What makes you want to keep a secret? Why are people slow to disclose details about themselves despite wishing to have close relationships? Confidentiality, trust, and secrets require discretion and judgment. Our secrets are tightly wired to our emotions and they pulse with a sensitive, intermittent charge along the boundaries of our familiar internal territory.
Why does exploring our secrets feel threatening? Talking about them triggers the reactive armor that covers our vulnerable places. Secrets guard our most defenseless reaches. We can be hesitant to explore these places because we fear the emotions that exposing our vulnerabilities might trigger. Often, our fear rises out of a lack of understanding the situation and our feelings about it. We’re not always clear why some things feel like they need to remain so secret. Most of us are afraid of what we don’t understand, and discussions in this territory can be uncomfortable. Perhaps this essay is eliciting discomfort right now.
My goal is to help you understand your reasons for secrecy. I’m hoping that by shedding light on these reasons they will become less frightening to face. I’ll begin by outlining common circumstances that require confidentiality. One note of clarification before we begin: The form of confidentiality I will address from here forward is not that bound by law within professions. It is also not that which must be breached when a person is in jeopardy. This piece does not consider gossip, or secrets that could hurt others. The confidentiality we’re discussing takes the form of well-intended interpersonal and relational confidentiality, the grey region between protocol and crisis.
“I’m not as stable as I look,” the young athlete told me, her eyes blazing with an intensity I’d always interpreted as passion. She went on to explain that she constantly swings between severe anxiety and deep depression. Only as she struggled to share this, could I see the clench of her jaw, the flush of her cheeks, and her fight to find the right words: “I have panic attacks. I’ve never told anyone.”
Why had she never shared this before? Most likely because she doesn’t fully understand it. She cannot rationally explain it. She fears the problem might be larger and involve more people knowing her secret than she can handle. She needs help, but she fears that by asking for it the situation could spiral out of her control. So, the problem has remained a secret.
The example of the athlete above also fits within this category. Would her sport, her greatest passion, be jeopardized? What is she risking by revealing her secret? Of this she can’t be sure. This athlete is afraid that revealing her mental health problem could threaten her most reliable joy, the part of her life that she does understand, and around which she has built an identity. So, to protect what is precious to her she feels that she must keep the problem confidential.
Many of us fear that by revealing a personal struggle we will change the way others see us. Sometimes we even suspect that if others knew the “truth” about us they would no longer choose to involve us in their lives. Interestingly, it is a common human misperception to believe that we alone are unusually flawed in some way. This misperception contributes to the choice to remain silent in the face of many struggles. For example, the athlete above might believe that by revealing her mental health condition she will be perceived as weak or unreliable. In order to protect her reputation and relationships her struggle remains secret.
Shame is the feeling that one is unworthy. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” is a phrase I hear often from people feeling shame. When we have a shameful belief about ourselves it is daunting to share it. Shame is strongly related to secrets. However, shame is distinct because it reflects how you feel about yourself more than how other people view you.
“I want to play in the Davis Cup in 2020,” said the tennis player quietly, eyes downcast. Slowly, carefully, head still low, his gaze met mine to receive my reaction.
Sometimes our dreams stand on such shaky ground we feel like we can’t risk sharing them with other people. These dreams are precious; they can be the light in our darkness, and our reason for most actions that we take. Yet, our confidence in our dreams can be fragile. We’re very careful with whom we share them in case another’s doubt damages our belief. Like the first snow on a winter morning, a careless footstep upon a dream can damage it permanently. Thus, confidentiality is often requested when a meaningful dream is shared.
We are terrified of appearing foolish, and few circumstances risk feelings of foolishness more than love. What and whom we love has direct access to our most defenseless vulnerabilities. To confess a love reveals a weakness (love and its confession can also be a strength – but that is for another discussion). By confessing a love, either to the loved one, or by sharing with a confidante, you expose yourself. The benefit of sharing in this way is the chance for another to hope alongside you, and to share in the journey of that love. However, your confidante also shares the awareness that this love might not be returned. By sharing a love, you admit to another that you’re on an unpredictable path that matters to your heart. Normally this awareness will enable the other to witness the outcome of your love. Sometimes, when our loves do not resolve according to our hopes we can feel foolish. When our love is exposed we also introduce the possibility that our foolishness could be exposed (or more accurately, our perceptions of our own foolishness).
