Letting Go of My Secrets and Learning to Be Vulnerable
Secrets. Most of us have them, to some extent. Some of them have major implications, some are more incipient.
Sometimes we keep secrets to protect the feelings of the people around us. Often, we keep secrets to shield ourselves from shame. In my life, I’ve been forced to confront the moral dilemma of secret keeping , and my conclusion is...it really isn’t such a dilemma after all.
Believe it or not, I was once secretly married. Crazier than the fact that I got married in the absence of friends or family is the fact that I managed to keep the secret until my separation from my husband over a year later. From October 10th, 2014 to March of 2016, I kept myself isolated from loved ones in an attempt to protect them and myself from the pain I was sure my honesty would bring.
I'd married Devon, my on-again, off-again boyfriend of 8 years. Though we cared deeply for one another, our relationship was tumultuous and at times toxic. We were married in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Courthouse with 2 complete strangers as witnesses. Devon chose not to involve his family due to his distant relationship with them. I chose not to include mine because I feared they'd object to the union.
So just like that, we got married.
For months, I kept the secret, telling myself I’d reveal our marriage when the “time was right.” The more time passed, the more monumental the telling of our secret felt. I was wrought with guilt. I thought about how hurt my mom would be that we chose not to include her in our plans. I continued to wait.
A whirlwind of traumatic events led to our separation. This is the point at which I chose (or was forced, really) to tell my family that we were married and “oh, by the way, we’re not just breaking up again, we’re getting divorced.”
The timing of my revelation was less than ideal, yes, but I can’t tell you the weight that was lifted off my shoulders in that moment. Dismantling my secrets gave me my family back. The only people that knew about my marriage prior to this were Devon and myself. It’s amazing how many times my marital status would come up at work or social events! I lied about it constantly. I felt like an absolute fraud for that time.
Now, it's important to acknowledge the distinction between secrets, privacy, and boundaries. If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen my Labor Day post about finally revealing my tattoos to my employer and coworkers after having worked with them for over 5 years. To be frank, I consciously covered my tattoos at work because I believed it possible that my very-conservative employer might fire me for them. Outside of work though, I let my tattoo freak flag fly.
This "secret" was more of a privacy boundary, in my opinion. I chose not to disclose my tattoos to the 3 people who work in my office, but they definitely weren't kept secret from those closest to me. Furthermore, keeping my tattoos private didn't seem to hinder or harm my relationship with my coworkers in any way. After years of working together and bonding, an opportune moment to reveal my tattoos to them arose, and I adjusted the boundary.
Today, I'm referring to the big secrets
To the parts of you that you that you allow to become a barrier between you and your loved ones. The secrets that prevent you from living authentically. I’m referring to that mask you labor over every morning. Those skeletons that keep you up at night. Letting go of those secrets has given me opportunity for closeness and intimacy that I wouldn't trade for the world.
I’m fairly positive that my parents would have been horrified about my decision to jump into marriage with Devon after the history we’d had. But I’m just as positive that my parents would have found a way to be supportive, and ultimately, that they would be happy for us for doing what we felt was right. I told myself that I kept my secret to spare their feelings and save me from shame, but in the process, I lost out on an amazing opportunity for vulnerability, growth, and connection.
For those 17 months that I kept my marriage secret, I kept my parents and everyone else around me at an arm’s distance. I isolated myself. Truthfully, it was all in my head. No reaction from my parents or anyone else, was worth my self-imposed prison.
This concept has been one I’ve wrestled with in my current relationship with my boyfriend, Rob. What’s OK to keep from each other? Should we tell each other everything regardless of possible fall out?
Now, every person and relationship is different. I can’t promise my partner that I won’t react poorly to a revelation, but I’ve made it clear to him that complete honesty is an expectation for me. Conversely, I feel best when I’m 100% honest with him.
I've taken the same approach with my other close friends and family. We talk about it! In some relationships, such as with my mom, I've asked her how she'd prefer for me to approach more sensitive topics with her, so that I don't feel an urge to keep secrets out of fear of her reaction. With friends, I've simply bit my lip and gulped as I tell them a truth that I think they may judge me negatively for. (FYI, this hasn't happened yet! I'm thankful for loving and compassionate friends)
Not all of my loved ones agree with my full embrace of honesty and transparency. There are those who don't share my perspective and still value secrecy and compartmentalization. While it stings the perfectionist in me to hear their criticism, I try to remember that their opinion is their right and a part of the openness that I'm here to champion. To ask for honesty requires a willingness to hear that which we may not agree with.
Here’s my thing- keeping secrets in an effort to minimize a negative outcome is a little like playing God...except you’re not God. I don’t care what it is, there’s always a chance that your secret will be unintentionally revealed.
Even being the control freakazoid that I am, I can see the folly in attempting to control a possible outcome by keeping a secret.
I look back and see the lost potential in past relationships as a result of secret keeping. I can see all the anxiety and energy spent worrying about being exposed.
Our secrets are like a splinter. Slap a band-aid on them all you want, ultimately, your body wants it OUT.
I think exposure and vulnerability is exactly what my heart's been calling for.
Maybe there’s a reason why they say “the truth will set you free.”
Turns out, there's strength in relinquishing control.
I'm always interested to hear from you! How do you approach secret-keeping? Any tips for "embracing the suck" of a triggering conversation or possible shame?
If you feel like no one will understand, I recommend starting with a counselor or therapist. An unbiased ear to hear your truth. If finances are an obstacle, there are low-cost options available. Your local university may have a therapy intern program and your church may have counselors available as well.
In Charlotte, I’ve personally seen two different counselors at Pfeiffer University’s Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic, both positive experiences. For more information, please visit http://www.pfeiffer.edu/marriage-and-family-therapy-clinics
I’ve also seen a counselor at Forest Hill Church’s Care + Counseling program. Forest Hill offers free short term counseling to their community. More information on that program can be found here https://www.foresthill.org/en/about#care-tab