“You’re only as sick as your secrets,” the old saying goes. And while everyone has them, some secrets carry a hidden price that can affect your health on many levels.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had a lot of time to think about our lives. If you find yourself wanting to “come clean” about something, that could be a good thing. It could also carry risks, so make sure you have a well thought out plan.
To tell or not to tell
According to Dr. Gail Saltz, psychoanalyst and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, certain things we hide from others are more detrimental than others. For example, there’s shame associated with alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders — all of which pose health risks, including heart disease and cancer.
That’s not to say everything needs to be exposed. At times, it would do greater harm to shine the light on every detail. And there’s the rub. Because they involve subjective thinking, secrets are evaluated differently by different people.
If it hurts others without helping in any way, is it better left unsaid? If it only serves to absolve your conscience and help you get something off your chest, it may not be worth the enduring impact it could have on the rest of your family, friends or co-workers.
However, if you’ve been harboring a secret for a long time and exposing it would be healthy, it may be worth summoning the courage to get it out. The tighter we hold onto a secret, the more we turn that fear and guilt inward. That can lead to all kinds of consequences.
“To tell or not to tell” creates anxiety, stress and worry — and can even manifest in physical symptoms. According to “The Science Behind Secrets” in the professional journal, Association for Psychological Science, people hiding traumatic secrets showed more signs of:
- back pain
- high blood pressure
- digestive problems
- weakened immune systems.
Revealing your personal secret to someone could be a step in the right direction if you want to rid yourself of carrying this burden alone for the rest of your life. According to author, minister and playwright Sonya Visor, releasing your secret can relieve you of the stress of deception. Her book, “Who I’ve Become is NOT Who I Am,” lays the following groundwork.
The key to freeing yourself lies in the confidant you choose. You want someone you can trust — and who can bring you new insights. You want a person who will listen and avoid judgment, be discreet, and help you get through the process of righting any wrongs the secret may have caused. A tall order, to be sure.
While this is a difficult decision, it’s worth investing the time and effort to identify such a confidant. Start with divulging something small and work your way up. Find out how much you can trust your potential confidant.
All in the family
Secrets play a big role in families. Addictions, abortions and abuse are just a few of the secrets that play out in families. All parties in a family are affected. Children especially notice that something is going on, often blaming themselves or acting out.
In lots of cases, secrets get exposed, anyway. It’s just a matter of timing, and whether it’s under your control or comes out from another source. Those involved with secrets sooner or later may need to speak the truth — or have to face it as it’s revealed. We see this play out regularly with some celebrities who eventually have breakdowns in the public eye.
Coming clean can leave a relationship stronger or weaker, depending on the way it’s handled, and on the willingness to take full responsibility and make amends. Rebuilding trust takes time. It happens in baby steps, with lots of patience and persistence.
Are you in denial?
Keeping secrets cuts you off from others, as well. You’re not the person your friends and loved ones think you are, and you know it. Then there are the cases where we keep secrets from ourselves, the “secret behind the secret.” A man or woman who has one affair after another, for example, is not facing the reality he or she is sabotaging their marriage.
When you tell yourself, “I can quit anytime I want to,” yet continue an addictive behavior, you may be in denial — refusing to admit a destructive habit has taken on a life of its own and is now in control.
How can you tell if you’re threatening your health by keeping secrets? Dr. Saltz says to look for these signs:
- angry outbursts over little things
- exhaustion for no reason
- physical ailments with no medical explanation
- feeling anxious, sad or depressed.
These behaviors can tip you off that there’s something you may be ashamed of, or are too upset to admit (even to yourself).
For your eyes only
If you cannot — or will not — confide your secret to someone else, there’s another way to get it out. Write it on a piece of paper and release its hold on you by burning it. Follow this up by listing what you want to invite into your life in place of the secret.
“Writing about a secret helps to label and organize it,” says social psychologist James Pennebaker. Disclosure can reduce rumination and worry. Putting experiences into words, even for your eyes only, has a powerful effect.
Is it time for you to come out of hiding? “Hiding behind a mask is a powerful thing,” concludes Visor. “We’ve all worn a mask at one time or another in our lives. The danger is when YOU can no longer be seen.”