Reader Benefit: By the end of this blog you’ll understand why you or someone you know was harboring a distressing secret could vastly improve functioning by talking with a trusted and skilled professional.
I was recently talking with a great childhood friend and we were reminiscing about what happened to various people we grew up with. While we both agreed that we were lucky enough to have had truly remarkable childhoods, we agreed that our community in Libertyville, Illinois, had been gravely affected by the still barely investigated Catholic church child sexual abuse epidemic. Both of us knew fellow classmates who had been affected, and we both admitted it made us feel sick to our stomach.
But the thought that made us feel even sicker is that many who had been sexually abused have likely still not talked about it with anyone. Instead, they – or maybe someone you know – have kept it a secret.
My estimate is there are untold tens of thousands who are holding these secrets worldwide, and many of them take the secrets to their graves. If you are one of those holding this kind of secret in, you are NOT alone.
But if you continue holding the secret inside, you will continue paying a serious psychological and physical cost. At the end of this blog, I will give you several concrete reasons why talking about it is critical to your life, and the life of those around you.
Let me first empathize with those who have been scared to talk to anyone: I understand there is a hypnotically powerful negative mythology around the idea of seeking professional assistance for emotional or behavioral problems. The predominating cultural bias is you should not seek assistance. And as many patients of mine who are physicians told me, some of the most negative attitudes about seeking professional assistance come from the medical profession.
A female physician I’ve recently seen as a patient told me that within the medical community she is part of here in Tucson, Arizona, USA, her colleague physicians hold harshly critical attitudes of those who admit to having behavioral health problems. No wonder why so many people would rather keep their secrets to themselves, and plod on no matter how much of a toll that secret is having on their daily functioning.
If you – or someone you know – is wondering whether they should talk with someone, you can direct them to my previous blog to help them buttress their courage: https://www.doctorbrunner.com/how-the-negative-mythology-surrounding-getting-help-for-emotional-or-behavioral-likely-impairs-your-parental-judgment/
After a decade of sitting eye-to-eye with children and adults who have revealed their abuse for the first time to me, I have learned several things about what happens to a person once they let go of their most intimate secrets. And the lessons I’ve learned are not simply from the heart, they are also based on over 50 years of social science research that I continue to review and apply as a compassionate yet informed clinical scientist.
The 4 lessons are as follows:
— People assume that if they told someone about their darkest secrets, they will get worse. The opposite is the case. They get better, often incredibly better if they are working with a truly skilled professional who uses evidence-based techniques to help that person regain a sense of who they genuinely are as they redefine themselves as someone who is healing (and eventually healed) rather than someone who has been abused and is keeping the secret.
— If people do not talk about the abuse with a trustworthy professional, then the keeping of that secret drains them of life energy to the point where they are significantly impaired. You can think of the human energy system as a full glass of water. We all have a limited amount of water in the glass, and the water represents how much energy we have to face each day. The more secrets we keep, the more easily that glass becomes empty throughout the day because we’re not only trying to face each day’s tasks, but some of our energy is put toward suppressing (or keeping out of our awareness) thoughts or feelings that might surface that relate to the abuse or psychological problems we have.
—In other words, the analogy that you can sweep abuse experiences or psychological problems “under the rug” is an invalid metaphor. Because these kinds of experiences are not like static dust, they are more like little bugs that after being put under the rug easily crawl out again and again and again. You can imagine the secrets as bugs that no matter how big the rug or deep the hole you put them in, they climb out and reappear constantly in different ways.
— Even if you feel like you have “buried” that secret, it takes energy to keep it buried. In other words, when you bury a physical object it does not take any more energy to keep it buried. But when you bury a harmful and distressing psychological secret, the mind must continually commit energy to keep it from seeping into your everyday flow of consciousness. This is not my subjective opinion, this is the reality from a voluminous body of psychological science increasingly clarifying how the mind operates. You know this to be true because every one of you has been bothered by something that keeps coming into your mind, even little things. Then consider how hard it would be for the mind to keep submerged the thoughts, behaviors, and memories surrounding the highly distressing psychological secret.
No matter how traumatizing or distressing the psychological secrets or abuse were in the past, or continue to be today, you can vastly minimize and in some cases terminate any negative effects they will continue to have. Today as you read this article, there are thousands of well-trained psychologists standing ready to staunchly respect your need for confidentiality while helping you find a better alternative than sweeping it under the rug or trying to repeatedly bury that secret.
I have never worked with the patient who then – after we worked through the trauma – told me that it was a mistake to finally reveal their secret. But I guarantee you it will be your mistake, no matter what your age is, to continue to plod on and allow that secret or abuse to fester inside of you.
I will end with an analogy that was taught to me by a great child psychologist who supervised my work with children during a doctoral psychology practicum in Tampa, Florida, USA: Dr. Elizabeth Reading. When you have a wound but you keep it a secret, it is like getting a cut and then not cleaning out all of the dirt. By keeping it a secret, you are allowing the wound to get infected, which will then affect your whole body and mind eventually. If you talk about, you can clean it out, bandage it up, and over time become properly healed.
By cleaning out the wound you can become a person who is far beyond who you are now, incredibly more energetic, less anxious, less guilty, and more able to handle stressful circumstances. More who you want to be. More who you are meant to be.
Thank you to Bob A., my grade school buddy, who thoughtfully reminded me of a way I can use my knowledge to help those who are still in hiding.