Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?”
Whether it’s an embarrassing story, a secret crush, or a family skeleton, each of us needs someone to confide in. Yet some truths seem so deep and dark we keep them hidden from everyone–our parents, our spouse, our siblings, a best friend–hoping no one will ever find out about them.
The problem with carrying around a secret is that it can be toxic, costing you peace of mind, happiness, even your health. Keeping secrets interferes with your ability to be yourself, and to be intimate with others. Hiding parts of your personal history takes energy and is stressful. Ongoing stress poses a health problem due to increased hormone levels that cause inflammation and compromise the immune system. These are some of the reasons keeping secrets is a dangerous practice.
While growing up, Doreen was embarrassed by her mother’s behavior on more than one occasion. Doreen’s mother was an alcoholic. At times she could be sweet, loving, rational and fun. At other times she was volatile, emotionally labile and depressed. She was unreliable and her behavior was unpredictable. Doreen loved her mother, but was ashamed of the way she acted when she was drinking. She never knew what to expect and so as a child she never invited friends to her house, a habit she continued into her adult life.
Although she was ashamed of her, even as an adult Doreen felt protective of her mother. She didn’t want anyone to judge her or her mother negatively, so whenever conversations about childhood would come up among friends, Doreen would change the subject. She didn’t want anyone to know about her mother’s drinking. But keeping this secret locked inside made it impossible for Doreen to ever feel truly at ease in her friendships, leading to chronic anxiety and bouts of loneliness and depression.
It doesn’t matter what your secret is: hiding debt, telling or concealing a lie, secretly eating, covering up physical and sexual abuse. Keeping secrets is a form of dishonesty that causes harm to us physically, psychologically and spiritually, and sometimes causes harm to others. Yoga teaches us that truthfulness is a guiding principle of our practice both on and off our yoga mat. We learn that by shining a light on the hidden places within ourselves we can safely avoid their stress-related consequences. Even though the thought of revealing a secret can seem scary, once you take that first step, it gets easier.
When you’re preparing to be open with others about a secret you’ve been harboring, a good first step is to be honest with yourself. Journal, write a poem, draw a picture or even write a song about the secret. When you feel more comfortable about sharing the secret, try role-playing what you’ll say with a trusted friend before you reveal the secret directly to others. If you don’t feel comfortable divulging the secret to someone you know, seek help from a professional who is obligated to maintain confidentiality.
When Doreen could no longer tolerate feelings of loneliness and isolation, she sought counseling. Being able to share all that she felt about her mother’s alcoholism helped her to become more comfortable in her own skin. She realized that by trying to keep her personal history a secret, she was actually repressing other parts of her self. Years of holding her self back caused her to lose touch with who she really was, undermining any chance for lasting joy and deep happiness. By sharing her secret in a safe place with a safe person, Doreen learned to be more open with her friends. She began to talk more freely with them about her past when it came up. To her surprise no one held any of her past against her. In fact, they seemed to like her more for her openness.
Here are some suggestions that can help make sharing your secret a positive experience:
- Choose someone who is trustworthy, a good listener, open-minded, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental.
- Choose a place where you have sufficient privacy and a time where there are no distractions.
- Choose someone whose loyalties are not divided and who will not feel the need to tell another friend or his or her spouse what you’ve shared.
- Keep in mind that therapists and clergy are sworn to maintain confidentiality so long as your secret doesn’t involve doing potential harm to yourself or another person.
Remember what matters most is not your secret. What really matters are the friends and family who still love you once you share the truth with them.