Your Deep Dark Secret May Be Robbing You
A dark secret may remain imprinted within the psyche like a photograph frozen in time, with all its memories and toxic feelings that keep the individual from living a healthy and productive life with spontaneity and flexibility. The "nature of the secret is that it wants to be found out." This forces the secret-holder into an avoidant and clandestine lifestyle where the objective for living is to maintain and protect the secret from being exposed to "the public zone" which could result in further humiliation, rejection and isolation. As a result of the need to protect oneself from the possible exposure of the secret, destructive and counterproductive "Private Vows" are implemented that can drive the "secret holder" like a ship without a rudder in the mist of a stormy sea. Honesty in relationships is diminished to the degree that the secret controls the individual's life and responses.
Living with a deep, dark secret is often a destroyer of energy, motivation and life. This clandestine living is an attempt to stay dissociated from the trauma in one's
past by living a life of avoidance from anything that would bring to mind the
painful memory of a past and shameful incidence. The exposure of the painful
secret is often considered worse than maintaining the secret. This secrecy moves an individual more towards isolation and aloneness. An unconscious or even conscious Private Vow can begin to be the controlling force that alters the direction of the life of the secret holder and begins to isolate the secret holder in order to keep the secret from escaping into the zone of public awareness. The Private Vow increases the hyper-vigilance kind of lifestyle and decreases the possibility of living life spontaneously with flexibility. This can be referred to as pseudo living versus real living. More about Private Vows later. Honesty is sacrificed and deception reigns in relationships to the degree that the secret
Instead of working through the internal tensions,
the unresolved issues insidiously spill over
into already dysfunctional areas
in current relationships.
controls the individual's life and their responses.
Let me backtrack with a question. What is the difference between keeping some elements of your life to yourself that you don't care for everyone to know, but if they got revealed into public awareness, be it with family, friends or co-workers, your life would not be devastated, versus, guarding a secret with a sense of hyper vigilance, where the guarding takes on a life of its own? In the first example, whatever is kept to oneself, i.e., getting a low grade in school, being rejected by this boy or that girl, having smoked pot on occasion, needing contact lenses, having failed your driver's exam four times, being arrested for a DUI, etc. might be embarrassing, but usually not heart-stopping shamefulness. This article examines situations where guarding a secret with hyper vigilant behavior may be unhealthy or even pathological.
Guarding the Secret
In a situation where a secret takes on a life of its own, guarding the secret
becomes the way of one's life. This level of guarding requires the emotional
energy and determination of a marathon athlete so that the secret is never exposed to anyone. It becomes an I will take it to my grave kind of secret. Having been raped or incested, having a child by another partner while married or other sexual improprieties, having an abortion(s), etc. are some instances that can produce a sense of shame that might result in this kind of extreme guarding. Probably every therapist has heard at one time or another, "I'm going to tell you something that I've never told a living soul .... If knew what I did, or what happened to me, - would not have anything to do with me. I would not only be ashamed of myself but now _ would also be ashamed of me. Who else would tell? I would lose -. I can not allow that to happen." If the secret concerns a situation of childhood incest, for example, painful comments might include, "I can not tell my husband about what my father or grandfather or uncle did because I am afraid of what he would be thinking of when we are making love. Maybe he would see me differently if he knew." In the case of rape/date rape a woman might say; "I can not tell anyone because people might say 'I must have asked for it,' 'what was I doing and wearing to set myself up for this to happen,' or 'it must have been my fault'."
For many, abortion is one of the most guarded secrets from family, friends and spouses. It is not unusual for women to say that they have never revealed a
previous abortion to their husband before they got married, and they continue to maintain the secret in their marriage. Some have never revealed an in-marital abortion to their husbands. One client cried as she stated, "My marriage is now doing great, but three years ago I did not think that my marriage was going to work. When I discovered that I was pregnant I went to an abortion clinic by myself. To this day, no one knows, not even my best girlfriend." Some have made similar comments: "if anyone knew what I did to my pregnancy, I would not want to see or be around them because I would perceive their attitudes of me as looks of condemnation," "If I told anyone, they would not want to be my friend or be around me," or, "What kind of person, or mother will they think I am." To say that every woman feels this amount of hyper vigilance after having an abortion would be an overstatement, but from my clinical observation it is fair to say that even women who say they do not see themselves in pain over an abortion, will go to great lengths to protect this secret from even intimate relationships.
