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How to Deal with Your Darkest Secrets

4102469836_c4d2cc34f7_bAs a registered nurse, Jamie often finds herself keeping other people’s secrets. Most of the time, this doesn’t bother her; she empathizes with patients who conceal a scary diagnosis. But recently, Jamie found herself holding a couple of secrets that didn’t rest so easily. 

Both came from her coworkers. When a nurse named Esther bungled some paperwork, she confessed to Jamie that she was dyslexic. The other secret was much more upsetting: Susan, a hospital secretary, told Jamie that a popular surgeon (I’ll call him Dr. McCreepy) had been pursuing her sexually. He’d done outrageous things, like asking Susan to let him examine her breasts. Jamie suggested that she report him to their superiors, but Susan worried that she’d lose her job if the news came out. 

This double dose of secrecy upset Jamie so much that she called me, hoping I’d help her. I was glad she did. For those of us who aren’t lawyers, priests, or psychiatrists, there are no clear-cut rules to guide us through the gray shadows secrecy may cast. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has a nice ring to it, but if someone else’s secret has you tied in knots, I’d advise that you both ask and tell. First ask yourself—and possibly an impartial adviser—whether the secret is harmless or destructive, then, if it is damaging, confide the information to whoever is most able to use openness as a positive force. 

Jamie told me that the secrets she’d learned at work were “burning” inside her. Secrets are like stars: They’re hot, volatile concentrations of energy, and they have two ways of dying. Over time, small stars simply burn out and cool off, becoming what astronomers call white dwarfs. Massive stars collapse in on themselves, growing so dense that they create an immense gravitational vortex from which even light can’t escape. They become black holes. 

You’ve probably felt the difference between a “little white lie” and what I think of as a black hole secret, the kind that absorbs and darkens everything around it. In her book Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, Gail Saltz, MD, describes how even a relatively minor lie, such as cheating on a tax form, exerts a powerful gravitational force on the liar, whose attention is focused on not talking about what they’ve done. Secret keepers may become uncommunicative, withdraw from others, exhibit strange moods, even isolate themselves completely.

The problem is even worse for people who don’t have black hole secrets but are holding such confidences for others. Secret keeping is immensely stressful; it has well-documented effects on things like immune function and even longevity. I’ve found that these three questions can help determine whether a secret is a white dwarf or a black hole.

1. Does knowing this information make my inner life feel brighter or darker? 

If you’re holding a malignant secret, you may feel as though other aspects of your life are being pulled down into darkness. This is the case for many people who’ve been abused or the victim of serious trauma. After decades of silence, the secret will still dominate the center of their consciousness, dimming their capacity for openness and intimacy. 

2. Am I afraid that keeping this secret may allow someone to be harmed?

If your gut says yes to this question, you must break your promise. Protecting someone by hiding a secret that causes another person to be harmed is never constructive—for anyone. 

3. Do I find myself in situations where I often want to tell? 

The gravitational pull of secrets works both ways. Opportunities to reveal dark secrets seem to come up repeatedly, in part because these secrets so dominate our psychological landscape. Ignoring opportunities to tell won’t feel honorable—it usually feels like lying. It divides you from others and makes you avoid certain subjects or even people. (The only honorable silence involves keeping harmless gossip to yourself.)

When Jamie herself asked questions, she found that Esther’s secret was a white dwarf. She now understood why Esther, one of the most intelligent and caring nurses at the hospital, avoided paperwork, and she had seen that Esther was extremely careful not to let her dyslexia affect patients. For example, she always chose tasks like feeding, cleaning, and comforting patients over those that required reading, and when she did do something involving written work (such as administering medication) she double-checked with other nurses to validate the vital facts. As time passed, Jamie found she had less and less desire to expose Esther’s secret. 

Susan’s story about Dr. McCreepy, on the other hand, was a black hole. It nagged at Jamie, especially because it evoked dozens of other incidents when female staffers had seemed upset or afraid around him. Jamie’s instincts told her that McCreepy was damaging many careers and lives, but she couldn’t ask other nurses about their experiences without risk of revealing Susan’s secret. Instead, Jamie found herself becoming tongue-tied, anxious, and distant with her staff. This secret needed telling—but when? And to whom? 

