Privacy, Secrets and Shame–Part V: Questions About–and the Damage Caused by–Secrets

If we’re to take an honest look at secret-keeping–and that involves our own–we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about why we continue in our path of secrecy.

Ask yourself these–and be honest:

1. Who else knows this secret? Like in Alan’s case, with never having graduated high school, do so many people know, that keeping a secret becomes an exercise in avoiding more and more people?

2. Who’s harmed by this secret? Is it me? It is my children? My ex? Am I keeping this secret to try to protect somebody? And is that a noble enough reason to continue to perpetuate this secrecy? Think back to Manfred‘s closeted gay existence.  Aside from the more subtle ways in which it undercut his wife’s sense of her own self-worth, this secret became physically dangerous when Manfred contracted AIDS. Now Manfred, his wife, and son were all being harmed by the secret–and he still clung on. Think clearly about how your secret may be damaging to others.

3. What am I afraid of if I were to tell my secret? Go ahead–allow all of your worst, deepest, darkest fantasies to come to play themselves out. It’s a time for honesty now. And most often I find, after all the analysis, no matter if the secret is a relatively minor one–“I failed high school biology”–or a relatively major one–“I’m gay and I can’t continue in this marriage”–that the question is almost always answered by, “I won’t be loved/accepted.”

4. Who owns this secret? Is it really mine to tell, after all? And if it isn’t, how can I make my life better living with it?


Evan Imber-Black, editor of Secrets in Famlies and Family Therapy, is an expert in secret-keeping and its impact on the family, as well as in  how therapy can heal from damaging secrets. She addresses these and several other major questions regarding whether to reveal or continue to conceal a secret in 2 short posts: http://www.planet-therapy.com/features/black.html, and http://www.planet-therapy.com/features/black-part2.html.

Additionally, in an article from psychologytoday.com, Imber-Black writes about crucial ways that family secrets damage family members:

  • Secrets create distance between family members, circumventing closeness. Remember Alan and Alayna, already struggling in their marriage, but prevented of an opportunity to build a more solid foundation by Alan’s continued secret-keeping of his lack of diploma.
  • The secret, if painful or shaming enough, can prevent family members from sharing information with those outside of the family. Here we can think of Ludwig, who struggled to share the truth about his father with his serious girlfriend . These secrets thus hamper the development of external intimate relationships.
  • Those in the family who know the secret and those who don’t are driven apart by this ‘forbidden knowledge’ and tectonic shifts re-align power in family dynamics, not usually for the better.

In one family the father had an affair. Don’t get too excited–it all turned out okay and the couple does better together now, afterwards, than they had been doing for years previously.  But the mother elected to tell the oldest daughter about the father’s straying. To this day I’m not sure the father is even aware that his daughter knows about his extramarital activities, but you can imagine the impact this has on family dynamics.  Think carefully before you draw someone into your secret’s orbit who is then obligated in the subterfuge as well.

In fact, as carefully as you have worked to keep your secret–for years or sometimes decades–you need to work to reveal your secret,  at the right time, to the correct people, and in the appropriate fashion.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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