Paralysis Sets In
In these cases the holder of the secret has difficulty trusting anyone with their secret due to a variety of fears that center around being exposed and rejected, resulting in further traumatization. "This is something that I just have to live with." "My secret is better kept locked within, where I can control it. My life would never be the same once it was out in the open." When there is not a feeling of safety there is a core belief that no safe environment exists in which to release the trauma. Oftentimes the unconscious is at work trying to displace the internal tension of the emotional pain, shame and fears. This can, and usually does, result in a displacement of emotions. Instead of working through the internal tensions, the unresolved issues insidiously spill over into already dysfunctional areas in current relationships.
The family or relational system works hard at continuing to adapt and adjust to escalating levels of dysfunctionality much like a frog that is placed in a pan of cold water with a low flame under the pan. As the water becomes warmer, the frog has a natural ability to acclimate to the increasing temperature not realizing that the environment is becoming hostile. Only when the temperature has reached a critical level does the frog realize its danger and attempts to jump. But the water has become too hot. Paralysis sets in, leaving the frog unable to move out from its dangerous environment. The frog's ability to jump is no longer an option.
The very nature of a secret
is that it wants to be discovered.
Its acclimating ability is shut down along with its ability to get out of this very awkward situation. It cooks in its environment. Similarly, secrets from childhood, adolescence and/or adulthood can slowly cook any relationship into its demise whenever the secrets are withheld from significant intimate relationships that represent the support system. However, even though these shameful secrets greatly affect the current relationships they are feverishly maintained with the hope that they will never be found out and that the
feelings will go away with time.
The Nature of a Secret
Then the secret is discovered. Why? The very nature of a secret is that it wants to be discovered It may take years for the secret to leak or slip to the surface. It is much like Murphy's Law where if anything can go wrong, it will. At the most inopportune moment, the secret can erupt. Lives can become disrupted. People can feel scared and out of control. Some examples of how some secrets have slipped to the surface include:
* A couple married nine years went to their physician because of an infertility
problem. The doctor made a casual comment from the wife's records about a
prior abortion seven years ago in front of the husband who knew nothing about
any prior pregnancy,
* Twelve years into a failing marriage a husband found out that his wife was a
victim of ongoing childhood incest from a diary that she used to keep as a young adolescent. The wife thought that she had thrown the diary away a long time ago,
* An alcoholic father in recovery came to apologize to his son and make amends for the harm he caused his son's wife fifteen years ago while the son was serving on ship in the Navy. In a drunken state he had sexually assaulted his daughter-in-law. When the son came home from shipboard duty, the wife,
without disclosing the assault, sabotaged any kind of attempt that the father
would make for a relationship with his son, resulting in virtually no relationship.
She would tear up any letters or holiday cards. The son felt rejected by his
father. The wife never told the husband because she felt it was her fault. The
father thought the son knew about what happened because of his son's distancing.
* A wife, married to an airline pilot, finds out about her husband's infidelity from a mistress who thought that he was unmarried. The mistress, who lived almost 2200 miles away, suspected her boyfriend of cheating on her
when she came across a suspicious telephone number. She dialed the number and told the woman on the other end of the line, unaware that this was her boyfriend's wife, to leave him alone because he was committed to her and they are going to get married,
* One young man attempted suicide after his gay lover mistakenly confronted his brother whom he thought was another lover ....
When people do not have a safe container to pour their secrets into, they keep them to themselves in an emotional container which becomes intoxicated with a false sense of reality. The inner self-loathing and low self-esteem (and the inner dialogue and self-talk that accompany them) oftentimes distort reality and result in poor decision making and sabotaging of goals. The Alcoholic Anonymous (1976) 12 step program refers to the "inner committee" when referring to the obsessive thoughts that will not go away but continue to remain within the person's mind in an accusatory manner. The thoughts may go "around and around and around" for years without relief. Instead of allowing "Will and Reason" at the steering wheel of life, emotions of shame, guilt, loathe-fullness and fears are the pilots which guide like a ship without a rudder, blown by turbulence of emotions wherever the wind directs the ship to go. The impression of the trauma remains locked in the psyche, takes its
toll on the body and plays havoc with relationships because of the unpredictability of "the nature of the beast."
