When people feel forced to keep dark secrets from people they care about, they carry a painful burden of guilt and shame. This can make them feel cut off and isolated emotionally from loved ones, and often keeps them from living authentic and joyful lives.
If keeping a secret—or being a secret—feels detrimental to your physical or mental health, it’s not your imagination. The expression “toxic secrets” is neither hyperbole nor a figure of speech. Researchers increasingly are learning that secrets place a profound burden on mental and physical health.Secrets are Toxic
If this habit is trained into a person as a child, it can become second nature — and a very tragic fate for anyone.
Here are some dangers of keeping secrets from loved ones:
2. They lead to cover-up lies and omissions that can be hard to remember. These mount up, and if the truth comes out, it may be more hurtful than the original secret. The longer the truth is hidden, the greater becomes the hurdle of revelation, for it would bring into question every instance of cover-up and all times the innocent partner relied upon and trusted the betrayer.
3. The secret holder feels guilty, or at least uncomfortable, during intimate moments with the deceived person. Closeness and certain topics tend to be avoided. Avoidance may not even be conscious and can include things like being preoccupied with work, friends, hobbies, or addictive behavior, and doing activities that leave little opportunity for private conversations. The deceiver might even provoke an argument to create distance.
4. Honesty is valued as a moral norm, although the context and specifics may differ among cultures. When we violate religious or cultural norms by hiding the truth, we experience anxiety generated by guilt. Despite our best efforts at hiding, our physiological reaction is the basis for electronic lie detectors.
5. This violation of our values not only leads to guilt; it also affects our self-concept. Over a long period, deception can eat away at our self-esteem. Ordinary guilt that could be reversed with honesty now becomes shame and undermines our fundamental sense of dignity and worthiness as a person. The gap between the self we show others and how we feel inside widens.
6. Our ways of managing guilt and shame create more problems. We hide not only the secret, but more of who we are. We might build resentments to justify our actions, withdraw, or become critical, irritable, or aggressive. We rationalize our lie or secret to avoid the inner conflict and the danger we imagine awaits us if we come clean. Some people become obsessed with their lie, to the point that they have difficulty concentrating on anything else. Other people are able to compartmentalize their feelings or rationalize their actions to better manage dishonesty. Compartmentalization and denying, rationalizing (“What my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt him/her”), or minimizing (“I only did it once”) are psychological defenses that help us deal with inner conflict and an undesirable reality. They can be so effective that the liar is convinced that lying supports the relationship. He or she may not want to face the hurt or choices that the truth could precipitate.article continues after advertisement
7. Not surprisingly, beyond mental distress, research reveals that lying leads to health complaints.
8. The victim of deception may begin to react to the avoidant behavior by feeling confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. They may begin to doubt themselves, and their self-esteem may suffer. Often, victims of betrayal need counseling to recover from the loss of trust and to raise their self-esteem.
For some people, living in a deep labyrinth of lies is how they learned to live as children. Their family situation may have convinced them that any other approach to living was suicide. Unfortunately, the path of secrets and lies is also suicide, but a slower and more torturous path to get there.
Often it is the family which is the focus of secrets and lies. The numbers and types of secrets which families may hide are almost endless, but a few sorts of secrets tend to predominate:
- Secrets about infidelity and illegitimacy
- Secrets about previous lives, previous marriages, previous children etc.
- Secrets about chemical abuse and addiction
- Secrets about homosexuality
- Secrets about abusive relationships: verbal, physical, emotional, sexual abuse
- Secrets about criminal acts
- Secrets about true identities and backgrounds
- Secrets about health and mental health conditions
All of these secrets and more, can become foci of guilt and shame, and can damage a person’s mental, physical, and emotional health. As mentioned above, some people are trained into such a lifestyle of secrets and lies during childhood. That can make for a very long sentence of self-torture and other-torture should this lifestyle then be transferred through the generations.
The coverup is often far more damaging than the secret itself, if faced honestly with the firm intent to rectify wrongs and to create the conditions for a healthier environment for the future. Honesty can be a wildly liberating condition.
There is no end to the possible secrets that people can distort their lives around in the attempt to maintain a particular facade, when facing the secret from a position of strength and mutual support within a family would provide a far cleaner future.
But once the tangled weave of lies is woven, it becomes ever more difficult to untangle with every new lie that is told.
Brad Blanton and his Radical Honesty organization might be thought of as the Dave Ramsey of honest living. Living in lies and secrets can be seen as another type of living in debt. You can’t get out of the mire without first facing up to the problem. There should be a 12 Step program for getting out of the pit of secrets and lies. The best approach is not to put yourself there in the first place. As for children, do your best not to compromise their honesty and well-being just to bolster your own facade and self image.