Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist 

 

Secrets

June 22, 1999 

This article is one of a series of radio spots prepared by Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D. for 
WAGE 1200 AM RADIO

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Frequently in my practice, someone raises the question of how much personal information one should share with family and friends.  For example, once the diagnosis becomes clear, should he tell his extended family he has depression?  Should she tell her fiance about past relationships? 
          
In my early training, especially when I was studying family therapy, the answer was a definite yes.  Concealing information was considered to be physically or psychologically damaging and it was thought to create symptoms or dysfunction in the rest of the family.  This is because it often takes energy to hide information from others. 
         
Research has showed that the tendency to avoid disclosing emotions is positively correlated with problems such as anxiety, depression, backpain, and headache.  Another non-medical problem with hiding information from others is that the secret-keeper does not get the chance to hear another person's perspective on an issue, which might reduce unwarranted shame and guilt. Finally, if the secret is ever discovered, friends might come to see the lack of disclosure as deceit. 
  
However, sharing personal information with others is not always helpful or curative.  In fact, there are some excellent reasons for putting a lid on it and just living with your 
discomfort for a while. 
 
First, revealing one's most painful or embarrassing acts or fantasies may create anxiety in the listener and, as a result, rejection.  This is especially true for people who seem to be out of control of their problems.  People who seem to be coping well don't make the listeners as anxious, and so are not as often rejected. 
 
People who tell are often avoided by confidants after 
they've revealed their secrets.  My exerience at a nursing home is that patients will terminal illness live with constant fear which they often do not share with family and friends because the family and friends can't stand it.  They will dismiss the person's feelings as being wrong-headed or inappropriate. 
    
Learning about a severe trauma is often difficult for the 
listener because it threatens the listener's beliefs about the 
predictability of the world.  The listener often reacts by 
attributing personal responsibility to the discloser, so he can
continue to believe the world is fair, just or predictable. 
        
We tend to form part of our self-image from interacting with people.  If people start withdrawing from us, or blaming us, we start creating negative self-images.  For example, if a woman makes the painful choice to announce to her coworkers that she has been raped, she may come to see herself as a "victim" because she may perceive that her coworkers see her as a victim. 
    
So, when should you reveal secrets? Tell somebody your secret if keeping secrets is causing negative physical effects. Consider carefully who you choose as a confidant. The confidant you should select is someone you know will be able to keep your secret. He should be nonjudgmental, and able to offer new insights into the secret. If your confidant is going to be hurt by the information you give him, or somebody the confidant cares about will be hurt, seriously rethink sharing your secret.  They just might just prefer you keep it to yourself.  Friendship is a hard-won privilege; don't spoil it. 
 

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