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Your Secrets Can Hurt You

From a young age we are aware of secrets either implicitly or explicitly.

From the “don’t tell on me” plea when we break a vase, to the felt sense of "something doesn’t feel right when mom and dad get loud and argue, but we don’t talk about that outside this house."

It’s not the content of the secret, per se, that packs a punch.

Instead, it’s the fear and the shame we might feel if our “secret” gets out that wields the power and reinforces our silence.

Unlike the pair of Converse sneakers we wore when we broke the vase, we don’t outgrow the fear and shame. And while normal emotions like fear and shame are not an entirely a bad thing (they do serve a purpose), it is terribly damaging when fear and shame morph from healthy emotions that keep us safe to dark, powerful forces keeping us from what we want or value (or keep us from protecting ourselves when someone has harmed us).

I’m not a fan of secrets.

Secrets put power in places it shouldn’t be.

Secrets, and the shame-fear that perpetuate them, can create an environment ripe for manipulation.

Keeping secrets creates an imbalance of power. The internal or external threat of “If someone finds out…” leads us to build walls and isolate, rather than to connect and repair.

Secrets eat us up from the inside out.

Secrets can be something we’ve done that we feel bad about; secrets can be something we did that isn’t who we are now or who we want to be. Secrets can be about protecting someone else from the consequences of their actions, and in the case of abuse, secrets are designed to protect an abuser.

But no matter the “kind” of secret, keeping it to ourselves hurts us. Secrets damage our mental and physical health.

A 2019 article in Scientific American alludes to the body-mind, or psychosomatic consequences of secrets. In “Why the Secrets You Keep Are Hurting You: It may not be what you think” author Michael Slepian notes that keeping secrets to ourselves harms our well-being. Research has linked secrecy to mood disorders (including anxiety and depression) as well as physical health challenges (ranging from poorer overall health to rapid progression of chronic illness and disease). Link to Dr. Slepian’s article is here:

What Dr. Slepian realized, however, is key:

It’s not the hiding of a secret that is the most damaging part, but the toll of having to live with and think about it, all on our own.

Why does “all on our own” matter?

It matters because holding something “all on our own” is like tying one hand of our nervous system’s ability to protect us behind our back.

Our nervous system has one job:

to keep us alive,

and preferably both alive and well.

Our understanding of the nervous system, like our understanding of our brain, continues to grow as research expands. The nervous system we learned about years ago in high school biology emphasized the active fight or flight responses we engage in when we are under threat. These active defenses are part of the ventral vagal portion of our nervous system.

Sometimes those active defenses don’t work. A gazelle caught by a lion responds to imminent death, and the gazelle collapses and becomes limp even without a fatal injury. As those National Geographic wildlife specials demonstrate, when fight or flight are not available or when our active fight or flight cannot be successful in keeping us alive and well, our brain and our nervous system drop into a dorsal vagal shutdown--a collapse/submit response. This response includes a rush of feel good chemicals and a disconnection from present moment experience.

It’s the brain’s way of saying “Good effort, but it just didn’t work out; you don’t need to be here for this part.”

Sometimes this collapse and submit is protective as a predator like a lion thrives on a live prey. A dead limp object is not necessarily appealing. lf distracted, the lion may drop the limp gazelle and attend to something else. At this point the gazelle’s brain and nervous system have the opportunity to come back online. A neurogenic trembling occurs as the gazelle moves from the dorsal vagal shutdown of collapse and submit, and moves back to the active defenses of fight or flight. Since gazelles are most equipped for flight, the gazelle bounds off to graze another day.

Newer research, and in particular Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, emphasizes a nervous system with an expanded component Dr. Porges believes is crucial to our overall health and well-being: the social engagement system.

Mammals have this additional circuit, a higher order circuit of the nervous system, related as both an addition and as a bridge to the ventral vagal (active fight/flight) and dorsal vagal (shutdown, collapse/submit) parts of our nervous system. Dr. Porges refers to this system as the social engagement system.

Our capacity to engage socially allows us to connect with others which enhances not only our feelings of safety, but our actual safety itself.

It's the whole “safety in numbers” thing: “I’m safer as part of a group than I am all alone.”

Human beings are pack animals and being in our pack, having safe others to connect to and with through the intricate processes involved in our social engagement system, helps to keep us safe.

Keeping a secret to ourselves cuts us off from the phenomenal resource of social engagement for safety.

Keeping secrets isolates us, and ties the social engagement arm of our nervous system behind our proverbial back.

As stated, Dr. Slepian’s research on keeping secrets identified the key: it’s not the hiding of a secret that is the most damaging part, but the toll of having to live with and think about it, and to do so all alone.

Sharing a secret with a safe other allows us to unload some of the burden.

It makes available opportunity for outlet “I’m so glad you let me know,"

for affirmation “sounds like you handled that well,”

for validation “that sounds hard,”

and for consultation “have you thought about this or that?”

Sharing a secret with a trusted other avails us to the benefits of social support.

Everyone has secrets.

Dr. Sleppian’s research posits that 97 percent of us have at least one secret at any time, and that we average 13 secrets each (Slepian, 2019). Keeping a secret to ourselves leaves us mired in thoughts about the secret with no outlet, no affirmation, no validation, and no consultation.

Keeping a secret to ourselves leaves us to ruminate on our own, to experience feelings of shame, fear, loss, etc. over and over, and each time all alone.

With those thoughts and emotions comes physiological responses as our body acts as if we are under the threat even though we are “only” thinking about or remembering it. As trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk would say, “the body keeps the score.”

Confiding a secret with a safe enough other breaks the power of a secret.

Confiding opens up possibilities for emotional support, and frees us from isolation. Sharing increases our sense of well-being, our sense of being safe, and of feeling we can take care of ourselves: it renews a sense that we can be both alive and well.

Finding a safe other to confide in is the salve for the wound of a secret.

A trusted loved one or friend, a trusted and trustworthy teacher or coach or coworker. A trained and caring therapist.

Opening the door and letting the light of a caring other in exposes the lying power of a secret: the lie that you’re all alone.

You don’t need to be all alone.

Find a safe other to unpack and lighten the heavy load of secrets you may be carrying.

Take care of yourself by freeing up your entire nervous system to do the job it was designed to do:

to keep you not just alive, but to keep you alive and well.

For more information see Dr. Slepian’s article:

Slepian, M. (2019, February 5). Why the Secrets You Keep Are Hurting You. Scientific American. Accessed 2021, April 23.


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