My friend posted a link to “Writing — for health and happiness?” a few days ago with a funny comment about how people use Facebook as therapy. The article talks about the therapeutic benefits of writing down thoughts and feelings and explores whether doing so online gives the same benefits as private writing. It also hints at a few obvious drawbacks to talking about traumatic experiences publicly, although it doesn’t explore that issue in depth.
But what I found most interesting about it had nothing to do with the internet: “…People who had had an early traumatic sexual experience were more likely to suffer health problems later in life… Prof Pennebaker said he realised it was because that experience was a secret.”
Secrets cause stress. Secrets cause health problems. Secrets can quite literally kill you (and I’m not talking about like in those “solve a murder every week” detective shows, either).
A big secret feels like it’s gnawing into you from the inside out. It’s always there, waiting for your fragile moments to twist you into knots. It works on you, changing who you are and how you see the world. It grows bigger and bigger the longer you wait, ever more impossible to talk about. It saps your happiness and mental well-being. And it causes physical consequences.
That’s why I talk again and again about the importance of having connections with other people. Writing about a secret will take away some of its power, and so will talking with a trustworthy someone. It doesn’t matter so much who it is, as long as that person knows how to be supportive: your family, your friends, your SO, your therapist.
Secrets left untold become all-consuming, but once they are out in the open, they return to their original sizes. And sometimes the act of keeping them can trap us, keeping us from facing the reality of a situation. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still hard and painful and traumatic. But some of their significance comes from the act of keeping them secret, and that part of the emotional load can be dropped.
I think this is part of why I always feel so confused when people say happiness isn’t something that can be improved upon. Secrets actively cause emotional unhappiness, and we can make the choice to tell them and work through them. Secrets lead to poor health, which also causes unhappiness (chronic pain, anyone?), and we can change our health risks by keeping a journal or finding even one person to talk to, online or off.
Sadly, I can’t have a discussion about secrets without adding this caveat: personal safety comes first. And telling secrets can sometimes jeopardize that. In such cases, you might need to seek professional help in order to keep yourself safe.
Telling secrets is hard. Writing down the truth is hard. Finding someone you can really trust is hard. Deciding to change is hard. And it might take a long time. But none of that changes the fact that keeping secrets is unhealthy.
Whereas finding a way to tell a secret might just save your life.