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Toxic Secret Keeping


In my view, we have a culture that conflates respect and confidentiality with secret keeping. There are multiple examples of how secret keeping either creates or exacerbates emotional harm. Secrets protect the abuse of power. Respect is conflated with fear of retribution or shame in powerful contexts. In a family, the perception of violating secret keeping (outing, ratting, revealing, exposing) may lead to being permanently ostracized. The resulting depth of loneliness is felt in having no roots and no safety net. It is seen as “not worth it.” However, agreeing to protect secrets can be seen as a version of self-preservation. The short-term effect of secret keeping is obvious. What is the long-term effect, though?

Secret keeping delays or prevents healing because healing requires the wound to be visible and treatable. The perception of available options can be clouded. Fear prevents one from seeing the way forward. One legitimate fear is that the victim may be blamed and therefore, re-victimized.

To free oneself of the ties to secrets in either context is seen as either irresponsible, uncaring, reckless or ungrateful. In a workspace that may lead to turning a blind eye to abuses because keeping one’s job is seen as self-preserving. We all have learned from our family systems, so does it follow that those established norms result in a whistleblower being seen as seen in some way as being irresponsible, uncaring, reckless or ungrateful?

The values for a serious employee is supposed to be based in loyalty. To violate loyalty is irresponsible, uncaring or unsophisticated. To be reckless is to risk tarnishing the established professional values. To be ungrateful is to risk mentorship that is supposed to lead to professional success. Professional success can have an ego basis, but it is also literal survival. All need home and nutrition, but what else becomes valuable when money is the unquestioned amoral value? Materialism can clearly muddy an already complicated set of circumstances.

Where do we get these values?

The most traditional gendered values established during childhood and adolescence make sexuality one of the most complicated factors of life. Females should “understand”, tolerate, moderate but then use physical attributes to advantage. Males should seek, conquer, perform and resist showing inner feelings. We see that in the parent who says to the boy child, “You’re okay,” when he cries but cuddles up the female child. We see that in the parent who believes that being “a tough parent” will save the boy’s life later, by making him more aware of what is perceived to be “the real world.”

Secrets, Double Standards and Unhealthy Coping

We have so many mental health and substance abuse issues that have to do with the sort of coping we’ve learned. In my view, toxic secret keeping is connected to coping. It has to do with notions of weakness, shame and often, in the case of sexual misconduct, the sort of sexual double standards which exacerbate unthinkable issues like generational incest and frat boys or gangsters “running trains” on women. That might be considered acceptable subject matter for a movie intended for arousal entertainment, but several complex issues, like human trafficking or the adult affects of child sexual abuse make that subject best for a writing of its own focus. Sex industry issues cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant, nor handled completely and fairly in this writing.

If in a family, a parent introduces their minor child to marijuana or alcohol—yes, it happens more often than one might think—there might be some pushback. But if:

  • a child is raised with values of shame around sexual matters and has a gender non-normative issue that is to be kept secret;

  • children are being abused, tortured and/or neglected, using religious practice as the cover and family members know;

  • a parent has a communicable or inheritable condition that is kept private, even after their death;

  • a parent has a serious addiction problem and depends on the child to fill in the adult roles of the household or are forced to participate in illegal or unethical money-making activity;

  • a parent is leading a double life of some sort that is known by certain members of the family;

  • a parent has a ritual of molesting their child/step-child and the other parent knows but stays in the marriage.

The Effect

Are those not secrets that have far-reaching societal consequences? May a woman learn to “agree to” sexualized behavior at work in order to survive the system? May a man think it is his privilege to have inappropriate pleasures at his disposal and then expect to have the behavior protected by his peers?

Do they not have effect on issues like how much one believes in voting for the funding of prevention programs? Could they not contribute to some odd coping mechanism like eating multiple boxes of baking soda (an example of pica) or what’s more commonly understood to be a drug dependency? How is it that those values don’t find their way into other segments of one’s life? Are these not caused by or exacerbated by the belief in toxic secret keeping “for good reason?”

Have you, for example, ever wondered why so many more stories of sexual misconduct seem to be arising? Some of the questioning commentary has stemmed from the belief that women are “just riding the bandwagon,” somehow taking advantage of this moment in time, where victims can speak and be believed. The other side of that supposed opportunism is “taking advantage,” therefore, just using a useful moment to manipulate. I believe that the fear of the consequences of the truth has been hurting our society for generations. it’s time to stop it. But we cannot stop toxic secret keeping unless we can be honest and forthright about the depth and breadth of where it starts, including what it will take to effectively to address the resulting crises.


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