Conventional wisdom in the addiction recovery community is that “we are as sick as our secrets.” Secrets fuel addictive behaviors because of how deeply they’re rooted. They breach trust, overwhelm the people keeping them and damage relationships.
Therapists hear some of clients’ most raw and painful secrets. They might include confessions such as infidelity, stealing from people who trust them, being incest victims and perpetrators as children, having had an abortion, abusing substances or lying. We’re sworn to confidentiality except in two circumstances: if someone is threatening to harm another or as mandated reporters of child or elder abuse.
Why Do People Keep Secrets?
There are many reasons some people prefer to keep certain activities, beliefs and feelings hidden, including:
- They want to avoid rejection. For example, gay or transgender people might fear family or friends wouldn’t accept them should they come out.
- They want to continue engaging in activities such as drinking or abusing drugs without pressure to quit.
- They don’t want to lose their livelihood in situations in which the secret could put their job at risk.
- They fear retribution should someone they harmed find out about the secret.
- They don’t want to put their relationship at risk by revealing that they’d cheated.
- They might believe that only bad people lie. People with this perception sometimes can’t distinguish between truth and lies because of a need to see themselves as a good person.
- They want to protect others who might be harmed should the truth emerge.
- They want to avoid incarceration.
One effective therapeutic tool is what I call video-camera truth. I remind clients that a video camera doesn’t lie, have a hidden agenda or attempt to judge anyone. It simply records what happens.
Then I ask what would be played back if they’d been on camera when they did or said what they were keeping secret. At that point, they’d share whatever was on their minds.
Telling A “PostSecret”
In 2003, Frank Warren began handing out postcards randomly in Washington, DC. One side of the postcard would be blank, and the other side would have his address written on it. He asked people to write a secret that they’d never shared, then mail the card to him anonymously. He shared some of them online, and PostSecret was born.
According to Warren, the site is the largest advertisement-free blog on the Internet. He’s received more than half a million uniquely decorated cards. Some secrets are humorous, others bittersweet. Some are about missing loved ones; others, about lusting after someone unattainable. More than a few are about shame and guilt. Others are about success and professions of love.
What’s so powerful about this project — about which Warren has published six books and spoken all over the world — is that it provides the benefits of confession without requiring the confessor to face another person. PostSecret allows participants to unload their burdens safely. For those holding on to something they’re afraid to reveal even to a therapist, it can provide a connection with others as they learn the power of revealing a deep secret — and possibly of letting it go.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1