The subject of secrets came up in my office a few times this week. Seeing again and again how damaging secrets can be to an individual and hers or his loved ones, I’m feeling compelled to write about it. One of the most common sayings in the recovery community is “you are only as sick as your secrets.” The complementary phrase (which has been taken out of its original context and is so commonly used it has turned into a cliche) is “truth will set you free.” I have witnessed the truth of both of these statements in my own life, as well as in the lives of many of my clients.
WHOSE SECRET IS IT ANYWAY?
- Unfortunately, I find that survivors of sexual and physical abuse often carry the weight of secrets on their shoulders. Survivors should never be blamed for the shameful acts of their perpetrators.
- People in addiction-recovery often carry the guilt and shame about things they have done under the influence of substances that made them act out of character. Many people in this group are also survivors of neglect and abuse, who (again) carry the weight of someone else’s transgressions.
- Other groups that carry the avoidable burden of secrets are people dealing with sexual and gender identity questions, LGBTQ folks who live in unaccepting and unsafe environments, and people dealing with stigmas related to mental health and disabilities. It is unfortunate, as the people in these groups are paying the price for someone else’s ignorance and bigotry.
- Children who are being bullied are very vulnerable to secrecy. Just like with other forms of abuse – shaming, dehumanizing, and threats of further hurt are integral parts of bullying. All these can make the bullied child feel afraid and embarrassed to tell, which in turn, continues the dangerous situation and affects the child mental, emotional, academic, and physical states.
- Combat soldiers are part of another group that falls victim to secrecy. They feel bound by their sense of loyalty to their group and mission. Sometimes, they simply avoid talking about the things they have experienced as a way to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with remembering. As in most other cases, these uncomfortable feelings are actually perpetuated by keeping the secret.
- Many others carry family secrets about things that were the source of embarrassment, guilt, or shame for previous generations, but don’t really have anything to do with the present.
The following list was taken and adjusted from a book by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. I changed some of the language, because the truth of these statements applies not only to women, and not only to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but to all people who carry the unnecessary burden of secrets. Why Telling is Transformative: You move through the shame and secrecy that keeps you isolated
- You move through denial and acknowledge the truth of what had happened
- You make it possible to get understanding, compassion, and help
- You get a chance to see your experience and yourself through the compassionate eyes of a supporter
- You make a space in relationships for the kind of intimacy that comes from honesty
- You establish yourself as a person in the present who is dealing with something in the past (instead of your past taking over your present)
- You join a courageous group of people who are no longer willing to suffer in silence
- You eventually move to feeling proud and strong
Specifically for survivors of sexual abuse:
- You help to end sexual abuse by breaking the silence in which it thrives
- You become a model for other survivors
The road to telling could be scary and painful. But, when choosing to tell in a supportive, non-judgmental environment, most people experience a tremendous relief. In my work with many secret- keepers, telling has proved to be an enormous step toward healing.
It may be particularly scary to reveal your secrets to the closest people in your life. Most of us feel unsafe talking with others about personal things we do not fully accept about ourselves or our histories. The risk of being rejected and misunderstood may not feel as a risk worth taking. A good place to start is with a trained mental health professional, who is objective, supportive, and bound by the law to protect your confidentiality. * A support group of people who have shared similar experiences could be extremely beneficial. Anonline group could also be a good place to start, as you could maintain your anonymity while being affirmed and validated by others who know where you are coming from.
* Confidentiality: All mental health professionals in the USA are bound by privacy laws and regulations. However, mental health professionals are also mandated reporters, which means that they are obligated to hotline any childhood neglect or abuse that is occurring in the present, as well as present neglect or abuse of an elderly or a person with a disability.
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