Written by Rachel Clarke, LCSW
“The idea that “we’re only as sick as our secrets” is more than an adage; there’s growing empirical evidence that not owning and integrating our stories affects not just our emotional health but also our physical well-being.” –Brené Brown
“A secret shared with several persons is as beneficial as a merely private secret is destructive. The latter works like a burden of guilt, cutting off the unfortunate possessor from communion with his fellows.” -Carl Jung
We all have secrets, but how many are too many and how big is too big? And what does the stress of keeping those secrets do to us?
Emotionally, secrets can contribute to feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. The more secrets we keep inside, the more shame we have. The more shame we have, the more stress we have. The more stress we have, the less we’re able to be present in and aware of our bodies. This Healthline article simply and concretely outlines exactly how, over time, stress will negatively affect all systems operating within the body.
One of the best parts of my job is hearing clients say, “it feels so good to say that out loud”, or “I’ve never told anyone that before”. The relief they experience is palpable and often positively alters the client’s mood for the rest of the session. Acceptance and reframing seem to be much more attainable after the perceived “confession” as well. I basically watch a client heal right before my eyes, and all I did was offer a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere for them to be heard.
Sadly, it’s not realistic to believe that you can share all your problems with one person. So, what are some ways you can start chipping away at shameful big secrets and/or your daily “small” problems that add up and weigh you down? Here are 4 suggestions:
Whether it’s on your notepad on your phone, a word document, or regular pen and paper – writing about your stressors helps you process and resolve them more effectively than brainstorming alone. Writing also exercises your memory and ability to recall concepts. Finally, writing gets cumbersome thoughts out of your packed and racing mind, onto a tangible object that you can always refer to later if you want. In a sense your conscience doesn’t feel the need to hold onto it anymore, because it knows it’s safe somewhere else.
If you don’t feel like keeping a journal, you could contribute to Postsecret, an ongoing community mail art project, created by Frank Warren in 2005, in which people mail their secrets anonymously on a homemade postcard. Or, if you are not ready to share a secret with another human, you could try writing it on a piece of paper, and then burning it in a safe space outside, in a ritual to demonstrate that you are turning over your secret to the universe.
When People Ask, Tell
I’m not suggesting you become a chronic complainer or oversharer, but if a trusted friend notices that you are not quite yourself and asks if you’re ok, it’s perfectly acceptable to say something like, “things are tough financially right now and it’s really stressing me out”. Just saying that will help, and hopefully this friend will have some supportive words for you that stir feelings of affirmation and hope.
Keep in contact with friends through small phone check-ins, texts, and emails. Say something like, “I’m just calling/writing to see how you’re doing and catch up”. Not only are you being the friend you want to have (supportive and loving), but you will get the chance to discuss your issues when the friend returns the favor and asks how you are. These recurrent check-ins and conversations help build and maintain positive relationships, which we need to survive. We need and deserve close relationships in our lives. If you don’t get them from your family, please seek them out through school, work, church, or other community activities. There’s a place for all of us in this world, though sometimes you may have to work hard to find it.
Hire Someone To Listen
Finally, as a therapist, of course I believe that everyone needs a therapist. I have a therapist. Even my therapist has a therapist. Your partner, friends, and family can only help so much, as they are biased in their beliefs and views of you. Additionally, your interactions are entwined with history, perception and years of ingrained and conditioned behavioral responses (feedback loops)that have gone unchecked.
Whether it’s an LCPC, LPC, LSW, LCSW, or Licensed Psychologist/Clinical Psychologist – a competent and ethical therapist should provide a safe, non-judgmental space for you to share, feel all your feelings, and then help you integrate other positive coping skills into your life to find healing and resolve. It initially may seem impersonal, but guess what, most of us who provide talk therapy do so because we want and feel called to help people heal and learn to accept themselves and their histories.
True, a lot of stressful incidents are beyond our control; however, we do have control over 1) how we frame and interpret incidents, and 2) how we react and respond. Therapists help us learn how to do both better.
Engaging in these 4 activities/habits, along with nutrition, physical movement, mindfulness & meditation, and getting enough sleep will help you be your authentic, true self and live a more meaningful and enjoyable life. Try your best. You deserve it.
Rachel Clarke is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who received her Master’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University in Chicago. Rachel has experience working with adults, adolescents, and children.