Studies have shown that keeping secrets can alter your perceptions, making your outlook more negative. The bigger the secret, and the more you think about it, the greater the effect. And if you learn the secret at a time of transition in your life--parents divorcing, adolescence, leaving home, marriage, the birth of a child, a death in the family--the more you are burdened with it. Your ability to assert your independence, to form healthy relationships, or to trust others can be affected.
Secrets are kept for a number of reasons: shame, guilt, and embarrassment among them. Consider what people hide: abuse, a drinking problem, a drug problem, an affair, a pregnancy resulting from an affair, a relative with mental illness or a criminal record, family financial problems, a suicide in the family, among others.
What are the consequences of secret keeping? Consider, for example, a teenager who finds out that one parent is having an affair. The teen will distance himself or herself from that parent because that parent is now seen as someone the teen doesn't really know and who can't be trusted. There is also the fear that the other parent will find out and the family will break up. The teen is distanced from both parents at a time when he or she is beginning to deal with their own sexuality and really needs input from parents. What a burden for a young person to carry! If there is no one in whom the teen can safely confide, emotional growth may actually be stopped at this point.
What happens when emotional growth stops? That teenager eventually becomes an adult with adolescent emotions.
Normal adult responsibilities are too much to handle. Commitments seem overwhelming and are avoided. It may be hard to leave home, to manage money, to foresee the consequences of behaviors, to stop being self-centered and consider the needs and feelings of other people. If this person tries to enter a long-term relationship or becomes a parent without the emotional maturity those stages in life require, both the relationship and the child begin with severe handicaps and will suffer. Thus the secret-keeping has consequences on another generation.
Some secrets are kept by the whole family. "Don't tell anyone. It's no one else's business!" "Don't air our dirty laundry!"
Such attitudes create a sense of shame, and shame lowers self-esteem, making it more difficult to relate to others or feel close to them. Children burdened by secrecy may be unable to concentrate in school, but can't explain to anyone what is distressing them. Often they're classified as poor students or troublemakers.
What do you do when you're burdened with secrets? You have to find a safe way to relieve the stress. One thing you should NOT do is confide in a friend. All you are doing then is burdening that person, who may eventually decide to relieve it by confiding in someone else. You need to go to a professional who is trained to keep confidences. There is a reason why psychologists and psychiatrists can't have a personal relationship with their patients. Priests, ministers and rabbis are also trained to deal with secrets they are bound to keep. The act of safely telling another person what you have had to keep hidden for so long can relieve a lot of pressure.
If the secret-keeping has stunted your emotional growth, being able to confide in someone else safely may allow growth to begin again. It won't happen instantly, and you'll have to do some work, but it will be worth it.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.