Most of us bend the truth – or omit it – on occasion for different reasons. And all of us have either lived with a secret – or been told to keep one. Secrets and lies affect not only our personal lives, but saturate our society as a whole. Each day we are bombarded by media hell bent on sensationalism and exposés. The news, magazines and journals, the internet and commercial television thrive on our voyeuristic interest to peek into the secret lives of celebrities, the unveiling of our politicians’ faux pas - or outright lies to protect their positions, corporations and national cover-ups. (CNN’s ratings received a huge boost since tracking the vanishing act of Malaysian Airlines Flt 370). Of course, they make the big money mostly from saturating us with a plethora of advertisements from companies that claim their products are the answer to all of our ills – when some of them instead contribute to them.
Given the above, its small wonder we might tend to fudge on our true income to IRS, or keep secret that we are gay or have been sexually abused. But why are some of us more prone than others to sharing or telling secrets and lies? One answer is we feel something or someone needs protecting, be it ourselves, our loved ones, our jobs or our relationships.
An interesting fact is that those who live secret lives develop expert lying skills. How else can one work for top secret organizations or have two or more families at once or have affairs without the other(s) finding out? In the case of the former, society – and media - glorifies people like James Bond, but we know little about the secret lives of adulterers and bigamists. They do their secret lives on the sly, until slipped up by being caught in the lie by their mate.
The genesis of secrets and lying in our lives
At a young age we are exposed to our first secrets and lies. We learn in the playground “secret stuff” and the art of lying: “Don’t tell anybody, but Sally was adopted”, “Don’t tell the teacher that I stole these crayons from school.” Unfortunately, a secret may be a mistruth that we unwittingly pass on and in the case of the latter, if we don’t lie for our buddy, they won’t be our friend anymore. Consider also the double-aged sword of swearing a friend to a juicy secret. First, it typically is made clear that the recipient is given a special status of being the only one in the world with this gift of privileged knowledge. But then, it becomes a social burden of keeping it hidden when telling it to another friend will gain both status and enhance that second friendship.
We also learn about secrets and lies in the home through the observation of “white lies” and being told not to tell anyone about something or an experience, be it positive - Mom’s Christmas present - or negative - physical or sexual abuse in the family. To be clear, white lies are those told so as not to hurt someone else’s feelings. For instance, your friend’s new hair cut/outfit/you-name-it looks terrible but when they ask if it looks good or if you like it, you automatically say “Yes.” Any other type of lie is generally self-serving - and sporadic. They are likely told out of fear - fear of being found out. In time perspective terms, many self-serving lies fall under the category of future fatalism; “If I don’t, a) cover this up, I will be in big trouble in tonight, tomorrow or down the road”; or b) “If I don’t pretend to be much more than what I know I am on this dating site, no one will want me.”
Another type of lying – pathological – is addressed later in this column.
Getting back to children – they can be brutally honest in their truth telling and parents often correct their honesty by making them apologize or insisting they tell a white lie. This happened recently when a client introduced me to his 5-year old son, who took one look at me and said, “You are old!” His embarrassed father sternly told his son not to say such things, and he should apologize. The situation was diffused – and my client relieved - when I laughed, agreed with his son, and told him I am old enough to be his grandmother. In the mind of the little boy, my looks and age were then placed in a perspective he could understand.
White lies can morph into self-serving lies
As time goes by, our parents might inadvertently include us in their deception. We try it out and soon, white lies escalate into full blown lying.
Here are some examples of how children learn to lie by overhearing their parent tell a lie:
Parent – calls in sick to work because they have to gather info for complicated taxes.
Child – learns to fake illness.
Parent – tells a friend that they can’t hang out because they have to attend their child’s performance when the child doesn’t have one.
Child – learns it is okay to say anything to get the result they want.
Parent – child finds out that parent is having an affair; parent tells child not to say anything to other parent so as not to hurt their feelings.
Child – learns unfaithfulness is okay as long as the other person doesn’t find out.
But what about secret agents and those dudes with secret multiple families?
In Secrets of Special Agents, an article by Psychology Today’s editor-in-chief, Kaja Perina (http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201012/secrets-special-agents), she reports, “…children raised in adverse circumstances are better at detecting deception than are those in stable environments…” The article goes on to detail the challenging childhoods of three real-life special agents. Although less dramatic, their lives are reminiscent of the 2006 remake of “Casino Royale” in which it is revealed that James Bond was an orphan and had a rough time growing up. We gather that those with exceptional “deception detecting” abilities (they can sniff out a lie and also tell one) may therefore seek out organizations to work in that require these skills.
As for people with secret multiple families, these folks are pathological liars and likely suffer from a personality disorder. Like self-serving liars on steroids, pathological liars consistently lie to get whatever it is they want or feel they need. In the case of secret multiple families, it may be more love, greater fulfillment, or if they feel their first family was deficient in some way but they don’t want to separate or divorce, their second (or third) family is a do-over. They may also be narcissistic and incapable of realizing how their actions (days, weeks or months away, less financial stability) affect their families. Some are also Machiavellian in enjoying their power of deceiving everyone.
Paying the price
It takes the memory of a genius to live a secret life or frequent liar. Once a lie has been told, one has to remember all the details as well as the lie’s domino effect. The price paid is extreme stress which affects physical, emotional and mental health, not to mention the health of relationship(s). Elevated blood pressure, cardiac problems, depression, anxiety, emotional upheaval, mood swings and drug and alcohol addiction are just a few of the tokens paid for living a secret life. Of course, we must also consider the self-lies we live that we are not aware of because they are buried in our unconscious minds. But as Freud observed, they may burst out in many disguised ways, as slips of the tongue, memory lapses or neurotic symptoms. It is the task of a psychoanalyst to uncover their sources and enable the client to come to grips with that past negative reality in their present lives.
What to do?
If you are carrying the burden of a secret too heavy to bear any longer, living a secret life and want out, or find you lie more than you’d like to, start by being honest with yourself. Think about the root cause of your actions – or inactions. Very likely you’ll find that somewhere in the past, a negative experience is the cause for your present situation. Check out the resources below and consider the possibility of speaking with a mental health professional. And visit our website, "http://www.timecure.com/" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com, to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time. You’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.
Out of the Fog – Information and support for those with a family member or a loved one who suffers from a personality disorder; http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/LiesLiarsAndLying.html
National Institute of Mental Health; http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/index.shtml
Check out our other Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!
Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.
See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.