The author of The Strong and the Weak (I 963) states that "Impressions without expression produces depression .... Everyone knows that an emotion held in check, a bereavement in which one 'has not been able to weep,' a secret disappointment in love, produces disorders. The sensitive are ashamed of their sensitiveness and try to conceal it. It then finds an outlet in false reactions, for which they are taken to task, and this makes them still more ashamed of their sensitivity - and so the vicious circle is closed" (page 126).
From our earliest years we can be exposed to impressions that can imprint a wound so severe as to interfere with healthy emotional development. Impression without expression can also lead to relational aggression and, most certainly, to frustration. How much life is robbed from individuals who suffer from depression, aggression and frustration because there is not a safe container for the secrets that they hold inside themselves? I believe that Roman Catholic Christians have a better grasp on the importance of releasing "secret sins" through the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). In this sacrament they have an opportunity to go to someone who stands in as the representative of Christ, who will not judge them, but who stands ready to forgive them and free them from their guilt.
...many destructive private vows can accompany deep dark secrets.
However, even when there is prayer from a pastor for a dark secret, or a sacramental release of a secret sin, oftentimes there is another needed accompaniment of release psychotherapy - in order for the individual to work through the pain, and experience a more fuller freedom from the shame, guilt, fears, etc. Both are sometimes needed and beneficial before an individual can receive relief in the mind, body and emotions as well as in the spirit. This in no way minimizes the graces available through prayer or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Psychotherapy, however, may affect how an individual disposes themselves to receive those graces of forgiveness since it gives a
person the opportunity to examine how the "inner committee" may continue to voice condemnations on them. Herein lies the reason for many multiple confessions for the very same sin. The person may have no rest from the inner condemnations and simply not believe that they are forgiven.
Telling the Story
The telling of one's story is an important step into a deeper healing. I learned this lesson from a woman client whose son committed suicide by hanging. For more than four months she would come into weekly sessions with an obsessive need to tell the same detailed story of what happened to her son. I became frustrated after hearing the same story for the fifth or sixth time, but no matter what I did or said therapeutically, I could not move her from her fixation. She insisted on telling her story even to the point of interrupting my therapeutic flow. I decided to face my frustrations and went with the client's resistance. She needed to tell her story in a safe environment and I was not going to get in the way. Several times I felt that she was not benefiting from therapy. I even sought consultation from a colleague who wisely encouraged me to "stick it out with her, because she needed to tell her story,
and when the time is right for her she would move onto other issues." Sure enough! After about another twelve more times of hearing her tell the same story, she came into a session without starting it off with her son's name. She was ready to move on. This was an important lesson for me to learn as a psychotherapist. Hearing my client tell her story was not only an important part of her healing and recovery, but a vital necessity. I almost short-circuited her therapeutic process because I wanted to move faster than my client was willing or able to go.
Sharing one's secret or story with family can be helpful but, more times then not, it is not emotionally safe to do so. Judgments, frustrations and criticism may seem to flow without awareness of pain being afflicted. If I as
a trained therapist could almost succumb to feelings of frustration and irritation,
how much easier it is for family members to do so also. It seems that family
members feel they have more of a license to say whatever they want to, and they do.
"Come on! Snap out of it! How long is this _ going to continue?" Consequently, the environment for healing may become even more toxic than it was before, sometimes with almost fatal results. Although friends seem to be less critical than family members, the friends usually do not have a sense of therapeutic process and speak what they feel or think can relieve their friend for the present moment without considering longer lasting ramifications. No one wants to see a friend hurting. Although the intentions are noble, once again, the environment proves itself not safe.
One case comes to mind of a young lady who became pregnant and went to her friends for "advice and consolation" even though she knew that she could not have an abortion. She was willing to carry to term and adopt out. However, the friends advised her to have an abortion, and following that advice sent her into a depressive tailspin, with suicidal ideations. Her friends wanted to help her and thought that this advice would do so. But, after the abortion, the "friends" did not know how to handle her depression and did what most people do when confronted with their own care-taking limitations. Out of a feeling of helplessness, they began to avoid her, thus leaving her alone in isolation with her own "inner committee."
