Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Keeping Secrets

If one of your friends tends to be open and honest in all things with all people and another of your friends will take your secrets with him to the grave, which one would you confide in?

Is it even a contest?

Keep in mind, the closeness of your relationships depends in very good part on how much you are or are not comfortable confiding.

The therapy culture has given people the impression that it is bad to keep secrets. And yet, we do better to choose our friends based on their discretion.

How do we know that someone can keep our secrets? Simple, ask yourself how well this person keeps the secrets that other people have confided in him? If you meet someone who seems constantly to be saying whatever comes to mind, and who especially enjoys gossiping about other people, you can feel confident that whatever you confide in him will be repeated to his nearest and dearest.

In some cases this is an advantage. If you want to send a message to someone but would rather not risk the confrontation, you might confide in someone you know to be an incurable gossip.

If you want to attract friends who can keep secrets, demonstrate to them that you can keep your own.

Obviously, there are more than a few professions that expect, even demand an ability to keep secrets. Among them are: lawyer, doctor, therapist, priest and pastor.

What you should or should not confide in whom depends on situations and circumstances. There is no hard and fast, one-size-fits-all rule about sharing secrets.

In our culture, many people have come to believe that when they fall in love they can share everything with the “One.” This is a commonly-held illusion. It is better to understand that failing to keep secrets is a character flaw. And who wants to continue to love someone who has a character flaw, like verbal incontinence.

In some circumstances you should not keep a secret. If something has happened to you that will directly affect your spouse, you should share it. You should not hide an illness from your spouse or a significant change in your career. Since either event can markedly affect your mood, your spouse has right to know what is causing the change in attitude. Otherwise he or she will naturally think that something has gone wrong between the two of you.

Obviously, if your changed mood derives from the fact that you have been flirting up a storm with your secretary, you would do better to keep it to yourself.

Indiscretion has killed far more marriages than has cheating.

Unfortunately, the culture seems to suggest that it’s bad to keep secrets.

In her Wall Street Journal column this morning Elizabeth Bernstein writes:

But keeping secrets from a loved one can put an emotional wedge in the relationship and change the way we communicate. Research shows that when we keep secrets from a mate, our relationship satisfaction goes down. And the more we ruminate about a secret, the more we want to reveal it.

"When we have a secret and mull it over, we develop stress and it makes our body sick," says Tamara Afifi, professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, who studies secrets. "To get our body back to a sense of health, we need to reveal or cure our self of the secret." Researchers call this the Fever Model, she says.

Whether anyone should or not keep a secret is a matter for ethics. Later in her article Bernstein will suggest as much.

Making it a medical issue and allowing, as Prof. Afifi does, people to believe that revealing secrets is an elixir, is irresponsible. The way Afifi formulates her point might leave people thinking that it is always a good idea to reveal secrets to loved ones.

Because, if it is such a bad thing to keep secrets, how does the professor explain the fact that for many professionals keeping secrets is a positive achievement. Being unable to keep secrets is for some akin to malpractice.

Even though Afifi is only talking about secrets that one might choose to hide from loved ones, she knows well that the message needs to be qualified.

Bernstein attempts to clarify the point:

How do you decide whether to reveal a secret? Tread carefully here, experts say. If telling the secret will hurt someone and produce no benefit, then it shouldn't be told. Had an affair decades ago? If it's long over and your marriage is good, mum's the word.

Unless you have a good therapist, you're on your own on this decision. Dr. Afifi says examine your motivation. Is it selfish? The desire to get something off your chest or a feeling of moral obligation to tell aren't good enough reasons to cause someone else pain. Consider how telling the secret will affect the listener, the relationship and other people, as well. Weigh long-term benefits against short-term drawbacks.

In the end, Bernstein’s guidelines are precisely what is needed. You should not blurt out some bad news, especially news that hurts the other person or that causes the other person to think less of you because you have heard that keeping secrets is bad for your health.

Sometimes it's better not to get something off your chest. Always consider whether a secret revealed will cause more pain than the sensation of bottling up an emotion. 

Before divulging a secret consider how the information will change the nature of your relationship, how it will impact the other person and others, what it will or will not accomplish. Hopefully, a good therapist will know this and will help you to examine different situations before deciding on the best course of action.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lance Armstrong's long held secrets of doping show one extreme of keeping secrets, in the case where you know you did wrong, but rationalize, and then try to keep others who know silent.

So whatever else this shows, it shows once you have to coerce someone to an loyalty to stay quiet, or threaten, its time to come clean.

I saw a video recently with Jordan Peterson on the problems of evil, and he claimed there are two factors involved, arrogance and resentment. I've been thinking about that and see the third component is innocence (either as a rationalization, or as an enabling frame of others to not call you out for your behavior, saying its not your responsibility.)

I've also thought about how the conscience works, and I've been convincing myself of late that its not a faculty that differentiates between good and bad, but between whole and fragmented. So "evil" is what we can do when we're fragmented, compartmentalized so we can have one standard of behavior on each component of our life. So Nazi SS men could kill and torture and go home to loving wife and children, and believe he deserves his family, and is doing what he's doing to protect them.

Of course there's big and small cases. Politics is another ugly place of secrets, where public image is so important, and your rivals can ruin you if they know about your past alcoholism, or whatever. So that speaks of shame - people have power over you as long as you are afraid to admit the truth of your past.

If Slick Willy had just said, "I had sexual contact with my Intern, and it was stupid, and its none of your business." it would have maybe defused some of the witch trial atmosphere.

Or maybe every confession just turns up the temperature to keep digging deeper? And maybe that zeal to try to expose others is felt most strongly by those with their own shameful secrets, trying to expose themselves in your excess?

That's the fun thing about secrets - if you can't control your unconscious, and it wants to be seen, your projections on the world will eventually expose you anyway.

Like the quote "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." - Anais Nin

So if our secrets are coloring our perceptions on the world, then we can't trust ourselves, and my hurt others because of it, and then the burden of keeping secrets exceeds supposed benefit.

I guess that's where the "confession" ideal comes from, and once you confess to the world, you want everyone else to join your parade, and sensible folk do not follow, so you're on your own to find your way back to respectability or have a heroic death in the works for the dramatic truthteller.