Privacy, Secrets and Shame–Part IX: Why to Reveal a Secret

“A nuerosis is a secret that you don’t know you are keeping.”

Thus wrote English theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, and with these words he opens the conversation about the damage a secret does to the secret-keeper himself. So let’s take a step away for a moment from some of the family-dynamic reasons for revealing a secret, and look at what some of the research says about the damage to the secret-keeper personally for holding onto that secret. [See http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/behavior/secret-hurt-me1.htm for the following 2 scientific citations.]

Anita E. Kelly, psychology PhD at the University of Notre Dame, studies the impact of keeping secrets. She summarizes some of her recent research: “Quite simply … secretive people also tend to be sick people … I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.”

James Pennebraker, psychologist at the University of Texas, wrote in the 1970s that “people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer.”

Pennebaker, using blood tests, counseling, and measuring brain waves via EEGs found that no matter what venue people utilized for relieving themselves of the secret [this included merely writing the secret down on paper], there were measurable physical and mental health benefits.

Counted among such benefits, according to Eric Jaffe’s “The Science Behind Secrets,”  were decreased worry and–perhaps as a correlate–improved sleep, better relationships, and–this blows me away–improved T-cell counts in the immune system.

And what about the impact on those who are drawn into the living web of another’s secret? Cut back to Imber-Black. She suggests that children who learn to keep family secrets (abuse, addictions, affairs) learn, in a sense to lead double lives that can actually cause their emotional development to halt in its tracks, leaving them forever emotionally where they were when asked “to start withholding part of their lives.”

In short, there are many reasons–and many levels of reasons–for revealing the secret that has been burying you under its shame–if you reveal it correctly. My next post will address my thoughts on how to best and most safely open up your secret. If you have thoughts on this, as well, I’d be interested.


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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