Are You Sick or Safe with Your Secrets?

The first time I heard the phrase, “you are as sick as your secrets” I wondered if they were speaking of being mentally/emotionally sick? Or physically sick? It turns out that research shows both are true.

We now have years of research showing that the feeling of “safety” (both physically and emotionally) is one of the best predictors of healthy, fulfilling relationships. It’s no wonder that whether a relationship has secrets is so central to how well a relationship works. 

For the purposes of research, the definition of secrets is something that one desires to keep hidden, either because of:

 • Potential consequences

 • Potential damage to one’s reputation

 • Potential danger because of threats if the secret were to be revealed

I remember early in my years of practice it became clear to me how many secrets people carried. In my experience, at least 50% of the clients who come to me show up with secrets. Whether it be an affair, a duplicitous life, or a financial situation… it is more common than you might think. As a matter of fact, research has shown that the average person carries about 11 secrets.  (Wow!  How do we keep track of all the lies we have to tell??!!) 

Research also indicates that if you are carrying a secret there is a 60% chance that it involves a financial impropriety, a 47% chance that it involves a violation of trust, and a 33% chance that it involves a theft, a secret relationship, or a problem in the workplace.

I find it interesting how many people struggle with secrets, but minimize them by calling them “little white lies.” Of course we all are guilty from time to time of little white lies. But secrets are far more than little white lies. And by the way, the damage to one’s mental, emotional and physical health are the same whether they are little white lies or secrets. We’ll get to those damaging consequences below

First let’s look at the three classifications of lies according to Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D. She is Professor and Program Director of the Masters’ Program in Marriage and Family Therapy at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY; Director of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute for the Family; author of The Secret Life of Families, and Secrets in Families and Family Therapy. In her book, she has outlined three kinds of lies/secrets.

1. Essential Secrets. These are the things that you should keep to yourself. If someone shared a confidence with you, that’s an essential secret. You must not share those. The same is true when a therapist or coach becomes aware of confidential information. 

2. Sweet Secrets.
These are temporary, and are intended to create something good, or a surprise. For example, one of the sweetest sweet secrets in my life was when my mother planned a surprise sweet 16th birthday party. It was on a Friday so I knew I would be at the football game, and the victory dance afterwards. But when I walked into my house afterward I was totally surprised by dozens of my friends yelling “surprise!” and jumping up and down. My mother had planned a night of fun and games, including wrapping some of our teacher’s houses with toilet paper. Although it’s out of fashion now, it sure was fun then. (And yes, my Mother drove us down the block to each teacher’s house and waited while we did our thing!)

3. Toxic secrets. These secrets are often held for years. These secrets damage relationships. They damage personal well-being. They destroy trust, create physical symptoms, and cause increasing anxiety and depression. They include things such as affairs, irresponsible gambling, concealed illnesses, undisclosed plans for divorce, family history, abortions, adoptions, physical violence, psychiatric hospitalizations, incarcerations, and living a double life. “Double life” can be anything from hanging out at a bar flirting, while your partner waits at home, to having one family in the US and another family in South America. I have seen clients at both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

In addition, Imber-Black points out that toxic secrets can also become dangerous when they involve horrific things such as plans to injure someone, or to rape, or to commit incest, or other physical offenses against others. 

Most of us do not deal with those extremes. But again, the consequences don’t necessarily correlate with how extreme nature of the secret is. The sad truth is that the consequences are often the same whether the secret is extreme or not.

