“What I am about to tell you, I have never told anyone else before.”
Over the last thirty-five years in my work as a psychotherapist I have heard those words more times than I can remember. Each time as I listen to the revelation that follows, I remember, once again, what a sacred honor and privilege it is to do such work. The revelations usually fall into one of two categories—something the person did, or something that was done to them.
It’s not that I ask people in my office to confide in me things they have never shared before with others. They do so simply because they want to free themselves of the burden of their secret. They already intrinsically know the wisdom taught through Alcoholics Anonymous, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” This wisdom comes from millions of people in recovery who have previously gone to great lengths to keep their addictive behaviors a secret from others. Many people in recovery talk about how they eventually realized that they were also keeping a secret from themselves, as they pretended not to know the serious consequences of what they were doing. Our friends in AA have something to teach us. Keeping secrets is harmful to ourselves and to those around us. There is truly a burden in carrying an untold story within us, one that longs to be told.
Individuals are not the only ones who can keep secrets. Systems can as well. Systems can include families, churches, civic organizations, schools, companies and others, and they can easily look the other way when addictive or abusive behavior is occurring. As with an alcoholic, the temptation to minimize and deny what is happening can be strong. “It’s really not that big of a deal.” “Lots of people are doing it.” “It’s happening in lots of places, so it can’t be that bad.” “Oh, that’s just the way ‘so and so’ is and we have just learned to accept it.”
Abusive and addictive behaviors thrive best in a culture of secrecy. This is why truth-telling is so important, and why it is so important to support truth-tellers as they share their stories.
We don’t have to be a psychotherapist to have someone trust us with something they have never told anyone else before. People merely need places where they can feel deeply cared for and that they will be cared about and respected, no matter what. These kinds of trusting relationships create spaces for those around us, including those who are keeping something important inside, to share their truths, many for the first time. Such caring relationships are one of the greatest gifts any of us can both offer and receive.
This is how healing happens—for individuals and for systems, one truth-telling story, one revelation, one experience of being heard and respected, at a time.