By Suma Varughese April 2004 When secrets are tinged with shame and guilt, they turn toxic. Such secrets can hamper our growth and strangle our lives until we struggle free of their control. Here’s how. When there’s shame and guilt around a secret, it becomes toxic. Guilt revolves around what you have done, shame about who you are. If you resolve them you can still keep them secret, but the guilt and shame will have dissolvedGiven the terrible toll a secret exacts, it is essential to get it out of our system and out there in the stratosphere, to step out of the closet, to unwrap the bindings and bare the fetid wound into the healing ether, to come cleanAmong the events most likely to turn into toxic secrets are sexual abuse especially as children, domestic abuse, sexual exploration with members of the same sex or outside marriage, substance abuse, illicit relationshipsHealing the ‘secret’ woundHowever hard, first admit the secret to yourself. Telling others is often enough—but choose compassionate, trustworthy people. In group therapies it is healing to know that others have also gone through the same thing. Forgive yourself. There is nothing, nothing at all, beyond the bounds of forgiveness. God is also all-forgiving. If you have wronged someone, talk to the person about it and ask pardon, or do what is in your capacity to make up for the wrong done. If, that is not feasible, use a therapeutic ritual like writing a letter and tearing or burning it up. The wound healed, some scar may remain. But you would be a finer, stronger person now. Secrets. The very word is pregnant with meaning. Some secrets are exciting and joyful, like planning a surprise party or event for a loved one, or writing a book or learning to paint without telling anyone about it. Others are harmless, such as not telling your age or how much you earn. But some secrets have a touch of the unholy—of events, experiences and personality traits that are too scarring, hurtful or shameful to bring out into the light of day and therefore are fated to be wrapped with layers upon layers of denial and buried deep into the psyche. We dare not talk about them; we dare not even think about them. When others talk about issues or events that hinge around the forbidden subject, we flinch and change the subject. “When there’s shame and guilt around a secret, it becomes toxic. Guilt revolves around what you have done, shame about who you are. If I resolve them I can still keep them secret, but the guilt and shame will have dissolved,” says Vedanta teacher and workshop leader Swami Brahmavidananda. The power of secrets The longer the secret stays in the underground of the psyche, the more it billows in size, occupying more and more of our attention and dictating more and more of our lives. Says psychotherapist Rani Raote: “Toxic secrets increase our sense of shame, because we will not get a chance to atone and be done with it. They create loneliness because people will never know the core of who we are, because we will not allow them to get too close to us. And chances of self-forgiveness are low as long as we refuse to acknowledge the issue. We also end up blaming ourselves for things that are not really our fault, such as being sexually abused as children, or even the molestation most young women face on the streets of big cities. ” Writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her seminal book, Women Who Run With the Wolves: “The keeping of secrets cuts a woman off from those who would give her love, succour and protection. It causes her to carry the burden of grief and fear all by herself.” She adds: “Where there is a shaming secret, there is always a dead zone in the woman’s psyche, a place that does not feel or respond properly to her own continuing life events or to the emotional life events of others.” When our very identities revolve around what we are ashamed of, we become shame-based people, those who are ashamed at the very core of their personality. Writes John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You: “Toxic shame is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being.” Such a sense leads to deep rejection of the self. Writes Bradshaw: “Refusing to accept our ‘real selves’, we try to create more powerful false selves or give up and become less than human. This results in a lifetime of cover-up and secrecy. This secrecy and hiding is the basic cause of suffering for all of us.” Referring to himself as a shame-based person who became a compulsive over-achiever, Bradshaw says that shame-based people become ‘human doings’ and not ‘human beings’. Because they cannot get their self-validation from within, they look for it on the outside, in achievements and the endorsement of others. The debilitating effects of secrets can also manifest physically. Says psychologist and family therapist Maya Kripalani: “It can lead to psychosomatic conditions such as the loss of or the putting on of weight, and depression.” Swami Brahmavidananda cites the example of one of his clients who underwent a date rape. “She began to deliberately overeat and put on weight so that she would not be attractive to men. She could not get into a relationship. This phase lasted for over 10 years.”Why we don’t speak out What stops most of us from sharing our secrets is the overpowering fear of exposure and its consequences, or of not being accepted by those whom we confide in. Says chartered accountant Ajay Kalra: “The fear of being judged negatively is more pervasive than the chances of finding someone accepting of your weaknesses. It is even more difficult to share very fundamental and personal secrets such as impotency or a previous criminal record.” In an article called ‘Rattling the Bones’, psychotherapist Kay E. Morgan talks about the trauma that she underwent when her 21-year-old son, Kevin, a drug addict, was imprisoned for having held up several banks. She writes: “These fears formed a vicious circle that always led back to the same place: my guilt. I harboured vast amounts of it. My mother had been severely alcoholic. Kevin’s biological father and paternal grandfather were alcoholics… My worries spilled over into my professional life. Several of my clients were teenagers. What if their parents discovered that my son was a bank robber? Would they be angry? Would they feel duped? Would they say: ‘We’re sending our kid to her and her son is in the penitentiary?’” Some secrets can completely stop us from further development and keep us rooted to the same psychological spot. In an article titled ‘Power of Secrets’ in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Evan Imber-Black gives the case of a woman called Sara Tomkins. Her mother was addicted to tranquillisers, a fact that the family knew but pretended not to. Writes Imber Black: “When Sara left home for college, she was surrounded with new and exciting faces, each seeking lifelong friends and stimulating late-night discussions. But Sara found herself unable to open up, ultimately finding few friends and fewer lovers. She found it difficult to reveal anything personal about herself to anyone, and even suspected others of withholding from her.” Among the events most likely to turn into toxic secrets are sexual abuse, especially as children, domestic abuse, sexual exploration with members of the same sex or outside marriage, substance abuse, illicit relationships, etc. When it comes to addiction, Father Joe Rodrigues, who runs a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre called Kripa Foundation, with a recovery rate of 30 per cent (“proud figures”, Father calls them), can testify to the cost of a toxic secret: “A full-blown addict has a basic disability of admission. Denial is part of the disease. If someone is given the grace to admit and to move on to accept it, he is healed.” Stepping out of the closet Given the terrible toll a secret exacts, it is essential to do something about it, to get it out of our system and out there in the stratosphere, to step out of the closet, to unwrap the bindings and bare the fetid wound into the healing ether, to come clean. Writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes: “The way to change a tragic drama back into a heroic one is to open the secret, speak of it to someone, write another ending, examine one’s part in it and one’s attributes in enduring it. These learnings are equal parts pain and wisdom. The having lived through it is a triumph of the deep and wild spirit.” Says psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani: “Just telling others is enough. In group therapies it is particularly healing to know that others have also gone through the same thing.” Even more fundamental is to admit the secret to ourselves. Writes John Bradshaw: “Ten years ago… I named the core demon in my life. I named ‘shame’. Naming shame means that I became aware of the massive destructive power that shame had exerted in my life… It ruled me like an addiction… In naming shame, I began to have power over it.” He adds: “Identification of the core problem is essential to recovery. It verbally states one’s acceptance of powerlessness and unmanageability. It is indicative that one has embraced one’s shame by surrendering… We must give up our delusional false selves and ego defences to find the vital and precious core of ourselves. In our neurotic shame lies our vulnerable and sensitive self. We must embrace the darkness to find the light.” The 12-Step programme on which the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy is based, and which has given rise to a wide variety of programmes that deal with addictio
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