The Right Way to Tell

I was the first person to whom Jamie revealed the secrets she’d been holding for her coworkers. This was a good strategy: I didn’t know anyone involved, so I had no conflict of interest, and Jamie knew I’d keep her story confidential (of course, I’ve changed the names and identifying details here). If you’re troubled by a secret, talking about it with an unbiased counselor such as a mental health professional, trusted religious adviser, or attorney is an excellent idea. 

For one thing, taking a safe person into your confidence dulls the isolating edge of a secret—and defuses the desire to gossip. Moreover, a person who has some training and experience can give you an unbiased opinion about whether the secret is merely a white dwarf or a black hole. (If you want to share a confidence for the sheer salacious pleasure of it, you’re obviously out of line. But if you simply must gossip, consulting a professional is better than blurting it to a friend, especially one who knows the people involved.) 

Small secrets, like small stars, cool with time. If you and your counselor believe a secret is harmless, simply wait a while. The information will soon fade to the back of your mind. Virtually all my clients’ secrets affect me this way; I feel no desire to talk about them with anyone but the person involved. But I often advise clients who, like Esther, are hiding something they think is dark and awful to confess it, and not just because of the relief they’d feel.

For instance, several months after I spoke with Jamie, Esther got an unsatisfactory job evaluation for being slow with paperwork. At that point, Jamie persuaded Esther to admit to her supervisor that she had dyslexia. She did, and everyone benefited. Esther’s evaluation was upgraded, and she was allowed to focus on patient care rather than alphabetizing files. That’s the effect the truth has when secrets are essentially innocent—but it’s best to encourage people to come clean on their own. 

When you realize a secret is a black hole, tell a higher power. I don’t just mean God. If the information you have is explosive, or if you’re afraid that exposing the confidence might harm you or someone else, it’s essential you reveal your information to a person who is powerful enough to contain any possible damage. 

In Jamie’s case, this meant speaking with her hospital’s chief of surgery about Dr. McCreepy. Simply questioning other nurses might have confirmed her suspicions that McCreepy was a prolific perv, but it would certainly have caused gossip. Jamie believed the chief surgeon would treat the McCreepy issue seriously but sensitively, and he proved worthy of that trust. He instigated a sexual harassment training program, which prompted several female staffers to come forward and make Dr. McCreepy’s prurient activities public knowledge. Susan was able to tell her story, Jamie no longer felt burdened, and McCreepy became one very humble, cautious, and shut-down sexual harasser.

In cases when there is no trustworthy authority figure, the public is the only “higher power” available. It’s through public exposure of dark secrets that human groups, even whole societies, become more just. This applies to small situations and large ones. Think about college students who exposed dangerous hazing in certain fraternities, or whistle-blowing employees at Enron, or the soldiers who brought attention to the plight of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If you decide to reveal this kind of secret, brace yourself: The truth-teller often catches some flak. The fact that activists do this anyway shows how destructive black hole secrets really are—the angry reaction of an exposed wrongdoer, however unpleasant it may be, is preferable to a life dominated by the darkness of someone else’s secret. 

If someone confides a secret to you, ask yourself those three questions, then wait to see if the burning desire to tell dies out, or pulls you further into its gravitational force. Think of this process as steering by the stars—be they white dwarfs or the bright wisdom of an unbiased adviser. When you feel darkness drawing you in, connect with a person or group powerful enough to anchor you with a different source of “gravity.” Let the company of trusted others help you break free from the cloud of secrecy, so that your personal universe remains open, sparkling, and clear. 

Receive with an Open Heart: Giving and Accepting Gifts of Real Love

You’d be wholeheartedly thrilled with that gift, that compliment, that declaration of affection—if it weren’t for the wary little voice in the back of your mind wondering how you’ll ever be able to reciprocate…or did the giver really mean it…or what’s the catch?

In the long run, we can’t stay emotionally healthy without accepting gifts, both concrete and intangible. Refusing to receive leaves us chronically empty, prone to addiction, obsession, codependency, or an eternal psychological hunger that’s never quite satisfied. The healthy alternative is to stop merely closing down and learn to receive wisely, fully accepting good gifts without being damaged by bad ones.

Unconditional Giving

The secret is this: No matter what happens, keep your heart open. Here’s a way to practice: Take a bill from your wallet that’s large enough that you’d be upset if you lost it—maybe $1, maybe $100. Go to a public place, like a park or mall, and find a spot with sporadic foot traffic. Wait until no one’s looking. Place your money on the ground and retreat to a spot nearby, where you can see whoever finds it. The money is your gift to this person.