A heartbreaking failure is very similar to the feeling of foolishness following unrequited love. Sometimes we fail to reach a goal that meant a great deal to us. Many of the examples given above could result in such an outcome. Perhaps the Davis Cup dream did not come true; or, maybe the athlete struggling with her mental health lost her role on her team. There is grief involved when we fail, for we have suffered a loss. Meaningful failures can shift in our vision for the future and challenge our sense of identity. We can feel destabilized for a time. Often, when we’re in the process of recovering from heart-breaking failure, gentleness and understanding are necessary. Therefore, we will be very careful regarding whom we share our story of failure.
Remember the athletes that I’ve described above? The bright-eyed girl, and the shy dreamer. Can you imagine how beautiful they are? Do you admire her courage as she shares her inner storm? Do you wish to help him believe in his dream? Can you see them? I thought so, or I would never have shared these people with you. I would never have given you the chance to consider them in a way that diminished their beauty.
Vulnerability is inherent within beauty. Sometimes this vulnerability is in the form of fragility (like a spring flower, or the flutter of a dream), and other times it is vulnerability in the form of temporality (like snow on a mountain, or ice on a lake). When we experience beauty it reveals a vulnerable place within ourselves. Trust is inferred when we share something we find beautiful with another.
Sometimes when we share a secret our emotions overtake us. Emotional overwhelm can be characterized by anger, sadness, yelling, tears, and even a freezing anxiety that impedes one’s ability to think or communicate. Many prefer the familiar prison of their problem to the emotional implosion that consumes them when they try to express it. Add to this any of the fears listed above, and it’s easy to understand why we hold tightly to our secrets.
Can you see yourself in any of the examples above? Did your own walls tremble just a little? Was there a recognition you weren’t expecting? I hope so. I hope so because this means that now you know you’re not alone in your experience. I have spoken with numerous people whose situations align with each example above. I can relate to several of those examples myself. If I could, I would look you in the eye and express to you that we are all human, and it is natural to experience fears like these. It can be enormously reassuring to know that other people understand your feelings and can recognize the rationale behind your actions. This recognition is called being “seen,” and occurs when someone else closely understands your experience. Being seen is very similar to empathy and draws on empathy’s kindness. But where empathy is compassionate imagination, being seen is piercing recognition.
I believe that the desire to be seen is universal (although for some this desire is buried beneath layers of anger and fear). I believe our craving to be seen stems from the fact that when someone recognizes your experience it becomes “real.” In other words, when another person sees you, your inner life is no longer a fluctuating weather system of your imagination. So often our emotions, thoughts and sensations turn in our minds in abstract and elusive form. When witnessed by another your experience becomes a real, known existence.
Our desire to be seen can be overwhelmed by our fear of being misunderstood. The fear of being misunderstood can prevent someone from sharing. Author, Stephen King writes beautifully about this fear:
The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.
Many of our secrets lie within such vulnerable places that sharing them risks exposure to raw, sensitive places. When we choose to share but are misunderstood, we can feel an emotional blow to these tender spots. When our inner life is misunderstood, our experience of being human can feel less “real” than ever before, thus increasing our feelings of loneliness.
My purpose in this article was to help you clarify your reasons for secrecy. But what I didn’t tell you (because I was afraid of being misunderstood) was that my real hope is that my words will help you to feel seen. When you’re seen by another, any of the situations described above can be faced more easily. The vast majority of problems are solved by following sequential small steps. It’s likely that someone who sees you also knows some steps to help you find your way through the problem. Take a chance with someone who loves you. Share your secrets. Help them see you. You’ll likely find you’re not alone.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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