The things that go without saying go even better when said.
In "The Secret that Became My Life," Jane Isay recounts learning about her husband's gay identity after many years of marriage and then staying in the closet with him for many more. About becoming a "full-fledged secret keeper" she writes,
What may start as a simple set of secrets can spread through a person's character like cancer. Keeping a secret demands habitual denial, which gradually may morph in to self-deception, resulting in the diminution of the self...The keeper worries about being found out. The keeper also tries to create an internal story that keeps self-judgment at bay. So we rationalize, and we explain, and we cover over the bright shiny truth. We tell ourselves stories about how much better off everybody is if they are ignorant. The keeper is afraid of change, of retribution, and of being judged.
I appreciate the attention she gives to the toll these secrets take on the secret keeper, as this aspect of secrecy seems central to shifting our belief that life does indeed go better when we speak our little "t" truths.* In other words, secrets harm, and even destroy, the secret keeper. Because they do so from the inside out, the self-injury inflicted by secrecy may go undetected until the damage is widespread.
I have known many people who have well-crafted explanations for why silence must continue about issues like childhood sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, a family member's alcoholism, infidelity, and trans gender identities. Generally, fear is driving the story and often with good reason. We can lose our loved ones, our place in families, our jobs, and other important aspects of our lives and livelihoods when we speak the truth. I appreciate that Isay does not sugarcoat the pain of truth-telling when we have carefully guarded a secret for a long while. She also does not end the story at encountering pain, loss, and conflict; she follows it to healing:
Telling is not simple for secret keepers who have dedicated much time and energy to the secret. It is painful and humiliating to explain feelings and motives under these circumstances. Even if they believe that they kept the secret for good reasons, they feel guilty. Faced with a loved one wanting the truth, people tend to pull back. Yet an honest account of the circumstances that led to the secret is often necessary to begin the process of healing.
One way to discuss the costs of secrecy in non-judgmental terms is to focus on the energy required to hide truths. "Where our attention goes, our energy flows," so we can assess how much attention we give to covering over the important truths of our lives.** Do we try to control not only what we say but also what others share? Do we spend many moments of each day worrying about what will happen if the truth gets out? Do we resort to numerous avoidance strategies--including using drugs and/or alcohol, overworking, and overexercising--to keep our fear of being found out at bay?
If we do indeed spend significant amounts of time and energy safeguarding our truths, we may want to consider how this management of reality amounts to a lot of unlived life. After all, living from a story of fear differs significantly from being present to the life within and around us. More pointedly, chronic fear puts tremendous stress on the body and impedes creativity, connection, and empathy.
Ultimately, secrets close us off from others since trust and intimacy require a high degree of authenticity and vulnerability. They also limit our freedom and wholeness. When we only focus our attention on the possible horrific outcomes of truth-telling, we become blind to the possible benefits of it. Isay beautifully articulates some possibilities engendered by honesty at the end of her story:
Some revelations stop relationships in their tracks. But others reveal the true person in our midst, the imperfect, limping, and often loving soul we cared about so much. And so we continue to care, and together we can rebuild, this time slowly, on a foundation of truth...We have choices in this life, and we make mistakes. Forgiveness is not impossible, and the wholeness of spirit that comes from truth is cool and pure.