The Power of Secrets

Some divide us, but not all secrets are destructive—some even build bonds.

The Danger of Keeping Secrets

When should we keep a secret? What are the risks?

Photo: LE▲H.nicor
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"You're only as sick as your secrets" goes a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous. And they should know: one of the hallmarks of alcoholism—of any addiction, really—is deception. Addicts deceive others to cover up their addiction and themselves to deny they have one. Which may explain why most of the sober alcoholics I know are so rigorously honest. Any return to the habit of deception, they believe, risks reopening the door to drinking.

They may very well be right. Though not all truths need to be shared with everyone—or even anyone—to maintain a healthy and happy life, concealing some truths is like swallowing slow-acting poison: one's insides gradually rot. How does one tell the difference between the kind of secret one should keep and the kind one shouldn't? Perhaps a good guide would be this: the kind of secrets that shouldn't be kept are those that allow us to behave in a way that causes harm to others or to ourselves. All-to-common examples of this include addiction (to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and so on) as well as infidelities (to spouses, business partners, friends, and so on). Keeping these kind of secrets allows the detrimental behavior to continue. Confess such secrets to the right people and it becomes much harder for the harm such secrets enable to continue.

But though revealing that we have a problem with alcohol or drug addiction often represents a necessary step toward recovery, the virtue of confessing infidelities—especially if they were one-time occurrences only—is far less clear. If a man cheats on his wife once, regrets it, and resolves never to do it again, will he do more good than harm in confessing or more harm than good?

Though one could imagine several results from such a confession—from the scenario in which his wife forgives him and the relationship ultimately continues intact after a period of healing, to the scenario in which the marriage continues but in a shattered form, to the scenario in which the relationship ends horribly and painfully—there are reasons to think that not confessing might in some instances be worse. Such situations are always nuanced and need to be considered on a case-by-base basis, but if you do decide to confess, it will likely:

  1. Reduce your guilt. Though people who maintain such secrets do so ostensibly to prevent the last two scenarios I listed above, keeping such secrets has its costs. Though confessing by no means guarantees a release from guilt, it's likely the only way to make such a release possible. Certainly, confessing with even a genuinely contrite heart may not move the person you've hurt to forgive you, but it will open up an even more important possibility: that you will be able to forgive yourself. Was Raskolnikov better off for eventually confessing he murdered the old woman in Crime and Punishment even though doing so landed him in prison? A debatable point, but Dostoyevsky seemed to think so.
  2. Prevent the person or persons who would be hurt by learning the secret from finding out about it from someone else. Though revealing the secret yourself will cause pain, having them learn it from someone else will undoubtedly cause even more. You very well may risk the end of the relationship, but depending on how likely you judge it that your secret might be revealed from other sources, you need to decide which path is riskier.
  3. Reduce the number of your offenses. It's one thing to do something hurtful to someone. It's another to do so and keep it from them. While the former is often hard to forgive, the latter is even harder.

Deciding not to reveal a hurtful secret is usually easy, while deciding to reveal it is hard. But if it's a secret you're withholding from someone with whom you're intimate—a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a best friend—even if it need never come up, it represents a barrier, a schism, between you and that person. Maybe you can tolerate that schism by simply not thinking about it. But maybe you can't. Which is why, I suppose, a good rule of thumb by which to live your life is to try not to have any secrets to keep at all—that is, to not do anything you can't tell the people who matter to you most.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self will be published on November 6. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!