
Even worse, keeping chronic secrets across a lifespan can cause deeper destruction in ourselves and our relationships. As we hide away parts of ourselves, we start to convince ourselves that the secret is not really there or it’s not that bad. This feeds into a self-deceptive loop that our mind uses to cope with the discomfort and shame of hiding away these parts of ourselves. In turn, we are less in tune with who we are, and it makes it more difficult for those around us to know us and love us well. Often people keeping chronic secrets can become increasingly lonely – even if they are surrounded by others – because they don’t feel known.
If you are harboring a big secret right now, you may want to think this over. If the shame of the secret feels all-consuming, you may wish to begin by speaking with someone you trust to listen as you share with just one person to begin. If you feel too trapped in your secret to share with anyone, I encourage you to pursue professional counseling as a first step to undoing the shame of secrets and stepping into a freer life of being more fully known and loved.
The good news is, it’s never too late to make a change.