Secrets and Lies
Photo: Jens Mortensen
If you know a secret the rest of the world doesn't, it can drive you nuts. From dealing with little white lies to exposing a sexual harasser, Martha Beck considers how, when—and when not—to let the cat out of the bag.
As a registered nurse, Jamie often finds herself keeping other people's secrets. Most of the time, this doesn't bother her; she empathizes with patients who conceal a scary diagnosis. But recently, Jamie found herself holding a couple of secrets that didn't rest so easily.

Both came from her coworkers. When a nurse named Esther bungled some paperwork, she confessed to Jamie that she was dyslexic. The other secret was much more upsetting: Susan, a hospital secretary, told Jamie that a popular surgeon (I'll call him Dr. McCreepy) had been pursuing her sexually. He'd done outrageous things, like asking Susan to let him examine her breasts. Jamie suggested that she report him to their superiors, but Susan worried that she'd lose her job if the news came out.

This double dose of secrecy upset Jamie so much that she called me, hoping I'd help her. I was glad she did. For those of us who aren't lawyers, priests, or psychiatrists, there are no clear-cut rules to guide us through the gray shadows secrecy may cast. "Don't ask, don't tell" has a nice ring to it, but if someone else's secret has you tied in knots, I'd advise that you both ask and tell. First ask yourself—and possibly an impartial adviser—whether the secret is harmless or destructive, then, if it is damaging, confide the information to whoever is most able to use openness as a positive force.

Jamie told me that the secrets she'd learned at work were "burning" inside her. Secrets are like stars: They're hot, volatile concentrations of energy, and they have two ways of dying. Over time, small stars simply burn out and cool off, becoming what astronomers call white dwarfs. Massive stars collapse in on themselves, growing so dense that they create an immense gravitational vortex from which even light can't escape. They become black holes.

You've probably felt the difference between a "little white lie" and what I think of as a black hole secret, the kind that absorbs and darkens everything around it. In her book Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, Gail Saltz, MD, describes how even a relatively minor lie, such as cheating on a tax form, exerts a powerful gravitational force on the liar, whose attention is focused on not talking about what they've done. Secret keepers may become uncommunicative, withdraw from others, exhibit strange moods, even isolate themselves completely.

The problem is even worse for people who don't have black hole secrets but are holding such confidences for others. Secret keeping is immensely stressful; it has well-documented effects on things like immune function and even longevity. I've found that these three questions can help determine whether a secret is a white dwarf or a black hole.

1. Does knowing this information make my inner life feel brighter or darker?

If you're holding a malignant secret, you may feel as though other aspects of your life are being pulled down into darkness. This is the case for many people who've been abused or the victim of serious trauma. After decades of silence, the secret will still dominate the center of their consciousness, dimming their capacity for openness and intimacy.

2. Am I afraid that keeping this secret may allow someone to be harmed?

If your gut says yes to this question, you must break your promise. Protecting someone by hiding a secret that causes another person to be harmed is never constructive—for anyone.

3. Do I find myself in situations where I often want to tell?

The gravitational pull of secrets works both ways. Opportunities to reveal dark secrets seem to come up repeatedly, in part because these secrets so dominate our psychological landscape. Ignoring opportunities to tell won't feel honorable—it usually feels like lying. It divides you from others and makes you avoid certain subjects or even people. (The only honorable silence involves keeping harmless gossip to yourself.)

When Jamie herself asked questions, she found that Esther's secret was a white dwarf. She now understood why Esther, one of the most intelligent and caring nurses at the hospital, avoided paperwork, and she had seen that Esther was extremely careful not to let her dyslexia affect patients. For example, she always chose tasks like feeding, cleaning, and comforting patients over those that required reading, and when she did do something involving written work (such as administering medication) she double-checked with other nurses to validate the vital facts. As time passed, Jamie found she had less and less desire to expose Esther's secret.

Susan's story about Dr. McCreepy, on the other hand, was a black hole. It nagged at Jamie, especially because it evoked dozens of other incidents when female staffers had seemed upset or afraid around him. Jamie's instincts told her that McCreepy was damaging many careers and lives, but she couldn't ask other nurses about their experiences without risk of revealing Susan's secret. Instead, Jamie found herself becoming tongue-tied, anxious, and distant with her staff. This secret needed telling—but when? And to whom?

Next: The right way to tell a secret

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