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Secrets: Saviors or Demons?

Some secrets are meant to be kept to be released at the right time.

Everybody has at least one secret, and it can either be healthy or unhealthy. Secrets can be big or small, and they can draw people closer or divide them.

Knowing when to keep a secret and when to share it is a challenging exercise in and of itself. Also, determining what is a secret and what is not is another challenge. Is it necessary for people to tell you not to say anything, or is it that having a certain amount of emotional intelligence is needed to know when to keep and when to reveal a secret. Sometimes we may share a secret because we’d rather tell it than have someone else do so. Timing is important in the sharing of secrets.

When doing my doctorate research on the healing and transformative powers of memoir writing, I learned that one of the many reasons people choose to write memoirs is that it’s a way to release a family secret that may have been held on to for many years. Sometimes people have to wait until significant others have passed away before they reveal their family secret, but in the meantime, the act of writing can help dismantle the difficulty of keeping the secret. Or, others might document secrets in their journals for safekeeping as a way to release the tension of keeping them.

Sometimes keeping family secrets for a long time may lead to certain self-destructive behaviors, such as addiction, because the tension of keeping them may be difficult to bear.

In his article, “The Power of Secrets,” Evan Imber-Black shares how family secrets can possibly shape and shape us.

  • They can divide family members, permanently estranging them.
  • They can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting the formation of intimate relationships.
  • They can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing proper growth.
  • They can lead to painful miscommunication within a family. causing unnecessary guile and doubt.

Sometimes the stress of keeping certain secrets can be unhealthy, and it might be a good idea to share them with a friend, loved one, therapist, or personal journal. The best writers know that to make their writing compelling, they must divulge secrets. It’s not always easy sharing difficult ones because it can be taxing psychologically and emotionally. As novelist William Faulkner said, “A book is a writer’s secret life.” There is great power to be gained from sharing your secrets, as this can be a cathartic and healing act.

Perhaps the person you share your secrets with will empathize, and say, “I know how you feel; I went through something similar.” This might lead to continued dialogue between the two of you and a strengthening of your friendship. You just never know when you open that door who or what will be waiting to receive on the other side.

Sufi poet Jelalluddin Rumi coined what he called the “Open Secret,” where he claims that each one of us tries to hide some sort of secret that is not necessarily a big one, but which is a secret nevertheless. It might be as superficial as someone in a store asking you how you are, and you respond by saying, “Fine,” even though your mother just passed away or your just lost your job. Timing is very important in the release of secrets. That just would not have been the right time to share this personal information. Rumi is saying is that this type of secret is not a secret in the way we normally think of the word, and that when we decide to release our secret and become transparent and share with others, many doors will open for us.

A Robert Frost quote that hangs on my office wall says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” If the writing does not move you, then it is not compelling. As Ralph Keyes says in his book The Courage to Write, writers must subject themselves to a full range of feelings. He said, “They must have the courage to go where their minds wander, and be stalwart in facing down inner censors. Writers must also learn to be forgiving of themselves if everything they discover along the way isn’t to their liking.”

Here’s a writing prompt to consider:

Write about the secret(s) you carry. Write a letter to someone you want to reveal the secret to, beginning with, “Before I leave, I want to tell you . . .”


Black-Imber, E. (1998). “The Power of Secrets.” Psychology Today Blog. July 1, 1998.

Reyes, R. (1995). The Courage to Write. New York, NY: Holt.

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