Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Keeping Secrets

A bad idea that colors much of life.

Certain habits of mind are so common they are usually taken for granted, yet they can cause emotional distress and can contribute to the development of certain emotional disorders. Take, for example, the inclination some people have to be “very private.” Most people hesitate to talk about certain matters: their sexual life, their finances, perhaps, or their religion. Or politics. There are others who have special secrets they would not like strangers, or even friends, to know about: having served time in jail, having developed a serious illness, or having failed at a business venture. There are reasons for this reticence. Different reasons for different subjects:

Certain matters might lead to being ridiculed if they were discovered: such as having gained weight during a diet, or having invested heavily in a scam, or even, in some circles, being very religious.

Other subjects, if discussed openly, might lead to distrust: having committed a criminal offense, or having used illicit drugs, or having experienced repeated work failures.

Many people hesitate to discuss a failing marriage or an impending loss of a job because doing so elicits pity and condescension. For similar reasons couples may hesitate to speak of being pregnant until the time of a possible miscarriage is over.

Some people feel uncomfortable during confrontations. Consequently, they avoid discussing politics. For the same reason, they may be hesitant to express strongly held opinions about anything. Critical opinions about friends and family are suppressed. Such conversations may lead, they think, to being disliked.

There are other subjects that are off-limits simply because of convention: bowel habits, for instance, or sexual practices.

This inclination not to speak openly about such matters-- despite dwelling on them inwardly-- is understandable, but comes with a price:

1 The individual who is upset by any of these circumstances cannot be comforted because the cause of that distress is not known to others.

2. People tend to exaggerate the awfulness of certain failures or limitations, and not speaking of them prevents those failures from being put into perspective. Often, what seems embarrassing to that person seems trivial to other people. It is reassuring to know what others think.

3. There are certain problems-- for example, the difficulty a couple may have in conceiving a child-- that can more readily be addressed successfully by getting advice from others who have been in that situation.

The disinclination to talk about such matters is not uncommon; but there are some people who refuse to discuss anything personal. They are stubbornly and generally secretive. These are some of the things that my patients have been told by their parents:

  1. “Don’t tell anyone how much money your father makes.”
  2. “Don’t tell anyone that aunt Lucy just got out of the hospital.”
  3. “Don’t tell anyone that your father was married before.”
  4. “Don’t tell anyone you flunked that exam.”
  5. “Don’t tell anyone that your sister is going on a trip.”
  6. “Don’t tell anyone how much it cost to buy the dog.”
  7. “Don’t tell anyone how much you spend on clothes.”
  8. “Don’t tell anyone you dated that person.”
  9. “Don’t tell anyone you broke up.”
  10. “Don’t tell anyone we have wine in the house.”
  11. “Don’t tell anyone the dog is sick.”
  12. “Don’t tell anyone you got mixed up in class.”
  13. “Don’t tell anyone you drove over the bicycle.”
  14. “Don’t tell anyone you had plastic surgery.”
  15. “Don’t tell anyone how much stock your grandfather gave you.”
  16. “Don’t tell anyone you get nervous driving across a bridge.”
  17. “Don’t tell anyone you quit your job.”
  18. “Don’t tell anyone you soiled your dress.”
  19. “Don’t tell anyone you were operated on when you were a kid.”
  20. “Don’t tell anyone you’re color- blind.”
  21. “Don’t tell anyone you’re missing the top of your pinky.”
  22. “Don’t tell anyone you were not offered that job.”
  23. “Don’t tell anyone you got drunk.”
  24. “Don’t tell anyone your score on the S.A.T.” And , more generally, “It’s probably better if you don’t tell anyone how you feel (or, for that matter, how you think.)”

These are lessons well-learned by those children over the years. When I see them as adults, I ask them why—why shouldn’t you tell people the amount of money you make? Why shouldn’t they know that you were married previously? Why, for God’s sake, shouldn’t they know that your aunt Lucy was in the hospital? Sometimes I get a reasonable answer, although not usually one that is accurate. “Why don’t you tell your husband that you were in jail for three years for a political crime before you met him?”

“Because he might leave me.”

At least I can understand that kind of thinking, although having known the man, I felt certain he would not have left her. But most of the time, the only response I get is, “It’s none of their business.”

“I know. But is there any reason why they shouldn’t know that your aunt Lucy was in the hospital?

“It’s just none of their business. Around here, if you tell one person, everyone knows.”

“So what?”

“So, it’s none of their business.”

What exactly is the lesson these children, now adults, have learned?

1. There is something about them that is wrong in some way, some deficiency or fault, something embarrassing that they should not want others to know. There is something about being color-blind, or about flunking an examination, or about making too much or too little money, that other people should not know.

2. They are vulnerable in some way. If certain facts about them were to be known by others, these facts might be used against them. In some unexplained way. Therefore, they have to be concerned about what others think.

3. There are people out there who are malicious, and who are inclined to injure them if given the chance.

These ideas make the treatment of certain emotional disorders, including depression, difficult. The depressed person is likely to feel guilty to start off with and discouraged for no good reason. Dwelling secretly on some obscure failing makes matters worse. Trying to hide the depressed feelings makes them worse. Anything that inclines the depressed person to become more isolated will make the depression worse.

The condition I am most familiar with, agoraphobia, is almost impossible to cure once and for all without the affected individual being willing to talk about his/her condition. To take just a few situations as examples:

  1. Staying in any phobic situation is easier if it is possible to escape. So, telling a teacher that one may have to leave the classroom suddenly, but briefly, makes it easier to stay in the first place-- if the teacher is sympathetic, as is almost always the case. Similarly, going to a party is easier if the host understands that the phobic person may need to leave peremptorily. The phobic person must learn that there is nothing shameful about being phobic. This can be accomplished only by talking to others. Telling about a phobia often leads to the other person telling about his.
  2. One aspect of a panic disorder—which is related to agoraphobia—is the concern that the affected person will lose control of himself/herself and behave in an embarrassing fashion by falling to the ground, or throwing up, or doing some other such outlandish thing. Just talking about these feelings lessens them. Knowing that other phobic patients do not lapse into these behaviors makes the feelings more tolerable.
  3. Phobic persons invest too much energy in trying to hide their fears from their family. This is pointless. I remember persuading a woman to speak openly to her adolescent daughters about her fear of crossing bridges. When they heard her, they laughed, and said that, of course, they always knew that. From that time on, driving across a bridge with her daughters in the car became much easier.

Some phobic patients are afraid to talk to their children about their condition because they do not want them to “catch” their fears. Also, they do not want their children to think less of them. Shame is one element in phobias, and, for that matter, in other emotional disorders. I try to convince such patients that it is all right to have some weaknesses. It is part of the human condition. What they need to communicate to their kids is their determination to get better. There is no advantage to children in thinking that their parents are always untroubled and unafraid. That is too much to live up to. The image a parent should hope to present to his/her children is of someone who may have weaknesses, but who struggles to get better.

Often people say in therapy that they want to come to terms with who they are. But they cannot learn to be comfortable with themselves unless they can present themselves the way they are to others. Otherwise they will wonder what those other people would think of them if they knew the truth about them. The various truths some individuals hide are astonishing. In the space of the last week I have seen two patients, one of whom was embarrassed about not crying at his aunt’s funeral. The other feels embarrassed about mourning her mother still, a full two months after she died. In the habit of being secretive, it is easy to imagine someone being critical for all sorts of absurd reasons. In the end, no one can know for certain how others really feel about him or her without being open and honest. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at

More from Fredric Neuman M.D.
More from Psychology Today