orange cat poking head out of brown paper bag

    As 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.