The Second Nature of a Secret
If the very nature of a secret is that it wants to be discovered, the second nature is to control someone's life, and usually the life of the "secret holder." Most assuredly other lives are also controlled by the secret. This is because many destructive private vows can accompany deep dark secrets. "I will never tell anyone what happened," "I will never trust anyone with this information about me...... I will not let anyone come too close to me," "I will not put myself in any relationship where I could get hurt again," "My life as a child was so screwed up that I will never have children in order to spare them from the kind of suffering I experienced." One client, age 36, came in after her third abortion and stated, "I had such a hard, abusive life with my parents struggling at every turn, that I will not have any children until I am financially stable." Another embittered client expressed her private vow; "I will do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if I have to......
To undo a private vow that has been established in one's personality early in youth takes a lot of work by the client. When the vow is supporting a "secret" it is even more deeply rooted within the psyche. As I mentioned earlier, the secret takes on a life of its own. However, for healthier life to return to the secret holder, the secrets must be uncovered and worked
The more he explored in therapy of what he had
lost and the "bridges" lie had burned because of
his private vow, the more regretful he became.
through safety and any destructive private vows broken. Try as they might, it is
difficult, and in some cases impossible, to run away from the shamefulness and
anguish of the past. It must be worked through. Proverbs 20:25 tells us that "It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows" (NIV). Jeremiah 23:24 states, "Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? Declares the Lord" (NIV). Psalms 44:21 states, "Would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?" (NIV).
Breaking the Private Vow
Whenever breaking any vow of the past that continues to control who we are and how we operate as an individual and in relationships in the present, it is imperative that we reach out to another so that they can stand as a witness and in agreement with us in the renouncing and breaking of those vows. 11 Corinthians 4:2 tells us that, "Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." Oftentimes, the therapist is that person who can help whittle-away at those vows. As we become aware of these private vows, it is in joining together with another that we can be motivated to redirect our energy and regain a healthier perspective of the reality of the present. One must move carefully away from any destructive and counterproductive self-promises made in the past.
This reevaluation and redirection of life will be done in real time, with another person standing in agreement of the breaking of a promise and vow that may have been made at a time when it was necessary for survival. Now it is no longer needed or useful to healthy living. In the case where a real person(s), i.e., the perpetrator(s), was somehow involved at the time the vow was originally made, and where others have unknowingly helped to maintain the vow, now a real person, i.e., a therapist, may assist in breaking what is no longer necessary. Even if a private vow does not involve another person, but originated from a shameful act or lifestyle, it is still imperative that another trusted individual stand in agreement with the desire to change and break away from old patterns of responding to past vows. Keep in mind that deep dark secrets may stay imprinted within the psyche for long periods of time. Consequently, making a change from a reality based on a painful past may not happen quickly.
Case Presentation: A male client raised by his father and grandfather had a
message that "the strong are the ones who get ahead in the world" abusively
drummed into him from very early childhood. His grandfather would beat him in order to "toughen him up" and told him that unless he became like an iron rod, "other people will walk over him, control him, and use him." The client said, "if I cried, he would hit me more. So I learned to take his abuse and not cry about it." His grandfather actually taught him to repeat, "I am an iron rod." As he moved into adolescence and early adulthood, he entered into dysfunctional reciprocal relationships in which he was the independent, aggressive and powerful partner in the relationship. He remembered saying many times to these partners, "I am an iron rod. Nobody is going to walk over me. No one is going to bend me." He was very proud of the motto. At the age of 48 and in his third failing marriage he came into therapy at the insistence of his wife. She was about to leave him but wanted to give therapy a chance. He was insistent on remaining faithful to his private vow that "I love my wife but no one was going to change me." He was resistant to therapy. In the fourth session he stated, "why should I change for anybody. I am my own
person. This is me and if she does not like it that is too bad." He further concluded, "I like who I am and if there is a problem then she has to deal with it." As he revealed the proud mentoring he had received from his grandfather, he also sadly revealed what he had lost because of the vow that he made as a child to be "an iron rod - unbendable." The more he explored in therapy of what he had lost and the "bridges" he had burned because of his private vow, the more regretful he became. In the therapeutic process he was willing to ask his wife to stand in agreement and as witness to the breaking of his long-maintained vow. He was able to say, "I'm not an iron rod and I was never meant to be an iron rod. I am happier when I am flexible and compromising." His marriage then began to take a more favorable direction. He is now able to recognize those strong rigidities whenever he is in conflict with his wife.
