The Right Way to Tell
I was the first person to whom Jamie revealed the secrets she'd been holding for her coworkers. This was a good strategy: I didn't know anyone involved, so I had no conflict of interest, and Jamie knew I'd keep her story confidential (of course, I've changed the names and identifying details here). If you're troubled by a secret, talking about it with an unbiased counselor such as a mental health professional, trusted religious adviser, or attorney is an excellent idea.
For one thing, taking a safe person into your confidence dulls the isolating edge of a secret—and defuses the desire to gossip. Moreover, a person who has some training and experience can give you an unbiased opinion about whether the secret is merely a white dwarf or a black hole. (If you want to share a confidence for the sheer salacious pleasure of it, you're obviously out of line. But if you simply must gossip, consulting a professional is better than blurting it to a friend, especially one who knows the people involved.)
Small secrets, like small stars, cool with time. If you and your counselor believe a secret is harmless, simply wait a while. The information will soon fade to the back of your mind. Virtually all my clients' secrets affect me this way; I feel no desire to talk about them with anyone but the person involved. But I often advise clients who, like Esther, are hiding something they think is dark and awful to confess it, and not just because of the relief they'd feel.
For instance, several months after I spoke with Jamie, Esther got an unsatisfactory job evaluation for being slow with paperwork. At that point, Jamie persuaded Esther to admit to her supervisor that she had dyslexia. She did, and everyone benefited. Esther's evaluation was upgraded, and she was allowed to focus on patient care rather than alphabetizing files. That's the effect the truth has when secrets are essentially innocent—but it's best to encourage people to come clean on their own.
When you realize a secret is a black hole, tell a higher power. I don't just mean God. If the information you have is explosive, or if you're afraid that exposing the confidence might harm you or someone else, it's essential you reveal your information to a person who is powerful enough to contain any possible damage.
In Jamie's case, this meant speaking with her hospital's chief of surgery about Dr. McCreepy. Simply questioning other nurses might have confirmed her suspicions that McCreepy was a prolific perv, but it would certainly have caused gossip. Jamie believed the chief surgeon would treat the McCreepy issue seriously but sensitively, and he proved worthy of that trust. He instigated a sexual harassment training program, which prompted several female staffers to come forward and make Dr. McCreepy's prurient activities public knowledge. Susan was able to tell her story, Jamie no longer felt burdened, and McCreepy became one very humble, cautious, and shut-down sexual harasser.
In cases when there is no trustworthy authority figure, the public is the only "higher power" available. It's through public exposure of dark secrets that human groups, even whole societies, become more just. This applies to small situations and large ones. Think about college students who exposed dangerous hazing in certain fraternities, or whistle-blowing employees at Enron, or the soldiers who brought attention to the plight of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If you decide to reveal this kind of secret, brace yourself: The truth-teller often catches some flak. The fact that activists do this anyway shows how destructive black hole secrets really are—the angry reaction of an exposed wrongdoer, however unpleasant it may be, is preferable to a life dominated by the darkness of someone else's secret.
If someone confides a secret to you, ask yourself those three questions, then wait to see if the burning desire to tell dies out, or pulls you further into its gravitational force. Think of this process as steering by the stars—be they white dwarfs or the bright wisdom of an unbiased adviser. When you feel darkness drawing you in, connect with a person or group powerful enough to anchor you with a different source of "gravity." Let the company of trusted others help you break free from the cloud of secrecy, so that your personal universe remains open, sparkling, and clear.
Martha Beck is the author of Leaving the Saints (Three Rivers).
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