Updated: May 20, 2020
The craziest idea in the world that changed my life.
"Tell a stranger your deepest, darkest secret." my coach said to me in the city center at about 11 pm.
"No," I said.
It is one of the weirdest moments of my life.
Also a scary one.
"Man, did it help you to keep it for yourself until now?"
"So go. Now. Just GO!"
I walk up to a complete stranger at about 11 pm.
Now I am scared to death.
"Hey. I know you don’t know me, but I have an assignment to do, so.. Can I just share something with you?"
I did everything I could to erase my secret from my reality for years!
And here I am, sharing it with a stranger now.
"Hey man! Of course. What’s going on?"
The more layers you put over it, the more it grows in size
Secrets are costly.
Keeping something hidden from the world requires an effort, driven by the fear of expected judgment.
You need to avoid topics. You drift away from uncomfortable conversations. You try to “act normal”, to avoid looking suspicious. Sometimes you might even lie. Once you lie, though, you have to stay consistent, so you start creating a chain of lies.
Hiding the truth from yourself and others becomes increasingly more difficult.
A harmless white lie can turn into a monster in 10 years. The more layers you put over it, the more it grows in size. The big, heavy secrets can expand through all our life and take control over it.
The results are loss of self-esteem, limited authenticity, compromised self-expression, and never-ending fear.
How to create a secret: The Beginner’s Guide for Children
The root of all secrets lies in childhood development.
All children follow their instincts. It is the only thing they know. Without concern for rules or for what’s right and wrong, they freely explore the world through curiosity, play, and love. It’s how they learn to crawl, stand, walk, learn, and dream.
But that does not last forever.
At some point, children learn that some of these behaviors will lead to trouble. Once children are punished for behavior, they start to learn about rules and limitations. Doing the right thing will lead to a reward and doing the wrong thing will lead to judgment and punishment.
Children learn to disconnect from their natural desire to follow their instincts and curiosity as they learn that it can be dangerous for them. They start to obey the rules instead — even if it does not make any sense to them.
Because the consequence of disobeying is punishment (physical or emotional), obey others and avoiding punishment becomes a matter of survival.
This mechanism creates an internal conflict: What should I do when I feel like doing A (instinct, intuition, gut feeling, emotion), but I know I should do B (obey, avoiding punishment, safety)?
If their feeling/natural instinct seems to be leading them to pain, they will suppress it. They decide to go the safe way (B) and internalize it as “ the right thing”. Their personalities and behaviors are shaped by their naive perception of right and wrong.
However, at that young age, children do not know that right and wrong are subjective. What is right for someone is wrong for someone else. They have to learn that later in life. So early on, they accept these judgments and adopt them as their own rules for reality.
They succeed in social adaptation and survival, but they need to answer some crucial questions for themselves:
Why can't I trust my instincts? Are they wrong? What does it mean that they are wrong? What if my thoughts are wrong?
But what if I already did something wrong? Something so wrong, that sharing it feels life-threatening! The level of judgment, disappointment, and rejection would be unbearable!
Then I can’t tell anyone!
I keep it a secret.
How to maintain a secret: The Advanced Guide for Adults
We accepted most of the rules and rights-and-wrongs a long time ago. The ones we have never questioned are still used by our unconscious minds to operate our lives decades later.
The moment we judge something about us and decide not to expose it to the world, we make it a secret. We hide it out of our fear of judgment. Keeping the secret hidden makes us feel safe.
We might decide to hide the truth just once, avoiding a little discomfort. But it comes back stronger. We avoid the truth again. Each rejection of our reality requires more and more effort. Our projected consequences stack on each other until we become paranoid.
To keep a secret hidden we need to control our behavior. We cannot do anything “suspicious”. We must hide our true feelings, thoughts, and self-expression in order not to reveal the secret by accident.
Anytime this threat of being discovered appears around people, our fear shows up with all its symptoms — loss of confidence, nervousness, anxiety. In the more intense cases even shallow breathing, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, etc.
All the compounded guilt, shame and pain around exposing the secret over the years conditioned a fear-based reaction in the body. The reaction is triggered anytime we perceive a threat of being exposed.
In this state, it is impossible to feel relaxed, authentic and genuine.
So we keep our secrets hidden.
The cost is our authenticity of self-expression. We pay with our curiosity and drive to fully explore the world, our connection to those we love and want to know better. We give up embracing and developing our true passions, the positive impact we can create in the world and the list goes on…
My own deepest, darkest secret
"Hey man! Of course. What’s going on?" The Stranger said to me with curiosity.
"Well… I just want you to listen, okay? I have crippling anxiety about my future. I have an obsessive fear of discovering something unpleasant about myself — specifically that I might be gay. Even though I know I am not, thoughts just come up and I dread them. I am ashamed and afraid of these thoughts. It is a line of never-ending what-ifs. They eat me alive. I don’t know if I am more afraid of the gay thing or just the obsessive thoughts thing. The consequences of something like that are complete social destruction of my life. 15 years ago I said to myself I will rather kill myself than accepting something like that. It scares me and it depresses me. Up till now, I have never told a soul. Thanks for listening to me."
After sharing my secret with a 40-year-old stranger in the streets of Bucharest, I went back to my friends, and back to my life. But, I was forever changed.
I felt strangely relieved and surprisingly calm.
What happened? I felt strange. I was confused.
What was I scared of? None of the deadly scenarios, I had created in my head, actually happened. I felt embarrassed and weirdly overwhelmed.
There was also no drama. No judgment, no attack, and no punishment. Basically, almost nothing happened.
I was almost a little pissed. What the hell?