In the research, the most-used descriptive word for toxic secrets is “misery.” In my practice, across-the-board I hear this word. It is particularly true when someone has lived a life of devotion to family secrecy through a “code of family loyalty”. For example, someone who grew up in the home of a minister who dropped “F bombs” regularly and beat family members. Carrying that family secret results in a life of misery. Or take the example of someone who is a great community leader, yet he grabs his children by the neck and holds them down while the child is screaming for mercy. Then when the child is asked at school about the bruises, they very politely explain that they had been in a harness on a wild Six Flags ride. They show up in my office telling it as a humorous story, and yet they use the word “miserable” to define their lives. There is a connection! According to research conducted at Notre Dame, here are some of the damaging effects of holding secrets:

• Headaches

• Sore throats

• Stress

• Decreased immune function

• Lower back pain

• Infertility

• Depression

• Anxiety

• Troubled sleep

• Marital, family and relationship problems

• Relationship destruction

• Extreme fatigue 

Interesting studies conducted at the Columbia School of Business found that those who carry secrets actually approach tasks as if they carry 25 to 50 pounds of additional body weight compared to their actual weight. (WOW!) Studies also found that the extreme fatigue of carrying secrets actually prevented subjects from being motivated to complete even small tasks that required any extra exertion whatsoever.

Additional research has shown that carrying secrets actually has a major impact on brain function. Studies conducted at Loyola University in Chicago says that once one carries a secret and learns to expend energy concealing the secret, they begin to spin things when there is no need. The research noted that the waste of psychic, physical, mental and emotional energy is damaging to the well-being of the secret carrier. In addition, it affects the brain by constantly pouring stress hormones into the brain. Long-term effects include slowed thinking processes, decreased memory, and troubled mood.

Of significant note is the research among those who can find a safe confidant who will hold their secret as an “essential secret.” Then will help find ways to work through the secret in a healthy way. Research notes that all of the above-mentioned negative consequences can often be turned around immediately. Wow!

The task here is to find someone who is trustworthy, and who will not be “burdened” by the secret. Someone who has the appropriate skills, coupled with a balance of accountability and grace to help you look for an appropriate resolution. Rarely is a family member an appropriate choice. There are plenty of websites where you can anonymously dump your secrets. But dumping them without some sort of resolution is counterproductive. Anonymous dumping does nothing to alleviate the negative symptoms.

Being genuine and honest requires great courage. Most of the time when we insist on holding secrets, it’s because we don’t want to face the consequences. But instead of the truth, we tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to hurt the other person. I hear that again and again when people are having secret rendezvous’s or affairs. “I’ve learned my lesson and I don’t intend to do it again so I don’t see any reason to tell my fiancé, my boyfriend, or my spouse.”

Again, living without secrets requires great courage. But if you cast off your secrets, you will no longer minimize your duplicitous behavior. You will no longer continue to spin stories. You will no longer damage other people or destroy relationships. It’s a much better way of life. The health benefits speak for themselves. But the ability to place your head on your pillow at night is something worth standing up for!

At one time or another, all of us have been more sick than safe in our secrets.  But I know if you are reading this, you are one of those who desire to live a life of integrity, to influence others positively, and to accomplish all that you were created to be.

If you struggle with secrets, here are my recommendations:

  1. Find someone qualified and equipped to share your secrets with.  Make sure that they can help you develop a healthy means of resolution and moving forward.
  2. Stop minimizing what you were doing that requires you to spin stories or tell half-truths.
  3. Journal about it daily. Make commitments to do better.
  4. Take careful note of how your secrets are likely affecting those around you. It will have an impact on young children, adult children, partners, or anyone in close relationship with you. They may not know (in their heads) but they know (in their hearts). And when you deny, or make excuses, you are impacting their reality.  Look at your choices and behaviors and ask yourself, “If my spouse, my fiancé, my children, my adult children, my friends at work (or any other important relationship) knew I was doing this, how would they feel about me?” If the answer is anywhere from disappointed to devastated, you are engaging in a secret, and must own that and deal with it! 
  5. Find professional guidance. Reveal your secrets in an appropriate way at an appropriate time. Research shows that if you have heart-felt remorse, it will in time increase other’s respect for you. (At first of course, you may need to “cowboy up” and weather their rightful hurt and anger!)

My hope is that you will muster up the courage, because you are stronger than you think, and more courageous than you believe! Your health will be restored, your well-being will be lighter, and your life will become more fulfilled!