By Suma Varughese
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.
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 addiction, including Kripa, has as its 5th Step: “We admitted to God, ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Says AA’s ‘Big Book’: “Only by discussing ourselves, holding nothing back, only by being willing to take advice and accept direction could we set foot on the way to straight thinking, solid honesty and genuine humility.”
Bradshaw explains how it works: “We feel so awful, we dare not look at it ourselves, much less tell anyone. The only way we can find out that we were wrong about ourselves is to risk exposing ourselves to someone else’s scrutiny. When we trust someone else and experience their love and acceptance, we begin to change our beliefs about ourselves. We learn that we are not bad; we learn that we are lovable and acceptable.”
Writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes: “…the secret of shame… must be brought up, witnessed by compassionate humans under generous conditions.” She adds: “See what you see. Say it to someone. It is never too late. If you feel you cannot say it aloud, write it down for them. Choose a person who you instinctively believe to be trustworthy. The can of worms you are worried about opening is far better off being out there than festering inside yourself. If you prefer, seek a therapist who knows how to deal with secrets.”
Most therapists advise choosing the recipient of your secrets with care. Says Rani Raote: “Look for compassionate, trustworthy people. People who do not judge or condemn. Start by telling a small secret and see if they reject you. You must also see how much they can take, based on their own prejudices and attitudes. For instance, it would be futile to confess to a homophobe that you are a closet lesbian.”
Once you have come to terms with the secret, the next step is to forgive yourself. Writes the compassionate Clarissa: “Everyone makes poor choices in words or deeds before they know any better and before they realise what the consequences will be. There is nothing on this planet or in this universe that is outside the bounds of forgiveness. Nothing. ‘Oh, no,’ you’re saying, ‘this one thing I did is totally without pardon.’ I said nothing that a human may have done, is doing, or might do, is outside the bounds of forgiveness, Nothing.”
She adds: “The Self is not a punitive force that rushes about punishing women, men and children. The Self is a wildish God who understands the nature of creatures. It is often hard for us to ‘act right’ especially when the basic instincts, including intuition, are cut away. The wildish soul has a deeply compassionate side that takes this into account.”
Advises Swami Brahmavidananda: “One way to forgive yourself is to see that what you know today you did not know when you did whatever you did. It was the act of a more ignorant person.”
The next step in resolving the secret is to make amends. One way is to speak to the person directly about it and ask pardon if you are the perpetrator or do what is in your capacity to make up for the wrong done. If, however, the person is dead or the opening up of the secret can have catastrophic effects, Dr Mirchandani suggests the use of a therapeutic ritual like writing a letter and tearing it up. Maya Kripalani advises letting the letter sink into holy water or burn up in a fire. Swami Brahmavidananda suggests prayer as a means to come to terms with it.
It will take time to resolve a secret for it has many layers and may have affected many parts of our psyche. Says Clarissa: “Whatever the secret is, we understand that it is now part of our work for life. Redemption heals a once-open wound. But there will be a scar, nevertheless. With changes of weather the scar can and will ache again. That is the nature of true grief.”
Back to living, better than new
Nevertheless, the secret once exhumed, will not stop us from living our lives. More, it will have made us better, finer and stronger people. Says Dr Mirchandani: “When people come to terms with their secrets, they often emerge stronger for it.”
Desiree Punjabi, a housewife, was a closet alcoholic for many years before she finally gathered the courage to do something about it. Embarking on a programme that included Buddhist meditation, a detoxifying diet and acupuncture, she not only licked the ailment but has emerged from the event a wise, compassionate and insightful person. Today, her life revolves around leading a spiritually balanced life and in doing as much as she can to alleviate the misery around her. Her book, Being Happy, is a delightful and practical primer on how affirmations and the Buddhist attitude of metta bhavna (loving compassion) can heal negative feelings and align us to the welfare of the larger good.
She talks about the need for truth-telling in small things as well as big: “These days I don’t like to socialise too much at night. Earlier, I used to make excuses to avoid going out, but of late I have started to say outright, ‘I am socialising less, so I may or may not come. Now I go when I want to or just laugh and say, ‘You know how I am’. Amazingly, my friends have accepted this. Releasing myself from this is wonderful.”
As for Kay Morgan, her healing began when a client visited her who had children in trouble too, and told her that she was the only therapist she could think of who could understand what she was going through. Her secret was not a liability, it was actually a gift! Undergoing analysis herself in order to be able to help others, she was told by her analyst to do whatever she most loved to do as a child. That turned out to be making dolls out of refuse. She writes: “I began to see that I, like my dolls, was a creature composed of many parts: worn parts, new parts, rusted parts, colourful parts… all coming together to make a unique creation.”
The piece de resistance was when she was invited to give a performance art based on the dolls. Standing before a houseful audience, she sang a song she had composed called The Prison Mother. She writes: “When I finished my song, the clapping went on. I lifted my head, looked out at my audience and grinned. I got it. People weren’t clapping to congratulate me on being a plucky prison mom. They were clapping to say: ‘We could be in your shoes. We’re with you’.”
Desiree Punjabi attends an interactive satsang. She too has experienced the redemptive power of truth-telling. She says: “Most people used to talk theoretically about the spiritual concepts we discussed but I began relating them to my experiences. And one or the other would thank me later for having shared it because it was something she too had gone through. I realised that speaking the truth is the finest gift you can give others.”
That’s the truth of the matter. The final turn of the wheel happens when by sharing your vulnerability and wounds with others, you give them the liberty to open up their own dark and bound spaces and give them air. When you gather the courage to liberate yourself, you liberate others too.
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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 dissolved
Given 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 clean
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
Healing the ‘secret’ wound
However hard, first admit the secret to yourself.
The wound healed, some scar may remain. But you would be a finer, stronger person now.