There are a lot of different kinds of secrets. Some of them we deliberately keep because we think that doing so is in our best interest or the best interest of others. Probably the most problematic for us are the secrets that we keep from ourselves. I'm not thinking of the deep secrets that Freud thought inhabit our unconscious and that we know nothing about, although I do believe that unconscious motivations, such as an unconscious desire to hurt someone who we care about, can influence our behavior without our awareness in ways that we may sorely regret later, when the impact of our behavior becomes apparent. But right now I'm thinking of those secrets that we know something about, that we have a sense of, but which we do not let ourselves fully appreciate or fully regis-ter-that we use denial to distance ourselves from in order to protect us from the shame that they arouse in us. It may be a secret about something that we've done, or not done. It may be something that happened to us-an event or a long-term pattern of events. It may be something that we feel is wrong with us-a wound, an illness, a thing that we can't do that most people can. These are the secrets that we know about, yet also simultaneously deny because on some level we wish they would just go away and even imagine that they magically just might, if only we don't hold them in too crisp a focus. We all have these; I'll leave it to you to fill in the blank with your own.Keeping secrets from ourselves is one of the ways we try to protect ourselves. All of the ways that we intuitively attempt to deal with psychological difficulties have a certain wisdom embodied in them because they've evolved from our experience and because, to some extent at least, they have worked for us. As the psychologist John Bradshaw once said with a blend of humor and wisdom, "Your defenses are working pretty well, right? You're not dead, are you?" No, we're not dead. Most of us get along pretty well, most of the time, with the ways of coping that we have evolved over the years.
The trouble is, our ways of coping extract a psychological price. In the case of denial, the price of the distancing and non-registration that come with it can take many forms. Although the secret may be kept in order to spare us shame, it may actually have the opposite effect. The secret, meant to protect us, can actually make the feared thing more powerful because, being a secret, we don't get to see the impact it alone would have on our lives. Instead we see the impact of the secret, plus all the ways we have of avoiding it, on our lives. And these avoidance mechanisms can be more disabling than the thing we are trying to avoid, magnifying its impact on our psychological functioning.
It also makes it difficult for us to accurately measure the magnitude of whatever it is we are keeping secret. By keeping it isolated, behind closed doors, we never get a sense of its true size. There's an interesting perceptual experiment that illustrates this. Imagine that you are looking through a peephole at a statue that is lit by a spot light in an otherwise dark room. As you look you see the statue clearly. But because you're looking through the peephole, without any other objects in view (and without binocular vision to provide information about depth in this situation where monocular cues are absent), it is impossible to perceive how large the statue is. It could be a very small statue that is a few inches away or a very large statue that is 200 feet away. This is one of the things that happens with a secret. We can't get a sense of how big the thing is that we're hiding from. If we bring it out into a larger space where we can compare it with other things, we may find that it's really not so large after all. And we may also realize that the disabling avoidance mechanisms that we were employing are unnecessary and that the energy that we were expending to keep it under wraps can be freed for more self-fulfilling endeavors.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is Professor and Interim Chair of Psychology at Kutztown University and maintains a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.