I had this fear from my early age, maybe 9, when the first "what-if" thought came up. All those years of a constant mental battle to keep me from…this? Does it mean, that the only person who made drama and judgment about it was me?
On the other hand, I also felt incredibly relieved. And curious too!
I wanted to explore this in more depth.
To face my fear again and feel the relief even more.
So the next day, I decided to open up again.
In front of a group of 12 men. I stood up and shared my story in detail. I was afraid and I was ashamed. But, I kept going anyway. At certain moments of sharing my story, I felt incredibly sad. I cried. I was also angry for keeping it for myself for all those years. I used my anger to finish the story. In my mind, this must have been humiliating, but in my body, it felt healing. After I shared my last sentence, there was just silence.
I took a deep breath.
I could literally feel my chest lighter from dropping all that baggage. I felt even more relieved and I was exhausted. I felt an incredible sense of freedom!
After hearing my story, three more guys in that room stood up and shared theirs. I realized that I am not the only person who secretly doubts himself.
What emerged was an atmosphere of vulnerability, commonality, and massive respect for each other. Despite my initial feelings of humiliation, I received respect, encouragement, and appreciation.
Looking back, I was in the process of overcoming my fear of being judged. I am from a traditional family in Eastern Europe. With nine years in a Catholic Primary School, homosexuality represented the ultimate "unacceptable condition". One innocent thought, "what if I’m gay" had caused me a little anxiety almost 20 years ago. I wanted to suppress the thought. Yet, when we try suppress any thought, it always comes back stronger. The more I tried to suppress it, the stronger it came back until it became an obsessive-compulsive monster.
After I shared it openly and found acceptance from others, my fear lost most of its power.
I kept sharing the story again and again with others.
Eventually, I realized that the person judging myself the most was, in fact, me.
I could finally forgive myself and I became free.
What you resist, not only persists but also grows in size
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology, believed, it is impossible to suppress a thought or a feeling fully and erase its existence from reality. He believed, the effort made to suppress the secrets is fueling the fear and anxiety about their exposure.
But what would happen if we stopped these efforts? What if we just surrendered? How much freedom would there be in losing our constant need to hide?
Once we have nothing to hide, we stop doing seemingly strange things to avoid being suspicious. We stop being offended from random phrases that have accidentally touched our secret pain points. When we have nothing to hide, we cannot be really discovered as there is nothing to discover.
Once we stop judging ourselves, we can stop judging others too. We will see that they all just went through their own childhood learning of their own nonsense rules and we can have more compassion for them.
We can live with greater integrity and more joy.
The 4 changes that will happen once you let go of hiding
You cut the pattern of avoidance that keeps creating more fear. You will make a big step towards dropping shame and fear around your secret. The more you talk about the uncomfortable, the less uncomfortable it gets. The first step is always the most difficult. Once you witness your courage to face your fear, you can do it again with more ease.
You give your environment a chance to give you new feedback. We keep secrets out of our massive fear of judgment. Once you experience acceptance about your secret in the real world, you will have a new reference experience for your new reality and you can let go of the old one.
You can help others, who might be having the same problem. When Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly in 1997, she received thousands of letters and thank you notes from people who spent years hiding their sexual orientation. This also includes children who did not commit suicide thanks to her. By being brave herself she gave hope to the world watching on. You never know who you will help and inspire just by sharing your deepest story.
Sharing a secret can become an act of deepening your relationships. Sharing a secret requires stepping into vulnerability, which creates intimacy, bonding, and emotional connection. When you share your stories and deepest secrets with someone they see deeper inside of you. Almost immediately after sharing with others, their ability to relate grows. When you are vulnerable, people will feel safe around you. We made our best friends and our partners thanks to sharing vulnerability and we expand this intimacy to grow our relationships even more.
A little big step towards greater Integrity
If you are tired of keeping the secret hidden, you can feel relief too.
Find someone you can trust. Tell them you want to share something. Tell them you would appreciate if they just heard you out without judgment. Tell them it is not easy for you to share and you just want to get it off your chest and you would appreciate if they could do that for you. Tell them you do not want any comforting, advice or judgment, but you just want to be seen. That’s it.
Then share your secret with them. Talk about all the associated feelings — shame, fear, sadness — as they come up.
You can share it with a good friend, coach or therapist. You can share it with your men’s group or your women’s circle. You can even share it anonymously online.
For some people, it is the easiest to share it with a stranger in the street. Go to another city if that helps.
The first step is always the most difficult.
As you let continually let go of your emotional baggage, you will feel lighter and lighter.
Eventually, there comes a point when you look back and smile.
Then you’ll know you have fully moved on.
A long time ago we were introduced models of what is right and wrong from adults and authorities who formed our personalities.
We learned that some things about ourselves are unacceptable.
Our survival need made us accept these judgments and created internal conflicts between what we should be like and what we really feel/are like.
If there is something about us that we find unacceptable, we make it a secret.
We judge it so much, we decided to hide it from the world. We believe it will save us from the judgment of others.
We judge and hide parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable, and so limit our authentic self-expression, confidence, and limit ourselves from genuinely connecting with others.
The more we try to suppress our thoughts, emotions, and secrets, the more powerful they become.
We can live our lives trying to hide our secrets until the rest of our lives or we can release their burden and allow more freedom, joy, and integrity to flow in our lives.
Sharing a secret requires courage and stepping into vulnerability.
It creates an opportunity to change your life.
You decide if you use the opportunity or not.
Very few people decide to take action after reading an article.
If you are one of them, you have my respect.
Feel free to share with me how you relate to reading this article, what works for you, and how it goes being vulnerable. I would love to hear stories about your decisions and eventual sharings. You can email me your thoughts at email@example.com.
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