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What Do You Hide?

Hiding parts of ourselves from others can take a toll.

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We all have something, something that we don’t ever talk about, don’t express, don’t show, don’t reveal. It may be some painful events from our past. It may be something we are struggling with in the present — an addiction, a mental health disorder, a question of gender identity. It may be certain emotions — anger, sadness. It may be our opinions, our needs and wants. It may be ourselves where what we show is only some persona that we constantly use to hide who we are.

Why do we hold back and hide these aspects of ourselves? Here are some of the common culprits:

We feel shame

The porn addiction, the binging and purging, our OCD. We’re ashamed . . . because it is so out of our control, we know in our rational brain that it doesn’t make sense. We feel embarrassment at the thought that someone would know this about us.

We are afraid of others' reactions

Obviously, this is part of shame, but this is also part of expressing our anger or stating our needs or our opinions. We fear that the other person will become angry, or critical, or blame us, or worst of all, dismiss what we are saying.

We need to make others happy and like us

This takes the fear of others’ reactions to a larger level, where in our everyday life our default method of survival, of managing our anxiety in a fearful world is to be nice, to accommodate, to put others and their needs ahead of our own. This is learned in childhood, it is our way of coping in the world. We hold back ourselves . . . because we hold back ourselves.

We fear being seen for the phony we feel we are

We put on a persona of competence, but basically, we’re faking it, holding on by our fingernails, thinking it is only a matter of time till someone sees through us, sees us for the incompetent or despicable person we are. But our fear of being busted only intensifies our drive to keep up the veneer.

We don’t deserve to get what we need

We don’t say what we want and need not because we fear that our request will be denied, but because we feel like we don’t even deserve to get anything more than we have right now, and/or we don’t even deserve what we have already. Our self-criticism and self-disgust are at their max and constant, often a product of childhood abuse.

It’s too painful to express what we are hiding

We don’t talk about that traumatic childhood event, because we’ve compartmentalized it. Even moving towards it creates unbearable anxiety. We struggle to even find words to describe the tumble of dark thoughts and emotions that rise up.

We hold back, because the world is incredibly unsafe, and no one can be trusted

There’s me . . . and there’s me. I take care of me, and others can’t be trusted; they are objects of manipulation that I use to get through life. I never show my true self. I act and say what I need to get others to leave me alone or give me what I want.

Hiding Takes a Toll

If you’ve ever made up an elaborate white lie, you probably know how hard it can be to manage it: You worry that you won’t keep the story straight, that someone will see cracks in it; you feel anxious and on-edge.

The same thing happens with these bigger issues, but even more so. Just like it takes tremendous structural strength for a dam to hold back the river, it takes tremendous emotional and psychological energy to hold back what we hide, and the anxiety we feel can be difficult to contain. Like spilled water on a countertop, the anxiety of disclosure, of discovery, spreads. Not only do we avoid, for example, talking about some traumatic event in our childhood, we avoid talking about our childhood at all; not only do we hold back our anger, we hold back other emotions as well; not only do we avoid talking about our addiction issues, we instead keep all our conversations superficial or relegated to a few safe topics.

What often comes with this maneuvering is a loss of connection and intimacy. If others close to us only know our persona, our “safe” self, and we hide our vulnerabilities, we actually are unknown; we do become alone in the world.

How to Open Up

If you are ready to stop hiding and let others in, here are some suggestions to help you get started:

Do a writing exercise

This is a two-part exercise. The first part is to write down your thoughts and feelings about what you're hiding. You are not going to show this to anyone; the goal is to just begin to link emotions to words, and put words on paper. The words will help you mentally process your emotions; the writing will not only help you get these thoughts and emotions out, but also help you emotionally step back from them. Go slow, take your time. If you start to get overwhelmed, stop, take a break. If you are still overwhelmed, consider seeing a therapist to support you through this.

Part two is to now imagine how you would ideally respond to what you wrote if it was written by your own young child. Write down your compassionate, accepting thoughts and advice that you would want to say to quell the child’s fears and shame and struggle.

The purpose here is to give yourself the support and comfort that you never did get, hear what you probably never heard, have some closure.

Take baby steps to expand your comfort zone

In order to stop the rippling effect of anxiety, in order to make the world and others become safer, you want to take baby steps to increase your comfort zone. This can be as simple as doing even small things that feel a bit uncomfortable. You can start with tasks — like doing something out of the routine that you normally wouldn’t do — and then expand the same small challenges to others — for example, speaking up in a staff meeting when your default is to always remain silent.

The content of what you do or say is not as important as taking the small risk and finding out that nothing bad happens. This is about building your self-confidence, about loosening the ground for taking bigger risks with your secrets.

Take baby steps towards sharing your secret with people you trust most

Here you broach the subject of your porn addiction or your gender identity struggle with a therapist or your sister, who you know will be compassionate. You want time to put your feelings into words, you want help to sort out your emotions, you want to have a success experience that will give you the traction you need to move forward.

Send a letter or email to those most difficult to approach

Did you say a letter? What do you think this is, 1853? I know, you probably don’t even know where to find an envelope. But consider it. Or if not, compose an email. For those who are most difficult to approach and whose reactions you most fear — talking to your parents, for example, about something in your childhood, or revealing something that feels shameful to your partner — writing out your thoughts and feelings gives you the space and time to craft what you want to say, rather than feeling the pressure of having to think on your feet or freezing up by seeing their facial expressions. In addition to sharing your secret, say why you feel it is important to talk about this now, why you didn’t talk about this before, what you hope will come out of this disclosure. Your letter or email gives them time to process what you’ve said, rather than reacting in the moment.

But no, you’re not done. You send it, and then you follow up — you call your parents, you circle back and talk to your partner. This is where the harder work begins of moving towards what you most wanted to gain — it may be simply ending the dance of avoidance; it may be opening a door to getting more of what you need or increasing intimacy in your relationship.

Revealing what you’ve been hiding is not an end in itself, but a means to something else: to feeling less afraid in the world, to feeling less alone, more connected, a means to beginning to control those parts of you that seem out of control.

A way of expanding your life and having the life that you ultimately envision.