We all possess secrets. We've been entrusted to keep them. We have also offered them to others to hold with us or sometimes for us. At times we consider it an honor to be a confidante and other times it is a curse to be asked to hide something that should be revealed. Secrets are not just things we keep from the outside world; they are most often things we keep from ourselves.
In last month's issue of Pyschology Today, writer Carlin Flora explored the damaging effect secrets have on our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Founder and director of The Institute of Behavior Therapy, Barry Lubetkin explains, "Deep secrets are often traumatic events from the past such as a rape that has made someone feel vulnerable or a compulsion or obsession that feels too shameful to disclose". Other buried secrets according to Lubetkin include illnesses, a stigmatized identity, an addiction or a moral transgression such as a marital affair. Shame underlies much of secret keeping but secrets aren't necessarily secluded to the realm of shame. Flora says that "Hopes and dreams that people don't dare speak aloud are also secrets."
We withhold, not just painful memories but also celebratory or exciting things, because to acknowledge them requires vulnerability, to let people really see us, fears AND hopes. We wonder what people will think if they knew. Or if they did know, we don't want to know what they think because it may be different than what we want to hear. And if I acknowledge it to you, I am simultaneously acknowledging it to myself. Dare I speak aloud my deepest fears and fantasies? What if my fears become reality? And will I be able to bear the crushing weight of disappointment if my dreams do not come true? So we protect ourselves through withholding, denial and dismissal.
The mental bandwidth expelled to protect secrets takes a physical toll. According to Michael Slepian of Columbia University, "Secrets we consciously protect alters the body's stress response and "depletes mental resources". Studies conducted by James Pennebaker of The University of Texas at Austin "found that people who had a traumatic sexual experience as a child or teen were more likely to have health problems as they got older, particularly if they had hidden the trauma from others".
However, Pennebaker found that making sense of traumatic events had a powerful effect on the body. Those who spent 20 minutes each day for several consecutive days visited the health center "far fewer times in the following months than students who had written about a general topic or who revealed a secret but didn't delve into the emotions around it".
Clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi explains that secrets are a mirror of what one believes about themselves. Beliefs that one is incompetent, deficient, worthless, unlovable is often hidden beneath a traumatic secret. Pelusi advises the importance of "[taking] apart the traumatic event. Someone might always regret what happened, but if he looks at it in a safe environment, like a therapists' office, the trauma diminishes because it's been powered by secretiveness".
Examining and exploring the purpose of the secret and the beliefs that have held it in the dark can release the power of shame. Being willing to look behind the curtain to find a mere man instead of the all powerful Oz can be quite painful. The Wizard of Oz was constructed for a reason and we are slowly dismantling that image, facing fears of who we are and are not. But from there, if you are willing, you can find meaning and chart a new course for yourself with healthier, more accurate beliefs of your true identity.