May 4, 2018

Secrets and Shame

Psychologists say lies weigh us down in more ways than we know. 

Here’s how to come clean and move on from a life lived in shadows


by Amanda Berlin 


   After a week-long drug binge as 2004 turned into 2005, New York City fashion executive Ellie Coy was visited by the angel of New Year’s present. A neighbor knocked on her door, Coy poured out her heart and her neighbor, a recovering alcoholic, took her to a Twelve Step meeting. Coy had been keeping her secret, a rather large and long-standing recreational drug habit, from her family for eight years. After that meeting, she knew she wanted to get clean. And she knew she’d need her family’s sup- port. She’d have to pick up the phone and dial Kansas. 

   Few things in life are harder than confessing how you’ve done wrong. But it’s been said that of all the Steps, the fifth—admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs—is the key to freedom. 

   Everyone has secrets. And the reasons we keep them are as varied as the secrets themselves. 

   “I’m pretty close with my parents and two sisters, but I’d go weeks without talking to them because I couldn’t tell them what was going on,” Coy says, referring to her “weekends of debauchery.” 

   New York-based advertising executive Michelle Goldblum kept her disordered eating a secret for different reasons. “It was humiliating, the amount of food I was eating,” Goldblum says. “I was also afraid to hear myself say it out loud.” She was afraid of confronting life without her secret habit. “My thought was this: ‘They are going to find out. And then I’ll get fat.’” 



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The Burdened Brain 

   Keeping secrets requires brainpower and energy that saps our ability to deal with everyday tasks and issues. 

   Mark Fenske, a neuroscientist from University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and coauthor of The Winner’s Brain says: “Keep- ing a secret is a form of deception that can involve several steps that each require substantial cognitive effort. Working memory is recruited to keep track of the things you say or do to ensure that they are consistent with your deception. Inhibitory control is likewise required to ensure that you do not inadvertently reveal the truth.” 

   In keeping her secret, Goldblum’s attention was on keeping everything going. “I had to be meticulous or else my whole world would come crashing down.” 

   Fenske says the efforts to protect our secret limit the resources we can tap to deal with life’s demands. The result can include failures of self-control, memory lapses and a lack of concentration, among other things. 

   Tim Hillegonds, a freelance writer and author of a recovery memoir called Vodka-Flavored Tears, says his work was impacted as he struggled to keep an alcohol and cocaine problem a secret. “I thought I could leave it at the door when I got into work,” Hillegonds says. “But it was like living two different lives. Over time, I was getting into the office later and later, testing my boundaries. I wasn’t 100 percent in it.” Hillegonds’s boss was the one who noticed his erratic behavior and got him to rehab. 

   On an emotional level, Harvard psychologist Jeff Brown, coauthor of The Winner’s Brain with Fenske, says, “Secrets can create emotional isolation leading to depression, obsessive preoccupation and social distancing.” 

   Hillegonds admits to feeling as if he was the only one who couldn’t balance the party life and real life. 


Release and Relief 

   There’s a reward in facing down the fear of telling your secrets. Elizabeth Lombardo, psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, says the benefits to re- leasing your secrets mirror those associated with stress reduction. “People see improved immunity, reduced blood pressure, less pain, better sleep and maybe even weight loss, as stress can increase your waistline.” 

   She says that in the arena of relationships, the impact of coming clean allows you to be more present with others, instead of having your mind focused on the secret. “You have better communication and more openness.” 

   Because she’s told the truth, Coy can have open and honest conversations with her parents and two sisters. “That put me in such a position of leadership within my family,” Coy says. “I earned their respect.” 

   Lombardo says the clearheadedness that comes along with re- leasing your secrets also contributes to improved ability to focus, a boost in brainstorming and problem-solving and less absentee- ism at work. 

   After Hillegonds got clean with the help of his boss, he recommitted to his job, and his career took off. He went from being an assistant to an officer in the company. 

   But how do you know if your secret is worth the risks of revelation? 

   Brown says the emotions that accompany a secret can be a sign we need to address the issue. “There are many mundane events that we never tell anyone about, but they don’t have any legitimate emotional punch like a secret does. The emotion that accompanies a secret may be a better barometer than the content itself when it comes to considering unloading personal information. If a secret is on your radar, then it’s probably worth taking a close look.” 

   And how should we go about coming clean? All secrets are not created equal, and unloading on the wrong person at the wrong time can cause all sorts of drama. There is a process for releasing the secrets we’ve been holding onto. 

   First, look inward. Brown suggests making sure your intentions are pure. “The overall hope is that sharing a secret will create an outcome of strengthening, reconciling or deepening a relationship. If sharing the secret is divisive or is meant to manipulate, the correct motive isn’t present.” 

   Then, consider the person you’re about to share with. The big secrets should be shared in intimate relationships that have the potential to handle the new information. “Consistent trust, an existing relationship history and a track record of resolving conflict can be good signs a relationship can handle an important disclosure,” Brown says. He also recommends speaking with a professional about how to reveal the secret. 

   Releasing your secrets can result in anything from relief or surrender to perhaps even short bouts of shame. But it’s worth it, experts say. You might find you don’t have to bear the heavy burden of non-disclosure any longer, and you might realize you don’t have to go through this challenge alone. 

   Coy’s experience of revealing her secret to her family had an- other benefit: It gave her family the opportunity to step up. 

   “I was so afraid of being judged by my family, and it was amazing their capacity for forgiveness,” Coy says. “I may never have known that part of them had I not told them my secret. You never know what far-reaching effect the truth can have.”


Amanda Berlin is a life coach and a freelance writer based in New York City. For more on life coaching or Berlin’s other work, visit 


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