Secrets abound, and have since the beginning of time. Most of us have kept secrets of one kind or another sometime in our life, even though doing so may have made us feel temporarily uncomfortable or disloyal. If a secret is small and insignificant, such as planning a surprise birthday celebration for a friend or concealing the search for a new job, it likely will cause no harm. However, if the secret in question is in any way traumatic, dangerous, or life threatening, then it has the potential to harm an individual’s mental and physical health.
As young men and women seek to establish their way in the world, harboring uncomfortable secrets can present roadblocks to self-discovery and prevent the formation of meaningful relationships with others. Learning ways to deal with the stress and pain of secrets is an important step on the road to adulthood.
In this article, I’ll address the trends, reasons, and risks involved with secret-keeping and young adults, and provide some actionable takeaways for addressing secrets in your own life.
Shhh: The Secrets Young Adults Keep, and Why
Several kinds of secrets are most likely to influence the lives of young adults:
- Secrets involving drug and alcohol use
- Secrets involving sexual abuse, rape, or unsafe sex
- Secrets involving both gender identity and sexual orientation.
- Secrets involving parentage, adoption, or family heritage
- Secrets being kept on behalf of someone else that could possibly cause risk to you or others
There are as many reasons to keep secrets as there are people who keep them. But here are some possible (and common) explanations:
- The person grew up in a home where keeping secrets was considered the norm.
Those who grew up in homes where keeping secrets was simply a fact of life — where parents, for whatever reason, created an atmosphere of silence around certain issues — may grown up to be young adults who adopt similar patterns of concealing secrets. This negative behavior pattern could prove difficult to break, especially for young adults still living at home or for those who have recently begun life on their own.
- The person doesn’t want to disappoint his or her family or friends.
This can be especially true if academic, job-related, or social expectations for that individual are high. We all want to please the people we love and/or respect. We may fear that by revealing a life-changing secret, the people who matter most in our lives will reject us. But living a life in the shadow of another’s expectations does not allow for healthy development of one’s own self.
- The person doesn’t have a financial or emotional support system (in the form of family, friends, or co-workers) to rely on.
For a young person harboring a dark secret, it can be challenging to know where or how to seek help. If the finances for counseling are not readily available, it is possible the issue will not be addressed. Similarly, if the individual doesn’t have a strong social support network, they may feel isolated and as if they have no one to confide in.
- The person has limited experience with problem solving.
Problem solving is a skill, and, like any skill, it involves practice. If, since childhood, parents have rushed in and solved every problem for them, some young adults may not have developed the coping mechanisms to deal with a life-changing secret on their own. The result: The secret festers unresolved.
- The person feels an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt.
Intense shame and guilt are complex issues that require intervention by a mental health professional. Paradoxically, these feelings may prevent someone from seeking care.
The Negative Consequences of Secret-Keeping
Keeping secrets can affect an individual’s relationship to his or her self and other people in several harmful ways:
- Keeping secrets can impact and in some cases destroy relationships with family members.
Keeping secrets from family members can ignite feelings of suspicion and resentment. Trust is severely compromised when family members learn that a secret has been hidden from them (especially one that is compounded by a lie).
- Keeping secrets can impact relationships with friends, classmates, and co-workers.
A person hiding a secret might appear anxious, aloof, or unfriendly when in truth he or she is merely struggling with a secret(s) deemed too uncomfortable to share.
- Keeping secrets can interrupt the normal life stage of leaving home and going out on one’s own.
An individual may feel compelled to stay at home to protect a family secret from being exposed. Young people who feel they must guard a parent(s) or sibling(s) from harm, public exposure, or humiliation might feel it necessary to delay their own emancipation in an effort to shoulder the burden of a troubling family secret.
- Keeping secrets can lead to destructive behaviors such as excessive use of drugs or alcohol.
To mask the pain of an emotion-packed secret, people frequently turn to drugs, alcohol, or inappropriate sexual behavior. But engaging in any of these actions is like placing a band-aid on a wound before properly cleaning it out. Such behavior could be interpreted as a red light signaling there is something wrong.
- Keeping secrets can impact physical and emotional well-being
Keeping traumatic secrets hidden can result in excessive stress, depression, or anxiety for the person carrying the burden of knowledge, even when silence is thought to be the best possible option for all concerned. Physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches, and digestive problems may also occur when disturbing secrets are internalized rather than shared, especially over a long period of time.
Breaking the Cycle of Secret-Keeping — Your Action Plan
The path to healing will vary across individuals, but here are some important pointers to keep in mind:
- For college students, mental health services exist on most campuses. These services are typically available free of charge to enrolled students.
- For young adults with health insurance, there is often a policy provision that covers treatment for mental health issues.
- For those without access to health insurance or a college’s mental health resources, consider contacting the nearest community mental health center; these agencies are locally funded in every state across the country. Another helpful resource is NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness). This organization provides a wealth of information, plus scholarship monies for those in need.
- There are excellent books available in local mental health centers, libraries, bookstores, and online that offer problem solving programs for little or no cost.
- When seeking treatment, it can be helpful to distinguish between feelings of shame and feelings of guilt. Although these two very powerful emotions are closely related, they differ in important ways. Shame reflects a person’s core sense of self (“I am a bad person.”). Guilt, on the other hand, is often about an action or a behavior that relates to others (“What I did was bad or wrong.”). Shame is the more complicated emotion because it undermines one’s basic feeling of self-worth and is almost always grounded in fear and self-deprecation. It is particularly important to seek professional help if you find yourself struggling with these feelings.
- Perhaps most importantly, find a means of self-expression that works for you and use it to bring your secrets to light. The importance of this is summed up in the words of psychiatrist Dr. Howard Fisher: “For a person compelled to keep a terrible secret, guilt and shame become crippling emotions. If a person cannot get those feelings "out" into the real world, in a therapeutic release, into the light of day, where they lose some of their power, then these awful emotions can eat at the soul and destroy who and what they are.” Luckily, the path to healing begins with as simple a step as voicing your secret out loud.
It is important to remember that keeping secrets can result in serious consequences not only for the person keeping the secret, but for those (family, friends, acquaintances, etc.) who must fill in the blanks as to what the troubling issue is, as well. In order to move past the pain of a traumatic or life-changing event and not allow what is hidden from view to define one’s life, it is best, in almost all situations, for young adults to share their secret(s) in a safe and supportive environment. Only then can healing begin.
Suzanne Handler, M.Ed, is an author and the former Director of Mental Health Education Services for Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network in Centennial, Colorado, where she was responsible for creating mental health curricula for classroom teachers, school counselors, parents, and the general public. She is the author of The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family. The views expressed herein are hers. To learn more about Suzanne, visit her website at http://www.suzannehandler.com.