Are you like me? Do you also have a secret (or a few) you don’t want to tell anyone? I get it. I do. One reason we choose not to share with others the toxic Twinkies our shame-filled secrets are, is we think we know how people will feel about us if we disclose our darkness. Because of the unsavory way we feel about ourselves over our missteps.
The night my husband confessed his affair to me, I learned volumes about secrets; including why we attempt to keep them and the negative effects of doing so. At 2:00am, too wracked with gut-wrenching guilt over what he knew he needed to tell me, he hadn’t yet been to sleep. The terror of having to tell me what he’d done had wired his brain to static awake. Long before he found the courage to speak, his palpably anxious energy woke me. Upon hearing me stir, he haltingly declared, “Jodie, I have to tell you something.”
At his foreboding words, my body burst into fight or flight mode. My heart rate took off like a primed steed and my breaths got caught in the snare of my throat. I began to sweat caustic anxiety out of every pore and a cacophony of unknown origin began crashing in my ears. All this before he said another word. And once he did, my husband endured his own horrendous onslaught of ominous sensations as he labored to break the news of his infidelity.
In the wee hours of the morning, exhausted and raw, with his secret finally exposed and no longer eating its way through his intestinal walls, my husband looked at me through lenses of utter humility and sheepishly asked if I had ever done anything I was unbearably ashamed of. In a generous at the time spirit of full disclosure and in no longer wanting to keep anything from him, I told him something I’d kept hidden for almost thirty years.
As a teenager, I stole money from an employer’s business while working at a summer job. On one occasion, I nearly got caught but I talked my way out of it. And this was just one of the several profoundly misguided ways I slogged through being the product of a broken home and having a broken sense of self due to suffering through years of sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. There weren’t many bodies of troubled waters I didn’t dip my toes in during my up and coming years.
My husband was surprised to hear of my criminal behavior, but the knowledge that I too had once made a grave mistake, bathed his scorched and still smoldering heart in welcome relief. That I also had a secret I was deeply ashamed of and was too afraid to tell another living soul, eased his acute torment that night. I told him my secret because he’d been so broken in his revelation. So sincere in his plea as to whether I myself had ever made a very poor choice that hurt someone; one I regretted so much I’d never spoken of it, even to him.
Despite the devastating ground-zero moment of his confession, I still felt love for my husband and didn’t want him to feel alone in his mistake. Because he wasn’t. And I knew that if we were to be able to move forward from his transgression, it would have to be with a clean conscious of my own. It would have to be on the terms of accountability all around. Somehow, in all the stabby pain and torturous anguish, the desire to continue to love my husband is what won out among my many embattled thoughts and emotions. I wanted to show my enduring love for him by giving him the gift of shared vulnerability. Something I’m positive wasn’t of me, but rather, of God.
When we tell our truths, consequences will ensue. There’s no getting around it. But as excruciating as those consequences may be, they’re often preferable to the soul-eroding effects of keeping a secret. Even before the half-lives of the consequences born of telling our truths begin to wane, something miraculous happens. We begin to heal.
In contrast, keeping secrets or telling lies often creates internal suffering without cessation and consequences with no half-lives. A form of suffering that lasts as long as the secret does. Shame will make sure of it. Once our secret is told, though, and even just one person looks at us with understanding, offering up the love for us they still have in their heart, shame is forced to start slinking away.
Some months ago, I sat with a friend who was in a fretful emotional state. Our conversation dove to as yet unfathomable depths and I found myself telling her a different secret of mine, one I’ve kept from nearly everyone. I told her my secret because I knew without a doubt she was a safe-repository for my regret and because I wanted to let her know she was not alone in her own grief and remorse about her choices in life and where they had taken her. Once my secret was told, she surprised me by saying, “Me too.” And then, we wept together.
It’s what happened next that still sits with me and continues to influence how often I tell my truths and to whom: current plan — nearly all of them to almost everyone. My friend told me another secret of her own, one she believed was even worse than the one we shared. I’m certain that in her mind she was recounting one of her absolute worst moments and deepest regrets.
I know it was excruciatingly hard for her to tell me about because she visibly furled into herself, like a flower closing ranks with its petals to protect against the chill and uncertainty of the night. She tried to make herself smaller to match the size she felt. Her lower lip quivered and her voice lowered to just an ish above a whisper. As she spoke, she looked away from me, unable to maintain eye contact while her words crept out. She didn’t want to tell me her truth and she desperately wanted to be free of her truth, both. Ultimately, she triumphed over her secret and turned it into spoken words. Words that immediately began to untie the bonds of silence, loosening shame’s grip on her.
As tears streamed for us both, I sat there silently, holding open a safe space so she could emerge from the protective cave she’d sought refuge in during the telling. As she slowly returned, I knew all too well the relief she was already beginning to feel. Not necessarily at receiving full absolution, as final exoneration comes in the form of a self-decree and that takes time to complete. More so, at the lifting of the too-heavy burden of secrecy off of her chest. She was already getting more oxygen, I could hear her taking it in.
The sharing of the secret is merely the beginning of the sometimes long, laborious process of forgiving ourselves, and each other, of our transgressions. We are often harder on ourselves over our failures than anyone else ever could be. But she was already feeling shame take leave of her body, where it had lodged in her heart like a troll; unpredictably laying siege on her joy when it dared to cross its path.
I didn’t need to tell her my secret that day for myself, I’d told it before and thus shame was no longer lording it over me. Rather, she needed to hear it. She needed to wield my secret like a torch; lighting her own flame of rebellion against the shame she’d been ruled by for too long. We all need our own coup against any oppressive regime of shame attempting to reign over us.
What if I hadn’t been her spark that day? Would she ever have told her secret? Would she have ever released her hurt so she could begin to heal from it? I don’t know if she would have found a way or not but I know it’s a salve to my soul that I don’t have to wonder.
Many would caution that our stories and our secrets aren’t for everyone. I would caution that our secrets and our stories are always for someone, though. And that we can’t afford to not share them and not just because others can’t afford to not hear them. Telling our hard truths is how we ourselves will begin to break free of them, how we will heal faster and more fully.
Edited from a version originally published for me by Her View From Home.