One of the tasks of Mental Health Month is to break the idea that there is shame in asking for help or working with professionals to heal what feels broken or dysfunctional.
While I personally don’t think mental health therapy is the right setting for every single human being on Earth, I do think it can be a helpful space to experiment with healing.
Surviving on Earth is a complex job and the way we do it can often cause us to crack or swallow our truth to make it through the day. Some of us even have to lie or keep secrets in order to feel safe.
What is a secret?
Secrets, for our purposes, are what we wrap up in shame and fear. Secrets are what we don’t tell other people for fear of being hurt or thwarted in some way.
Secrets Are Often No Fun
(Unless There Are Corporations Paying Millions of Dollars to Make Them Seem Fun)
In my therapy intakes (the first session where I ask a lot of questions), sometimes there’s this moment where I can tell someone has told me something they’ve never said to anyone before. People tell me it’s comforting to tell their secrets to a therapist because they know:
a) I won’t say anything (unless I have a duty to warn, which we’ll get into more at another time); or
b) because they know I have no skin in the game where their secrets are concerned.
What I’ve noticed most often, with a few exceptions, is that people usually rush through telling me their secrets and heave a big sigh of relief or have a big cry right after.
People have all kinds of secrets that they share in therapy. Some people share deep trauma that they’ve had to hide in order to survive, others have secrets they’ve held onto because they’re afraid to be judged, and some people have secrets that have been passed on to them and entrusted to them that wreak havoc on their mental health.
In this post, I’m going to be honoring the engaging and helpful work of Terry Hunt E.D.D., Karen Paine-Gernee, and Larry Rothstein that they share in an amazing book, called Secrets to Tell, Secrets to Keep.
The book does an excellent job of exploring an intentional cycle that people can go through to begin breaking down the shame and fear they’re carrying from having secrets. It also explains different kinds of secrets people may have and thoughtfully challenges their reasons for having them.
I often recommend this book to individuals who have survived something ugly because they often have trouble deciding who to tell and how much to tell. Chapter 2 of Secrets to Tell, Secrets to Keep explains how many of us were raised in a society that’s voyeuristic, or a society that likes to make a spectacle of tragedy and pain without really teaching us to reach out for healing. It talks about how we have talk shows, news coverage, TV shows, and times in history that get our emotions running as we watch people talk about how they’ve been hurt.
How many people are nonstop watching shows like Love is Blind, Ozark, Tiger King, or Westworld during shelter-in-place? These shows are full of high drama and often look at what happens when people keep secrets and conceal the truth – and these shows often DO NOT look at ways to heal or do what’s healthy.
The book talks about how this kind of voyeurism is dangerous when it doesn’t show all sides of the truth and that it can become addictive! The people who produce TV and internet media may not care about healing and mental health at all. So we live in a world that makes a big deal of people’s problems, but not how people work hard to become healthy or resolve their problems.
My clients who carry secrets are always so afraid of what will happen when they speak up or speak out.
They’re afraid of how they’ll be judged, what they might lose, how much they will suffer, who else they’ll hurt– And all of that’s valid.
But working together in therapy, we get as long as we want to decide how to make something not a secret anymore, and instead make it private.
There is a huge difference between what’s private and what’s secret.
In Secrets to Tell, Secrets to Keep, the authors explain how important it is to have a sacred space to break down the unhealthy powers of a secret:
“Sacred space is an arena for the sharing of something precious. It is a place of silence and respect, where no judgment is rendered. In a sacred place, the receiver of the confidence listens with all senses alert, hearing the meaning behind and between the words… Alone in the wilderness, at a therapist’s office, in self-help groups, or in the privacy of their own homes, people create a sacred space for themselves… Emotional healing does not occur every time a secret is shared. It takes practice and careful attention to the task of healing” (Hunt, 4).
A sacred space offers the option for someone to break out of the isolation of a secret. A sacred space can be a place where someone examines the ways that they can find freedom from shame and fear in order to reclaim truth and information that belongs to their lives and their process of integration.
The Stages of Emotional Healing
The way the authors think people can break through the pain and dysfunction around carrying secrets is through this process:
- Stage 1 – In The Soup: Denial is the most important thing and people exist thinking that “it wasn’t so bad.”
- Stage 2 – Shame Keeps You Silent: “People are aware of their secrets but feel so much shame that they don’t tell anyone about them,” (Hunt, 5)
- Stage 3 – Telling the Secret: Recovery Begins: People begin to tell secrets and move through grief, anger and emotional overflow.
- Stage 4 – The Telling Works: Instead of using energy to deny what happened and avoid feelings about what happened, people tell their secrets and some transformation happens. There is some success and increase in self esteem.
- Stage 5 – Stuck in the Telling: People might begin to get addicted to retelling their secrets and get trapped in confession.
- Stage 6 – Secrets to Tell, Secrets to Keep: Emotional Maturity: “Now people can discriminate between the secrets they need to tell to enhance the quality of their life and those they choose to contain so as to develop a stronger sense of themselves. Here people operate out of free choice” (Hunt, 6)
- Stage 7 – Freedom: “People understand who they are and what they want, and accept life’s unfolding.” (Hunt, 6)
Looking at this cycle, it makes it clear that uncovering secrets and working on claiming what’s private takes work and time. It’s my hope that therapy work always leads people to discover more freedom and accountability in the choices they make around truths in their lives.
To begin your own journey around integrating your truths, I’d have you start thinking – what truths make you feel blocked? What do you want to do about it?
Just a Fun Thing
In case you’re interested, a professor at Columbia University in New York has been maintaining an ongoing survey of what kinds of secrets people keep – click here if you’d like to check out KeepingSecrets.org.
Hunt, T., Rothstein, L., & Paine-Gernee, K. (2009). Secrets to Tell, Secrets to Keep. Boston: Grand Central Publishing.
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