As sick as our secrets
I wonder if you’ve ever felt the release that comes from letting go of the shame that surrounds something you’ve kept from the rest of the world. If you have, you may have felt that unmistakable sensation of free-falling that comes with it – that stomach-your-chest, uncontrolled, scary-as-hell tumble into the unknown.
There is a phrase that is often thrown around in recovery circles that says we are only as sick as our secrets. It’s catchy, right? Pithy, even. And utterly true.
Within our secrets liesour shame. What we withhold from others becomes a hidden truth, when in fact its reality might be questioned were it allowed to reach the light of day.
A friend spent years hiding the fact that she had been adopted at age two from those who knew her. She worried that if others knew that she had no genetic ties to her Princeton-educated parents, but rather spawned from a lost girl addicted to cocaine, they would question her intelligence, her judgment, even her potential for addiction and mental illness. Karen was terrified that all that she had created for herself would be questioned, that even her relationship with her parents would be called into cynical question. She found herself getting anxious when the subject of adoption would arise in conversation, her stomach clenching into rigid knots.
You might guess how the story ends. When Karen was finally able to share a piece of her history, she realized that the feared reality she had created in her mind was just that – in her own mind. Her storied outcomes were never realized, and in fact those to whom she opened herself felt a closer and deeper connection with her. They – I – grew to respect Karen and her journey with a new understanding for the complexity of her experience.
This isn’t to say that Karen shared her secret with wild abandon. And this doesn’t mean that freedom comes from shouting about your parents’ divorce or your affinity for South Park on the rooftops. It means, rather, that allowing yourself to be known – truly known – can be a liberating experience.
When we lay bare our truest selves to select others, we make space for a new kind of connection in our lives. Just as Shannon Cutts so eloquently says that relationships replace eating disorders, I would suggest that honesty replaces brokenness. If we can withstand that fear that grips us and can share with even one other human being our deepest shames, we can begin the process of healing.
This is why I think therapy is so powerful. It is an opportunity to have another person bear witness to things that may have felt too painful or too embarrassing to reveal to others. Through the development of a relationship built upon a deep trust, a person can use the experience of making themselves known in a safe place to develop comfort in making themselves known in other areas of his or her life.
Creating a space for honesty doesn’t have to be done in the context of therapy, of course. It can be done among friends or family, so long as those to whom our secrets are revealed can protect our sense of safety. Releasing shame doesn’t mean telling strangers on the train about our darkest deeds; it means cultivating a few key relationships in which we can be our most vulnerable selves.
So today I encourage you to share a secret with someone you trust – a friend, colleague, relative, therapist, your pet. Someone you respect and can hold your confidence. If you’re not ready for that, I encourage you to write about it, sing about it, or even dance or move about it. Whatever you do, don’t allow it to intoxicate your being. We’re only as sick as our secrets, and as well as our honesty.
How honest do you feel like you can be with others? How honest are you with yourself?