Often families and friends keep secrets to protect others from historical or current information they fear will be too painful or embarrassing to disclose or to hear.
The problem is that secrets are costly. They have been demonstrated to burden us and take their toll cognitively, physically, and emotionally. Essentially they preoccupy us, compromise our health and jeopardize relationships across generations. Whereas we often keep secrets to prevent pain, the loss of love, respect and connection, too often that is just what they cost.
A Secret Exposed
I can still remember where I was sitting on a college campus when my friend shared her secret. We were not quite eighteen and had been planning on taking our road tests during winter break when she said,
“ My father is not my father. My sister is not my sister. I went looking for my birth certificate for the road test… The name for my father was different. Who is he? What does it mean?”
She stared ahead looking across the lawn rattling off more questions. She didn’t stop for answers and I certainly had none to give. She turned to me. All I could say was “Oh My God. It feels like too much.” She started to cry… so did I.
The impact of this secret on my friend was traumatic. She became intensely preoccupied with this assault on her sense of self and family as she had known it. She obsessed about why her mother had kept this secret and whether she should confront her now. She felt tremendous loss of the unknown father and confused about the father who had raised her. She could not imagine what her sister would think as they had never been close and her sister always accused her of being Dad’s favorite.
The Psychological and Physical Burden of Secrets
- Consistent with studies on the burden of secrets, what makes a secret “ big” is the degree of preoccupation it demands.
- In their refinement of earlier studies on the physical burden of secrets, researchers have found that there is a consistent relationship between how preoccupied a person is with a secret and their perceptual judgments about physical burdens.
- More specifically, experiences of physical burdens have been associated in research with a person feeling like they have fewer resources available and with their perceptual judgment of the environment as being more forbidding– a hill is perceived to be at a greater slant, or an object is perceived to be at a greater distance or heavier with the increase in the experience of a physical burden.
- A very recent study finds that recalling preoccupying secrets vs. non-preoccupying secrets increases the judgments of hill slant because by preoccupying one’s resources, a secret seems to become physically burdensome. It requires more effort to keep.
By the end of the week my friend could no longer hold this secret. She went home and left her birth certificate on the kitchen table for her mother to find. She found it. Tears and explanations followed. There was the description of a man who came and left and of the man who stepped up to love my friend and raise her as his first daughter.
My friend was a beautiful and gentle person. She hugged her mother and the man she loved as her father, but she was shell-shocked. When her sister learned, she and her sister barely spoke about it.
I have often wondered if my friend’s early marriage and quick divorce from a young man she met soon after she learned her history, was reflective of the burden and loss caused by the family secret. It would take time for her to find a place for what had been hidden from her.
A Secret Imposed
Secrets not only preoccupy us and physically exhaust us— they become hazardous to our physical health.
Many years ago a man was sent to me by his primary care physician. He was suffering from anxiety, insomnia, and gastrointestinal complaints. When I asked him what he thought was creating such stress, he hesitated and then revealed that his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had made him promise not to tell anyone, including his best friend at work. He had tried, but work was becoming a nightmare as he felt he had to avoid his friend who kept asking what was wrong. This man was torn with guilt about needing to speak about his wife’s illness and the stress he felt keeping her secret.
- Research finds that there is an association between keeping an emotionally charged secret and illness ranging from the common cold to chronic illness.
- There is even evidence that teens who confide in a parent or friend have fewer physical complaints and depression.
Neuroscientists suggest that holding on to a secret creates considerable stress. While one part of the brain (the cingulate cortex) is wired to tell the truth, the choice to keep the secret results in another part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) simulating all the negative outcomes of sharing the secret. The result is a triggering of the “ fight flight response” and the release of stress hormones that impact health– blood pressure, gastrointestinal functioning, metabolism, immune system etc.
In my work with this man, I validated the crisis his wife was facing and the common wish many people have to hide illness. Much like other types of trauma, we feel self-conscious and sometimes judged for not staying well – as if we had such control.
In tandem with that I invited him to consider the often over-looked trauma of the spouse of a seriously ill person—the pain of seeing your loved one suffering and the feeling of helplessness to make it better.
We discussed how his body was telling him that like many other spouses–it is too much to carry your loved one’s illness alone. It is not only too stressful to hide—it does not help the partner who is ill. He was clear that he couldn’t hold the secret any longer and took the risk of believing that his wife might understand. She did.
In literature and research, we have seen that even when we try to hide a traumatic secret, it outs itself– in the form of bodily symptoms, or anxiety and distress in later generations.
Lessening The Burden of A Secret
What if we can’t find a person to listen or can’t yet bring ourselves to share the secret we carry?
There is a first step…
- Research has found that personally writing about it, transforming it from the burden we carry to words that tell the story, is very valuable in reducing the stress and health risks of a secret. Sometimes what is written becomes the means of sharing.
- Recent studies have also shown that opportunities to be creative –“ to think outside the box” lifts the feeling of constraint and the sense of physical and psychological burden of secrecy. Much as in healing trauma, the affective use of mind and body in a creative way preoccupies it with something that competes on every level with stress.
- In my work with couples, a step toward sharing what is feared to be a destructive secret has been to write it down and have the partner read it when they are together. It often gives room for expressing the fear of disclosure and the apology for what has been hidden. In some cases, the partner wants the chance to respond in writing to express reactions as a first step toward discussion. It takes many steps or writing, sharing, responding and feeling.
- Sometimes a family benefits from using a therapist to provide a safe place of containment for the secret to be shared. In one case a young college student came out as gay to his dad in my office. Both cried as the Dad revealed that he already knew it and loved his son.
- Relevant to the burden of carrying a secret, therapist Joe Kort author of LGBTQ Clients in Therapy: Clinical Issues and Treatment Strategies, notes that a young person who cannot reveal his/her/their gender suffers the trauma of an assaulted authentic self.
- Whatever reduces the fear of disclosure makes moving beyond secrets possible.
Life is too short and relationships are too valuable to bear the cost of secrets.
Listen in to Psych UP Life to hear Dr. Elaine Cooper share her family story in How to Identify and Heal Intergenerational Trauma