"I've never told anybody..."
"I don't want anyone to know..."
"Nobody would understand..."
"If anyone found out..."
I can't tell you how often people tell me things like this. They have some burden they've been carrying with them for years and it's finally become too much to bear alone. The nature of the "secret" varies from person to person, as do the reasons they haven't told anyone. The response when they finally share what they've been hiding for so long, however, is almost universal - relief. They feel relieved at having someone with whom to share their burden. They feel relieved at having revealed their deepest-held secret and not being rejected. They feel relieved that the look of horror and disgust they expect to see on my face when I hear what they have to say never appears.
I am no fan of secrets. There are all sorts of negative connotations associated with keeping things hidden. When we do something wrong as a child we try to hide it from our parents. When an angry mother stands before her child and asks in an accusatory tone, "Who broke the lamp?" the child shrugs his shoulders and declares, "I don't know. It wasn't me." Nobody has to teach us to do this - it's instinctual. We know we've done something wrong, we feels ashamed, and we want to hide it.
It doesn't change much as we get older. Criminals frequently try to cover up (hide) their crimes. They plead "not guilty" even when they're guilty as hell. Cheating spouses try to hide their infidelities. Thieves often try to conceal or sell their stolen goods in order to "get rid of the evidence." We hide things because we are ashamed, because we are afraid of the consequences of getting caught, or both.
So when a rape victim tells no one she's been raped, when a sexually abused child grows up and hides his past from his new wife, or when a soldier refuses to talk about the fact that he killed people in battle they do it for these same reasons - shame and fear of consequences. The difference between these and the earlier examples is that these people haven't done anything wrong.
Why fear consequences if you've done nothing wrong? First of all, these people believe they have done something wrong. They blame themselves, even though their blame is misplaced. Secondly, the consequences they fear aren't prison or punishment. Their fears are of judgment and rejection. They fear that others will condemn them the way that they've condemned themselves. They fear that if people know "the truth" about them they will no longer want anything to do with them.
Shame and guilt are heavy loads to carry. It is difficult to be happy when you feel the need to constantly punish yourself for some imagined wrongdoing. Over time, you lose all perspective on the original incident or incidents. All you remember is what you did wrong and what you could have done differently to prevent it (even if there really isn't anything you could have done differently to prevent it).
Carrying secrets like these creates so much suffering. Just the act of telling someone can be very healing. It is, of course, important to find the right person to tell. Some people are not able to be supportive or accepting because of their own emotional issues. Some people are uncomfortable hearing about things over which they have no control. This kind of person will probably not be receptive to hearing another's long-held secrets.
The other day I had a patient who had been depressed for many years. He was engaged to a woman he loved very deeply. He was afraid if he told her about his struggle with depression she would leave him. Finally, he got up the courage to tell her. In recalling the incident he said that he was shocked at his now-wife's reaction. Not only did she not leave him, his sharing brought them closer together. She was flattered that he loved and trusted her enough to share something so personal. She offered her support and acceptance and continues to do so.
I suppose my message is this: don't keep secrets. People hardly ever react the way that you expect them to when you share and the sharing itself often brings people closer together. People rarely judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Maybe it's time you heard from someone else that it's not your fault.