Martha Beck
Photo: Thinkstock
The problem with keeping secrets is that they're alive. We like to think that our secrets can lie quietly in our minds, as inert as dirt, but we're wrong. Secrets aren't just our creations...they're our creatures, beings with wills of their own. They grow. They reproduce, as we form new secrets to support the old ones. They even migrate, colonizing the people closest to us (ask anyone from a secretive family). But the scariest thing about secrets is what they want: They want out. The truth constantly tries to escape into the open, and keeping any of it buried invites isolation, obsession, addiction, even complete psychological destruction. On the other hand, random or ill-advised confessions can be disastrous. The only way to find harmony and balance is to learn when, where, why and to whom you should confess your secrets.

Theodor Reik uses a term called "the compulsion to confess." This urge is part of every normal person (and some abnormal people as well—ever notice how many criminals get caught because they blab about their crimes?). The confession compulsion makes sense when you consider that our secrets are simply parts of our life stories, our selves, that have been forced into hiding. We all have a deep psychological need to be accepted as we really are, but that can never happen as long as there are parts of us that no one sees or knows. We conceal aspects of ourselves that we think invite rejection, but ironically, the very act of secrecy makes us inaccessible to love. We think we're hiding our secrets, but really, our secrets are hiding us.

Perhaps that's why when we lie or hide the truth, our very physiology rebels: Stress indicators like blood pressure, perspiration, blinking rates and breathing all increase, while immune function declines. Our subconscious mind joins the battle against secrecy; we find ourselves telling the truth in dreams, Freudian slips and the occasional drunken blurt. The more secretive we are, the more separate we feel from our own bodies, our own lives.

When I did research on addiction, I found that most of the addicts I interviewed were trying to ease the pain of psychological isolation caused by dark secrets, and that telling their secrets was the single most powerful step that allowed them to connect with others, experience loving acceptance, and ultimately heal.

Next: What should you confess?


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