It’s secrets. Think about it…
How does domestic violence survive generation after generation?… Nobody talks about it.
What’s the biggest threat a sexual abuser uses to control their victims?… Don’t tell anybody or there will be consequences.
What is the most liberating step in the life of an LGTBQ person?… Coming out of the closet.
What threat keeps playground bullies in charge?… Don’t be a tattletale.
What are the biggest reasons sexual assault victims don’t go to the police?… Testifying in court, facing public scrutiny, fearing judgement from others.
Why do people hang their heads in shame?… If the world found out who they really are no one would accept them.
Secrets show up in more mundane ways as well.
We wear makeup to hide our flaws. We laugh at jokes we don’t think are funny. We don’t invite people over because our house is too messy (or maybe that’s just me). My teenage son walks ten paces ahead of us in public for fear people will realize his relatives are lunatics.
And beneath all of these small and seemingly everyday things is the idea that somehow our real and true selves must be hidden from the world. At the bottom of every act of embarrassment and shame are the secret parts of ourselves we don’t want to expose to the light of day.
We hear self-help advice all the time…
Authenticity is power!
Keep it real!
Vulnerability is courageous!
Embrace who you are!
You are enough!
Don’t get me wrong. I love a catchy quotable. The platitudes are endless, but they all involve the same thing… truth. And the opposite of truth is secrets.
If all good things are on the other side of truth, why aren’t we racing towards it at top speed, and away from secrets? Why do we continue to pretend to be something we are not?
I’m not sure how to answer that question. But I do know that my life is immeasurably better when I’m not hiding pieces of myself behind secrets.
Use your shame as a barometer to measure your authenticity.
Here’s an example from my own life:
I am not a great housekeeper. I tend to collect paper, mail, and clothing in heaps. I let things pile up until the stack becomes so inconvenient or disruptive that life becomes unbearable – I lose the permission slip for my son’s field trip on my desk, or I can’t find my shoes beneath the mound of discarded clothing on my bedroom floor.
I don’t like filth – I wipe up messes and do the laundry. But putting away the clean clothes and dishes is not at the top of my priority list.
I mostly accept this about myself with love and grace. Except… alas… I rarely have people over to my house. Even though I love cooking, baking, and hosting, the mess is a source of shame that I have yet to fully overcome.
In the past few years I’ve worked hard to surround myself with people who love me regardless of my housekeeping skills, and that has helped. But I still struggle with my secret sloppy side.
How do I measure the impact of this silly secret shame? I measure it in memories not made, laughter not shared over meals I haven’t prepared for friends, and my children’s unfamiliarity with guests in our home.
And it’s okay. (I don’t need anyone to write me letters with reprimands and links to Marie Kondo!) I’m able to give myself grace for this shame, and I’m using it as motivation to work hard so I can someday build a house with lots of storage, pay for a weekly housekeeper, and hire an organization expert to help me put everything in it’s proper place.
I share this truth about myself only as an example that we all – regardless of how much work we’ve put into our own mental health – have some secrets that are holding us back from living our best life.
What secrets are you carrying?
Maybe they are big, ugly secrets we’ve inflicted on ourselves – addiction, eating disorders, hoarding, gambling, financial ruin, etc.
Maybe they are big, ugly secrets inflicted on you by someone else – childhood abuse or incest, sexual assault, domestic violence, emotional abuse, etc.
Maybe they are big, ugly secrets inflicted by the culture you live in – sexual or gender identity, poverty, illiteracy, religious differences, etc.
Maybe they are monumental physical differences – invisible illness, physical deformity, mental health battles, social anxiety, neurotypical tendencies, learning differences, etc.
Maybe they are complex and highly disruptive – you’re in love with your best friend’s spouse, you hate your job that your family relies on to meet their needs, etc.
Maybe they are small, incidental secrets you just can’t bring yourself to share – you’re a terrible dancer, you love cosplay, you live in Maine but you hate shellfish, etc.
Or like me, you’re a secret slob presenting as a person who has it all together.
Big or small, secrets can destroy us and rob us of happiness. But, like everything else, they can also be very instructive.
Learn from your shame.
Are you, like me, not sharing life with people because you are trying to keep a part of your true self hidden?
What would happen if you released the secret and just told the truth?
Perhaps you have much to lose, like a good friend or family relationships, or a job, or standing in the community. If that’s the case, you may need to ease into the truth, starting with a trusted friend, therapist, or clergy member who can help you problem solve how best to release yourself from your secret and cause the least possible damage.
But often, we stand to gain much more than we stand to lose. The problem isn’t actually the truth, but the power we’ve given to the secret and the habit we’ve fallen into of keeping our secret from the world.
Let’s use my secret as an example:
What would happen if I threw a party and didn’t clean my house before guests began to arrive? Would my friends shrink away in disgust? Would they stop loving me?
The answer to these questions create more questions…
Just how messy is my house, anyway? Is it affecting my family’s health? No, I don’t believe that it is.
Okay, then how else might it be affecting my day-to-day life? Truthfully, aside from the occasional misplaced field trip permission form, it’s not really hurting anything.
Maybe my friends would enjoy writing their names in the dust on my TV stand! Maybe I’m robbing my friends of enjoying my cooking and baking and the opportunity to get to know a side of me they’ve rarely – if ever – seen.
Who are these people I call my friends? Would I really like to be friends with someone who shrinks away in disgust because I have too many piles of mail and unfolded laundry? No, not really.
Do the people in my life deserve more credit than I’m giving them by keeping this secret? Is it fair to assume my friends would stop loving me if they knew how infrequently I scrub my baseboards? (Never… I never scrub my baseboards.) My friends are great people and they deserve more credit than that.
So, what’s the real reason I’m keeping this secret? It doesn’t seem like it’s actually my friends I’m hiding from. So, maybe this secret has more to do with a deep trauma response that requires self-reflection and rooting out, and in the meantime, I need to start hosting more people in my home.
See how that works?
Our shame can be very informative, if we’re willing to explore it.
The secret is how your shame has manifested in your life. Consider what would happen if you shared your secret. Maybe it would change a lot of things, and change can be really scary. But you have a choice – you can change, or you can stay the same. Which do you choose?
Because here’s the thing…
Secrets can only control us when they are kept.
By keeping a secret, you are handing over power to your shame.
Do your past experiences deserve that much power over your present?
Does that person who hurt you deserve to have control over the rest of your life?
Do your past mistakes define your present?
Are people whose love is conditional upon you keeping parts of yourself secret worthy of your time and energy?
If you’re focused on your past mistakes, you won’t have anything left to dedicate to creating a different future.
How are you ever going to find the right people for your life if you aren’t showing people your true self?
You don’t have to reveal all your secrets at once.
Start with something small. Admit one small thing to a friend. See what happens. Learn whatever lessons that secret holds. When that secret is released, try again with something bigger. And keep trying, one day, one secret at a time, until one day you wake up, and realize you’re free.