Who to turn to, when to tell—and when to zip it up. Martha Beck on letting some of it hang out.
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?
There are many things that don't need revealing; things that are simply private, rather than secret. You only need to confess secrets that diminish your ability to live an authentic life. You may have inherited these dark secrets from a dysfunctional family, broken a moral code, or fallen victim to something—rape, financial fraud, AIDS—that triggered shame and concealment. If any of the following statements describe you, confession is a must
I am keeping a secret to protect someone—possibly myself—from the natural consequences of ongoing destructive behavior (alcoholism, violence or sexual abuse, for example).
My secret makes me feel constantly ashamed.
I conceal the truth because telling it might make someone angry.
I would not want to associate with anyone who has the same secret I do.
I'm sure I'll be rejected by anyone who learns this secret.
My secret is so awful, I can't stand to think about it, let alone talk about it.
This secret makes me pull away from people I want to trust and love.
I'd rather end a relationship than tell another person my secret.
I'm doing something that violates my own moral code.
Conveniently enough, the first person to whom you absolutely must confess is you. Why not try it right now? Admit to yourself the secret things you have done or that have been done to you. Reject euphemisms and use the real words: adultery, stealing, bulimia, child abuse, whatever. Traditional cultures teach that calling something by its real name is the only way to gain power over it. Naming your dark secret in your own mind is the first step in reclaiming the power it has leeched from your life.
The next step is one of the hardest but most liberating things you'll ever do. You must tell your whole truth to at least one other human being. You might want to start by confiding in a therapist, a religious advisor or a 12-step group. You're more likely to get a calm reaction from these people than from folks who are directly influenced by your actions. Finding just one person who doesn't run away screaming when you tell your secret will move you a long way toward feeling whole, brave and strong. That's good, because the next step is even scarier.
You must confess your dark secrets to anyone with whom you wish to have an intimate emotional bond. I know dozens of people whose romantic relationships have failed because the parties involved kept secrets from each other. "My feelings for my wife have faded over time," said a friend who had just ended an affair. "I've confessed to our priest, and I feel good about myself, but that sense of being really connected to my wife hasn't come back." News flash: You can never feel really connected to anyone from whom you are keeping important information. Secrets kill intimacy.
Next, an extra-credit question: Is it still possible for you to be blackmailed? In other words, after you've admitted the truth to yourself and your loved ones, is there any person or group you're still terrified might learn your secret? If so, you're not finished confessing. To be really free, you must be comfortable with the idea of any person or group knowing the whole truth about your life. That doesn't mean you have to confess everything to everyone, but you must be able to handle the thought of their knowing your secret. Otherwise you'll be haunted by doubt, controlled by your attempts to control what others know.
Next: When is the right time to confess?
Pay attention if you ever find yourself thinking, "I could tell my secret right now...I really could...maybe I will..." You may feel ambivalent, your heart fluttering like a nervous moth as the yearning to create a truthful connection battles your fear of exposure. At such times, trust yearning over fear. Your intuition, which is far wiser than any set of rules I could devise, is telling you to take the risk. If you resist it, you'll experience the psychological equivalent of long-term nausea, becoming more and more miserable until the pain of hiding the truth finally becomes worse than the pain of barfing it up. You're approaching this point when:
You sense a deep chasm between you and people you love.
Your feelings for significant others have flattened as you disengaged to avoid telling the truth.
You feel your secret as a literal weight, dragging you downward.
You're filled with anger and/or hopelessness when you think about your secret.
The secret haunts you, intruding on your thoughts and poisoning pleasure.
You argue about almost anything, creating conflicts that are never resolved (because you aren't discussing the real issue).
You compulsively talk around the subject that's bothering you, without confessing (an alcoholic may talk endlessly about drinking, all the time denying that he or she has a drinking problem).
You find yourself confessing to random people (bartenders, new acquaintances, colleagues) while lying to your loved ones.
If you're experiencing these symptoms, you may find yourself confessing inappropriate things to inappropriate people at inappropriate times. We've all met members of the Too Much Information Club, who chat tipsily at cocktail parties about their marital woes, their potty-training memories or their habit of excessive masturbation.
Fighting to keep secrets that wish to be told often leads to such badly timed revelations, which are unfulfilling at best, hideously embarrassing at worst. Telling when your heart tells you to is the way to avoid this dysfunctional pattern.
Confession is risky. Some people really may reject you if you claim your whole identity and tell your whole story. But explicitly losing these people is no more horrible than keeping them—sort of—at the cost of your integrity. Besides, there are probably far fewer of them than you think. Contrary to popular belief, love is not blind. It has very sharp eyesight indeed, and most of the people who love you aren't fooled by whatever masks you wear. They sense when you hide things from them, and become frustrated by their inability to connect. By giving the people you care about the chance to love you as you are, everyone will benefit.
Perhaps our secrets struggle to be revealed because they know that confession can perform a miracle: It can make dark secrets bright. It can turn our worst mistakes or tragedies into beacons of hope for others. Think about it: When you're most trapped by secrecy, you don't want the advice of people who have never been touched by evil, despair or confusion. You want someone who has been where you are and made it back alive. That's why a confession you make merely to illuminate the murky corners of your little life may end up lighting the path to freedom for a thousand other hearts.
From the June 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.