First published in I-to-I magazine, UK, 1990s

Secrets are so often focused around fear, guilt or shame, or used to manipulate others, it might seem we would be better off without them. Will Parfitt suggests there is also a positive side to secrets that allows us to create boundaries and behave more like healthy adults in the world.

There are two kinds of secrets. Personal secrets that we may not share with anyone, even close friends or partners, constitute the first type. We could call these ‘secrets never to be told’. Often based on events that have happened to us that are too painful to reveal, sometimes it can be difficult to acknowledge these ‘secrets’ even to ourselves. For instance, someone who has been sexually abused as a child may never reveal this. Or if your secret was that you had murdered someone, or been an abuser yourself, you would be unlikely to tell anyone.

As we grow up, we learn things about ourselves, or have things happen to us, that make us feel ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in some way. We usually keep those things secret to avoid anyone learning about our painful feelings such as shame or guilt. We might know we shouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty if, say, someone has abused us, but that knowing isn’t enough in itself to stop us suffering the feelings. Even if we don’t share these secrets, we still experience the shame or the guilt. We don’t share because we don’t trust we won’t be put down, ridiculed or laughed at, punished or in some way made to feel worse. It is often fearing the worst that makes us keep secrets to ourselves. In some cases we may well be right to fear the consequences, but we can also experience a sense of relief once we have got the secret off our chest.

The second type of secret is ‘made to be told’. These ‘secrets’ are like those used by children to create excitement. They have so much fun teasing you with a secret, then get even more excited when they whisper it in your ear. Some of the secrets you currently know are probably someone else’s secrets. Because we are told other people’s secrets, it is no wonder we feel distrustful that others will not keep our secrets. You say: look, I’m telling you, but promise not to tell anyone else, okay? Of course they promise – and yet often we know the promise will be broken. And similarly, how many times have you passed on a secret that you promised not to tell? Most of us do this at some time – and however much we couch the secret with affirmations that it mustn’t be passed any further, we are still breaking the original trust. That is part of the excitement.

Every time secrets are passed on there is the probability that they will get intentionally or unintentionally distorted. We then enter the realm of ‘Chinese whispers’ in which Mrs Black’s pain in the belly ends up as her being pregnant with twins through an illicit love affair with the postman. It looks bad for us humans where secrets are concerned: we not only can’t keep them quiet, but when we break the confidence we end up exaggerating or misreporting and, somehow or another, trying to make the secret bigger and better (or worse!) than it was in the first place. After all, if we’ve got a secret we want it to be a good one. The only thing that’s better than knowing a secret is letting someone else know how smart we are for knowing it before them.

Secrets can be used to manipulate others. The world of politics supplies us with numerous examples of these kinds of secrets. ‘For security reasons’ we are not told and whilst in some cases there may be a good reason behind this, we often find out – or at least sense – that this is just an excuse not to tell us the truth. Sometimes our governments act more like cults, the central secrets of which we are not party to. How come those ‘innocent’ children’s games about secrets end up distorted into power games? Is there something in us that gets so caught up with secrets we end up disempowering ourselves? There is an old story that exemplifies how secrets can be used to manipulate people. A guru tells his followers that he knows an ultimate, universal secret. Of course they all want to know what it is, but he won’t tell. Then in private interviews with the guru, each follower is offered the secret in return for money (or sex or whatever else it is the guru wants from the follower). And what is this ultimate secret? – that there is a sucker born every minute! And you’ve ‘paid’ so much for that secret you aren’t going to share it with anyone.

So what use are secrets unless we use them to gain some vicarious excitement, or use them manipulatively to make ourselves feel better than someone else? For a start, it is possible, through sharing our most painful secrets, we may learn to release our fear or guilt or shame. Experience clearly shows that even the simple act of talking through painful incidents from our past that constitute this kind of secret will make us feel better. Of course, it might not be such a simple act to do this, and it may take a skilled therapist or a close friend who is a good listener to help encourage us in these areas.

We can also learn the power in keeping a secret. If you can hold a secret – whether one of your own or one that has been shared with you – it suggests that you have a strong sense of boundaries. Secrets help us make the boundaries we need so we can ‘create’ ourselves in the world. Without boundaries we become sloppy, oozing out inappropriately, lacking any real sense of self. We all know boundaryless people who gush out all over the place, people we feel are immature and untrustworthy. Secrets can help us gain a sense of our own inner space, our own personal strength, not to exert power over others, but rather to have a sense of our inner power.

The dictionary defines a secret as something kept private, not exposed to view. The word ‘secret’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘secretion’. Our secretions are the substances produced by the ‘secret parts’ of our private physiological world. We only share those secretions with true intimates. We can learn to do the same with the ‘secretions’ of our psychological world, learning when it is appropriate to be ‘intimate’ and when not. We can then define ourselves as ‘healthy adults’ who have learned when to share a secret – for certainly there are times when that is appropriate – and when to keep it to ourselves.

If two or more people share a secret, it can be called a conspiracy. It certainly is on a political level, and can be a dangerous act under a repressive regime. Yet the root of the word conspiracy is ‘breathing together’. A healthy attitude to secrets allows us to breathe intimately with those we trust – our confidants – and to keep our breathing separate from those with whom we do not share intimacy. Next time you are going to share a secret with someone else, ask yourself who you might be betraying if it would be inappropriate to share it? If you realise it would be an act of self-betrayal – even if the secret is someone else’s – then you have learned to respect both your own boundaries and those of others. We all need secrets – sometimes to share, sometimes to keep to ourselves. When we learn to treat each secret appropriately – that is, as one to share or one to contain, then we will be truly ‘adult’. We will acknowledge both the excitement in sharing ‘a secret made to be told’ and the inner strength in keeping a ‘secret never to be told’.

Will Parfitt [email protected]