How long have you been holding on to the secret of what someone did to you when you were a little child? How long have you been holding on to the secret of that bad thing you did?
Secrets are like opportunistic vines in a garden. They wind their way up and around every part of our psyche until they become unavoidable. They impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without our even noticing. They color our view of the world and of ourselves, and encourage us to assume we know what others are thinking about us. We judge ourselves, so we assume others are judging us as well.
We have years, maybe decades, of shoving down our emotions and memories, trying to avoid the pain and shame that resulted from that event or season of our lives. But secrets don’t stay hidden forever. They leak. We find ourselves becoming emotional at inopportune times. We find our reactions at times to be out of proportion to what we feel, or someone else did or said. We feel on guard all the time and have difficulty trusting others. So much suffering comes from trying to keep that secret in the dark where no one will ever find us out.
So, what can we do? How do we find relief? Like a parasitic plant that has invaded a garden, secrets have to come out. Entirely. It’s no good chopping off the visible plant and leaving the roots in the ground to continue their stealthy invasion; the whole root system must be dug up and removed. Obviously, this is very disruptive and will cause pain. It will not be over in one sitting, like a root canal. It will take time and effort and requires us to be vulnerable.
The only way to get on the other side of pain is to go through it. All the pain we’ve been trying so hard to avoid all these years must be explored, in order to follow all the branches and tendrils of the secret and expose them to the light. Only this way can they be healed.
When I’m running therapy groups, I like to ask, “Why do we avoid negative emotions?” The obvious answer is, of course, that they hurt.
An amazing thing happens, though, when we begin to work through our deep, dark secrets. We find ourselves embarking on a voyage of discovery into who we are and what we believe. We begin to see that we are not beholden to the self-protective choices we made. In fact, the more we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to a trusted “other”, (a friend, a loved one, a counselor), the more free we become. We find that with the pressure of hiding our secret removed, we can own the impact of that memory and let our triumph over it become a source of empowerment and pride.
When I dropped out of high school and ran away from home, I felt so ashamed. I felt like a loser and unconsciously, I assumed that anyone who looked at me saw a loser and a failure. This, in concert with other things that had happened to me, colored my entire outlook. Unconsciously, I devalued myself, and allowed others to devalue and take advantage of me, believing I didn’t deserve any better.
More than 30 years later, when I gave the commencement address at my undergraduate institution, I spoke about what it meant to go from defining myself as a “dropout,” to graduating at the top of my class and starting to work on my Master’s degree in Counseling. The pain of that shameful experience was erased for me. As I began to believe in myself, I observed that others believed in me, as well; that they were rooting for my success. My image of myself had begun to shift from assuming that no one cared about me and that I was all alone in the world, to realizing that I was surrounded by people who would be glad to help me, if I would only risk the vulnerability of asking.
That was just one event from a childhood full of much pain and shame. What I learned from my clients is that none of my pain is wasted. The difficulties and traumas of my childhood and youth mean that I can understand and relate to my clients’ pain, and believe the stories they’ve been afraid to share with anyone, out of fear of being judged. So often, the first thing client say to me during their intake interview is: “I’ve never told this to anyone...”
So, what secrets are you holding on to? Is it time to start digging up your garden?