Mental health professionals can help you work through your secrets
When it comes to extramarital affairs, telling your spouse isn't always best
Weigh the consequences of telling someone your secrets before you divulge them
Strangers often trust Edward with their secrets, whether it be on planes or walking down the street. He even became a confidant in one place that he doesn’t want most people to know he spent time: prison.
Edward’s biggest secret is that he is a convicted felon, having been arrested twice for driving under the influence of alcohol. The second time, he spent 90 days behind bars contemplating his life.
Those reflections helped him make better life choices in the 10 years that have gone by since, he says. But he belongs to a professional organization that would boot him immediately if anyone there ever found out about his conviction, and he still fears that someone in it will discover what he’s hiding. Edward, and the others who agreed to speak about their personal experiences for this article, asked that their real names not be used to protect their identities.
“It’s not shame that’s the reason I’m holding secrets in, especially with the DUI,” says Edward, 35, who lives in the Midwest. “It’s more about, I don’t feel like getting into the story again to have to explain why I’m not your typical felon” – a violent or sexual offender.
While he says he feels no guilt or shame about his criminal record, he laments he can probably never run for public office because his secret would emerge.
People keep secrets for all kinds of reasons.
Sam von Reiche, psychologist and success coach located in northern New Jersey, believes everyone has secrets to some extent.
“We all end up with some sense internally that we’ve done something wrong, or that there’s something wrong about us and a little deceptive,” she said. “I think that’s just part of the human condition.”
Generally, says von Reiche, “secrets do create a lot of separation from other people, and they also prevent you from feeling truly authentic.” But psychologists say there are also situations where it might be better to withhold information from people, even close friends, if the revelation of secrets would cause more pain to you and others.
Nancy, 21, is still dealing with her feelings toward her ex-boyfriend, who physically abused her. They were together for four months in college and then broke up – at least, that’s what Nancy’s friends thought.
But secretly, Nancy went back to him after one week. She didn’t want her friends to know because she knew they would think it was a bad idea.
“I was just convinced that he was going to change, and it was my fault,” she said.
But he didn’t change. Three months later, Nancy’s relationship ended when, she says, she had to call the police because of his abuse.
Nancy, who also lives in the Midwest, has seen a therapist, but secretly longs for her ex despite the abuse. She found a website called Secret Regrets where people can anonymously share situations that no one knows about.
“I regret not being able to let you go,” Nancy wrote in a post. “I came back to you for the second time when I knew exactly what was going to happen.”
Kevin Hansen, who founded Secret Regrets, has collected about 25,000 confessions from people who are hiding something from a lot of people. The sentiment among many of them, he says, is “nobody else could possibly understand what I’m going through, so I’m not going to tell anyone.” Anonymity makes it more comfortable.
Hansen “has always been passionate about helping people,” according to the website. He studied psychology and human behavior while earning a business degree, “and now, he’s discovered an amazing way to reach people struggling with the biggest regrets of their lives, and connect them with others who know what they’re going through.”
The feedback from other anonymous users has helped, Nancy said. Some of the messages said things such as “you got out a lot sooner than me.”
Anyone who has secrets about abuse should seek professional help, says Bobbie McDonald, a psychologist in Newport Beach, California. Revealing details of an ongoing situation can be risky, as an abuser’s behavior can be unpredictable. A counselor, psychologist or expert at a hotline can help put the person in touch with the right resources.
Irene, 23, found out she was pregnant in August 2009. Her boyfriend at that time didn’t want her to keep the child. Initially she wanted to go forward with the pregnancy, though she later changed her mind.
Irene, who lives in the South, didn’t tell anyone in her family about the pregnancy until after the fact. Her mother didn’t speak to her for two weeks, but eventually calmed down, she said.
Everyone she has told has been supportive about it, but it’s not something she shares with everyone. Her grandparents, for instance, still don’t know. Like Nancy, she found support on the Secret Regrets website, where women in their 60s tell her things will get easier with time.
The pregnancy and abortion used to be a source of shame, and Irene used to cry about it a lot. These days, she is able to tell herself that she made the right decision. She was able to finish school and move on from a dysfunctional relationship with her former boyfriend.
“Self-forgiveness is always critical to helping someone move past whatever secret that is,” von Reiche said. She sometimes gives clients take-home exercises – write down 15 reasons that you forgive yourself, for example.
The skeletons that Rachel keeps in her closet are actually costumes. Tucked away in her studio apartment are a wolf’s head and a full leopard outfit.
Rachel, 26, doesn’t want her co-workers to know that she’s a “furry.”
Portrayals in popular culture may suggest the furry movement is about having sex in animal costumes, but for some people that’s not part of it at all, she said.
Individuals may define “furry” differently, but in Rachel’s view, furry fandom consists of people who enjoy cartooning, fantasy and humanized creatures. It’s a way of identifying yourself through animal characteristics, she said, and some furries just appreciate the artwork.
Rachel herself lives in the Midwest and is an artist on the side, drawing humanized animal characters. She particularly identifies with the hyena that she draws a lot.
As much as she enjoys going to furry conventions, she tries to keep that under wraps at work. She’s a manager at a Web software company and wants to maintain a certain level of professionalism.
“If people knew I had this whimsical side that likes to dress up and goof off, and that I draw cartoons in my spare time, that might seem kind of off-kilter,” she said.
It’s important for people to be comfortable and confident with all parts of themselves, McDonald says. But there are situations where revealing part of your identity would do more harm than good.
“It can be unhealthy to reveal certain parts of ourselves if there are people close to us that would be very unaccepting of it, because of the pain and the separation that that would cause to reveal that,” McDonald said.
“My biggest regret is that I ever started cheating on my husband,” says a post on the Secret Regrets site. “Every time I do it, I say it’s the last time, but it never is. I don’t know how to stop, and I feel so guilty about it.”
It’s a secret that psychologists often hear – that someone has cheated on a spouse.
If it’s a one-time transgression – perhaps a fling on a business trip – it might be worth keeping that a secret from your partner, said Karen Sherman, a psychologist in Long Island, New York.
Some therapists might say honesty is important if there is to be healing in the relationship, Sherman said. But her own view is that it depends on the individual case. “Sometimes there really is more damage caused by telling it,” she said.
However, if you’re involved in an ongoing affair and living a duplicitous life, you should end one relationship or the other, McDonald said. “I think it’s important to really take the time to introspectively look at all aspects of your situation.”
The purpose of secrets
Shame, fear of embarrassment or fear of not being accepted often are the motivation behind keeping something secret.
But the anxiety that comes with some secrets isn’t entirely bad, von Reiche said. Like nausea, “anxiety is your mind’s way of telling you that something you are carrying needs to be purged,” she said.
In other words, you may feel better if you get it out in a safe place, such as by confiding in a trusted friend, family member, community leader or mental health professional.
Therapists will keep your secrets except under certain conditions, such as if you are endangering yourself or others – that’s mandated by federal and state laws. If you are having suicidal thoughts, this is not a secret you should be alone with. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
But the main message in many of these scenarios is that you should weigh the consequences – both to you and someone else. Think about whom you tell, how that person will react and whether you will both be better off.
“If the world were ready to be accepting of everyone, it would be a better place,” McDonald said. “In an ideal society, we would have no secrets. Do I think that’s likely in your lifetime or my lifetime? No.”
Are you holding on to a secret? Tell us in the comments.