Observe your own mind as you wait. You’ll probably find that you’re running an inner monologue on subjects like worthiness, appropriateness, justice. You may hope a poor child finds the money, while your heart clenches at the thought of an addict buying drugs with it, or a lawyer sliding it into an Armani pocket. But no matter who discovers the cash, just watch them pick it up, then silently wish them well. If your giving capacity is out of whack, your receiving capability is likely jammed, too, which means this won’t be easy. What it will be is highly educational. It’s none of your business who finds it, or what they do with it. The goal is to reach a place where you could watch happily as an Enron executive pounced on your ten bucks.

Why should you want this to happen? Because the judgments that constrain your giving are the very demons that are keeping you from receiving. “You don’t deserve that.” “You’d better put it to good use.” “Now you’re obligated.” “You’d better earn it, buddy….” As you teach your own charity to outlast such opinions while giving to other people, you’ll release yourself from having to meet certain criteria (repayment, neediness, poverty) when you are given something.

Receiving What’s Already Yours

Once you’ve learned to give with an open heart, it’s time to receive something. Start with something easy: a gift that’s an accident of birth. Perhaps you’ve accepted your own gifts from time to time, but only in covert moments. If you happen to have gorgeous feet, you may occasionally find yourself gazing at them appreciatively. When you think your way through difficult problems, you might think, “Wow, cool!” Then you clamp down, attack your own ego, search the environs for any witnesses you may have to kill, lest they report to the world that you’re full of yourself.

This isn’t humility; it’s denial. You know darn well what you’ve got, but you’re refusing to receive it, because you believe this protects you from judgment—your own and that of others. It’s time to thank yourself for having this fabulous quality. Say it, out loud or in your head: “Thank you for being so talented!” “Thank you for having great hair!” Don’t be surprised if, once again, you find yourself plowing through the stages of grieving on the way to full acceptance. You may get angry at yourself for your arrogance. You’ll bargain—yeah, you won the Pulitzer, but you didn’t deserve it (this isn’t a hypothetical example; I heard it from a real Pulitzer Prize winner). You’ll get depressed about the fact that your parents don’t really see this gift in you, or that they do but someday they’re going to die. No matter what judgments fly at you, keep repeating, “Thank you for this gift.”

Receiving Objects

Once you’ve begun accepting your own inherent gifts, you’re ready to receive a present from someone else. Find a physical object someone has already given you: a flower, a card, a ring. Stunted receivers have a lot of mixed feelings about such items. You may not feel worthy of the gift, or you may be haunted by fear that you now owe the giver something enormous.

You know the drill by now. Sit with the gift, physically touch it, and say, “Thank you; I accept.” Here it will come again, the emotional whirlwind: denial (“I’m not good enough to deserve this”); anger (“He probably expects me to sleep with him now”); bargaining (“I’ll give her a pie; then I won’t feel so guilty”); depression (“I bet he hates me for not writing a thank-you note”). Touch the object. Say “Thank you; I accept.” Until you really do.

Receiving the Big Kahuna

On the heels of accepting a physical present comes the real prize: accepting the love that motivated the gift. Few givers are perfect, so few gifts come from absolutely pure affection. But if you’ve practiced receiving with an open heart, you’ll be a better judge of which gifts are genuine and which are Trojan horses. When a gift comes with manipulative strings attached—if it’s not really a gift but a disguised bribe—it will feel unpleasant. You can either politely refuse or accept it without becoming vulnerable to exploitation.

The process should be familiar by now. Look back on a time someone gave you a gift of love—even imperfect love. Whatever the gift was (a compliment, companionship, confidence in your basic worth), hold it in your mind and say to the person who gave it, “Thank you; I accept.” Sit still. Hold the gift in your heart. Say “Thank you.”

The worst-case scenario here is that what you thought was love actually wasn’t, that the person to whom you opened your heart was offering no real love at all. In that case, receiving openheartedly will leave you with hope: the shape of love not yet experienced, the DNA-deep knowledge of what you’re meant to have. Once that channel is opened, you’ll be amazed how many gifts are waiting for you to receive them.

Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.