Through a process of "over identification" the holder of the secret carries, often unconsciously, elements of the secret into their endeavors and other relationships. Over identification and displaced anger often join together as a result of unresolved past events. One woman said, "My father was a bastard and a no-good-creep, and that's the way all men are. I can't trust any man." This means that not only is the life of the secret holder being affected and controlled, but also the lives of those the secret holder touches. There is an intermingling of the feelings from the past with the issues in the present. It is not at all unusual for past feelings to be displaced on issues unrelated to the original wound. I am reminded of the story of King Midas who turned everything he touched into gold. The secret holder's touch can be like a Midas touch!
Through a process of "over identification" the holder of the secret carries, often unconsciously, elements of the secret into their endeavors and other relationships.
As a psychotherapist, I often see lives that have been controlled and mangled by painful secrets. Oftentimes I see persons bewildered and frightened after a secret has been exposed. More times then not a client's presenting problem masks the real problem. Their secret had wreaked enough havoc in their lives and the lives of those they live with to finally bring them into psychotherapy. Years of living in their secret capsule have resulted in low self-esteem, self sabotaging efforts, deteriorating emotional health, spiritual impairment and deterioration, physical disorders, infidelity, and the use of drugs and alcohol to alleviate the pain of the secret. Even when the client has come to trust in the client/therapist relationship, it may still take an extended amount of time before the client is willing to divulge the real problem. The sooner the secret is safely and appropriately divulged, the sooner life takes on a hopeful dimension without the pressure of tenaciously having to continuously maintain and guard the secret.
Whenever there is a history of child abuse - emotional, physical or sexual; a rape or sexual assault; a painful abortion(s); a regretful act or series of acts; or any shameful experience that is robbing the life out of a person, seeing a psychotherapist for a few sessions may make an incredible difference in the person's quality of life. Obviously, resolving some traumas may take more than a few sessions. My point is that once a safe container and a healthy environment with a good client/therapist relationship or support group is established, then a new reality that is based on the promotion of self-growth and stability in relationships can be experienced, versus staying with the same old dysfunctional ways of reacting to one's own-tunneled outlook on life. Instead of using a tremendous amount of energy and physical resources protecting the secrets of the past from being exposed today resulting in
today never being lived, and fear of what tomorrow will bring., there is a new hope for tomorrow because today is suddenly rich with emotional and physical resources and opportunities that would not have been available or appreciated if the secrets were to be kept locked-up within. Reality takes on more of an objective outlook versus a reality that is continuously subjectively based. The results; new hope, new energy, new opportunities for a career; new tools for risking, a new spiritual outlook, new opportunities for healthier relationships and a stronger and happier you!
Obviously what has been presented here does not fit the extreme forms of every secret that is being held. Most secrets do force the secret-holder into some kind of hyper-vigilance and an avoidant kind of lifestyle where a healthier lifestyle has been curtailed for self protection. Depending on what is going on within the psyche at any one time and the shifting challenges that rise up unexpectedly, the degree of avoidance changes. If the challenges are light and current issues present little conflict then the degree of avoidance and hyper-vigilance may require only five or ten percent adaptation in self-protection. However, if a high-level challenge forces itself into the arena of living, then the avoidance and hyper vigilance can shoot up toward the one hundred percent level of adaptation in self-protection. The higher the percentage of adaptation for self-protection, the greater the probability for dysfunctionality because of any private vow which could move into full operation,controlling and distorting reality.
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Baars, Conrad. (1981), Psychic Wholeness and Healing. New York: Society
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Tournier, Paul. (1963). The Strong and The Weak. Philadelphia: The
Jim Benefield, MSpEd, MPC, MA-AFFCC, is a licensedfamily therapist in private practice in the San Diego area. Jim is a member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Association of Christian Therapists, and the American Psychotherapy Association.