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Dealing with Secrets
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, June 2006

Everyone, at one time or another, has told someone a secret. Everyone, at one time or another, has been asked to keep a secret.

Secrets are NOT for Children
For our purposes, we will be talking about secrets and adults. When children are told to keep secrets it is often in the context of a problematic or threatening situation. For their own protection they should know that they can always tell a trustworthy adult what is happening to them. A child who hears a disturbing secret or who is threatened or shamed into keeping a secret, needs to know that it is appropriate to share their secret with a trusted adult who can help or protect them. Often children who hold secrets, such as family embarrassments, tend to grow up with shame and confusion.

Telling Your Secret
When someone tells you a secret, they are valuing you as their friend. They are saying to you that they appreciate your loyalty and that they perceive you to be trustworthy. They may be asking for your advice or not. If you are not asked, donít offer. Revealing information to people in your life means you feel safe enough with them to be vulnerable; itís a form of intimacy.

What Does Keeping a Secret Mean?
When you hold someoneís secret you have a responsibility to honor that person and their right to privacy. You know you are a really good friend when you can hear your friendís deepest secret and then, without judgment or criticism, resist the urge (if you have it) to tell someone else and, further, as far as the world is concerned, forget about what they shared with you.

Your Secret Comfort Level
First consider the position you are in. What does the fact that you have been told privileged information say about your relationship? Does being the recipient of that information cause you discomfort? What do you do if someone tells you something about his or her life? Perhaps they have an illness they do not want to make public or a co-worker shares that she plans to leave her job. Someone may confide they are cheating in their marriage, or engaged in unethical business practices, abused as a child, or has an unhealthy addiction. How do you handle it?

Here are Sanity SaversTM to help you between the whispers:

ē If You Donít Want to Keep a Secret - Inform the teller at the first sign that a secret is going to be revealed that youíre not sure you can hear it. Let them know the reason for your discomfort so they donít take your refusal as a personal rebuff. "If I hear it I know you will not want me to tell anyone and I am not sure I can do that, particularly if you are doing something illegal or hurting someone I love."

ē When Youíre Pumped for Information - If people suspect something is "up", they might try to persuade you to divulge the secret. First, relax. You donít need to reveal anything you donít want to or convince anyone that you know or donít know anything. Your mission is not to tell. When asked a direct question, talk normally and give a simple response. Resist becoming angry or defensive. Shift your focus to something else without "red flagging" the change of subject to raise suspicion. For example, you might be at a party and someone may ask you if your friend is ill. You donít want to lie but also donít want to betray your friendís confidence in knowing her secret. Saying, "Iím not at liberty to talk about anything," might just be too much information. Maybe it is better to politely and gently say, "I make it a habit of not talking about peopleís private issues because I donít like it when people talk about mine." Then casually go onto another subject.

ē When the Secretís Been Let Out - You can go to the source and ask, "Have you Ďgone public?" I've heard this information and just wanted to let you know. If this is no longer a secret, and you are okay with people talking, I would like to know." Or, just understand that people have their own way of working things out and maybe you were told something in confidence and then, later, they decided to share it with someone else who was less careful than you. It is never your prerogative to share someoneís confidence with a third party. Remember: It is the prerogative of person whose secret it is.

ē Difficulty Holding a Secret - If you just cannot hold the information, or your find "it is making you sick" you need to go to the person who told you (or a therapist) and talk about how difficult it is for you and why it is such a challenge for you.

ē Harmful Information - This is one time when you donít have to keep a secret. If the person shares with you something that is endangering another person, illegal or perilous, or it is doing more harm keeping it than telling it, you may need to assume a more active role and/or reveal it to someone else who can help or to the appropriate authority. Strongly consider doing something. Even if taking a stand means jeopardizing your friendship, advocating your friend to do or not do something in order to avoid a destructive path will be more beneficial for both of you in the long run. True" friendships will likely survive these difficult situations.

No matter how juicy, how tempting, how interesting, you must remember that the secret information is NOT yours. It is the tellers' and you are guarding it for him or her.

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