The words of a famous Christmas song impart a wise message to our children that also applies to adults as well. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” One way that we behave contrary to this advice is when we keep personal secrets.
Neuroscientist, David Eagleman, in his recent book “Incognito: What’s Hiding In The Unconscious Mind” states, “The main reason not to reveal a secret is aversion to the long-term consequences. A friend might think ill of you, or a lover might be hurt, or a community might ostracize you.”
When our conscience collides with our conduct we become secretive and withhold information to avoid alienation and isolation from others.
The need to “belong” is a primary compelling life force. Without the affirmation, companionship and care of others, we fear isolation, despondency and even death. To preserve our social and intimate ties we must maintain others’ positive view of us at all cost so we cover our censored conduct with silence.
Illegal behaviors subject violators to penalties, incarceration, isolation and being relegated to the fringes of society. Stealing, embezzling, abusing or violating other people’s being or property clearly demands secrecy.
Immoral acts such as bribery, larceny or infidelity are propelled by greed, self-entitlement, lust, disregard for others’ rights and contempt for values and ethical ways. Thus, the individual perpetrating these acts will knowingly keep his schemes silent.
Unethical behaviors are more delicate ways of gaining advantage at the expense of another. Going along with an unfair business practice to enhance one’s position, status or riches, compromising one’s values for financial or social benefits or allowing an injustice to others to occur without objection must also be safeguarded by secrecy.
There are those who feel shame as a result of their own actions and others who feel shame about having been victims of acts perpetrated by an abuser. In both categories, the containment of these secrets is hazardous to the holder of the secret.
Psychologist James Pennebaker studied the outcome of silence in victims of rape and incest. He found that “The act of not discussing or confiding the event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se.”
¨ Assess whether “you have been bad or good.” If you must keep your behavior secret from your spouse, employer, friends or family, you should consider discontinuing this conduct.
¨ Keep sacred the secrets of others since you were trusted to respect their privacy and it is NOT your information to share unless it risks another’s wellbeing.
¨ Withhold gossip about others to spare them discomfort and embarrassment.
¨ Do share your secrets about having been abused with a safe/helpful person for your greater emotional wellbeing.
¨ Be good. It frees you from secrets and keeps you healthy.