The Psychology of Secrets and Why We Keep Them

By Cathy • March 23rd, 2012

By Cathy Eck

The Psychology of Secrets and Curiosity

Curiosity killed the cat, but where human beings are concerned, the only thing a healthy curiosity can kill is ignorance.                                             Harry Lorayne

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
but the secret sits in the middle and knows.
Robert Frost

 

I Don’t Know About You,

But I Just Can’t Keep A Secret

As a small child, I found it nearly impossible to keep my Christmas purchases a secret.  I tried to avoid the recipient after buying their gift because I’d lose control of my mouth and would spontaneously reveal my secret.  Even such a small secret was very uncomfortable to keep.  Looking back, it seemed that even as a young child, I understood that the psychology of secrets is quite complex.

As I got older, the challenge increased.  I remember friends saying, “I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anyone.”  I’d reply, “No, please don’t tell me.”  I knew the mental torture that I would surely endure once their secret was deposited into my mind.

Fresh out of college as a new CPA, I landed a job as an auditor.  Now, I was the one who got to flush out and divulge the secrets.  I got to view the psychology of secrets from the other side of the fence.  That felt more comfortable.  Today, I’ve expanded even more in my relationship to secrets as I dig up hidden secrets from the ancient world.

As someone who has devoted my entire life to the psychology of secrets by either keeping or uncovering them, I’ve come to know one thing.  The truth does set us free.  Keeping secrets steals our life force, makes us sick, kills relationships, and wastes our creativity.

 “We are bound by the secrets we share.” 
― Zoë HellerWhat Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

 

The Strange Psychology of Secrets

In 1984, George Orwell said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  That is exactly what people do.  We hide secrets by making them unconscious.  We make them unconscious by piling thought after thought on top of the secret.

Let’s say that my friend tells me about her secret love affair.  I can contain that secret only if I layer more thought on top of it.  I might tell myself that I’m a good friend for keeping her secret.  I might rationalize that this information could hurt people.  I could convince myself that I was a good sounding board for my friend.  Rationalization is a technique that most westerners have mastered.  These seemingly logical rationalizations override the secret, effectively burying it in our mind so we won’t accidentally tell everyone that the emperor has no clothes.  The normal person stops right there; and the secret goes to the grave with them.

But let’s go deeper.  Why was my friend lying?  She was keeping her affair secret because she judged it as bad.  Why did she judge it as bad?  Other people have judged affairs as bad, and she accepted their opinion.  Are affairs bad?  Most people would say “yes,” but judgments are always beliefs or opinions even if everyone agrees.  They are never the hard, absolute truth.

I’ve learned that to judge another’s actions without knowing their intentions, their beliefs, and their desires just gets me in trouble.  Let me be clear.  This article is not about the rightness or wrongness of affairs; I’ll allow you to be your own judge.

Keeping the secret enabled my friend to avoid the judgment she expected.  And when we expect judgment, we usually get it.  She made a decision to accept the discomfort of hiding the secret over the possible pain of judgment.

Some experts say that people’s greatest fear is not death, suffering, or even public speaking.  It is humiliation and judgment.  I’ve certainly seen ample evidence of that in my life and work.

My friend shared her secret with me because she believed that I wouldn’t judge her.  But once shared, I had her judgment of herself, her secret, and all her related emotions in my body-mind.  We were bonded in mutual discomfort.  We felt closer only because we jointly separated ourselves from the rest of the judgmental world.

Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.
Bryant H. McGill

 

Secrets and Curiosity Share a Common Bond

Affairs are interesting material for study.  In the moment of the affair, the couple is focused on their feelings of love and attraction (or maybe lust).  They have no thoughts of being bad or ever being judged.  We can’t hold two ideas in our mind at the same time.  Affairs are just one of many ways that people find themselves wondering what in the hell they were doing after it is too late to change the situation.  The act looked one way from the point of view of love or lust; and it looked totally different from standing in judgment and humiliation.

Once they remember that they will now be judged for their action, the couple creates a bond of secrecy as well as shared separation from the people they believe will judge them.  This situation has deep roots in childhood.  As children, we follow our feelings naturally; and eventually, following our love, our curiosity, or our passion gets us judged.

One of the things that I discovered as I let go of my own mental baggage and beliefs is that most of the things people judge don’t really merit judgment.  And some things that we don’t judge, like squashing someone’s curiosity or innocence, do merit judgment.

Most of us remember a time when we were playing and having fun, and we got into trouble.  We may even come to associate fun and punishment if it happened too often.  Then we repeat the situation later in life.  The names and situation have changed and gotten much more serious, but the feelings and emotions match the earlier confusing events from our past.  Sadly, even our personal history tends to repeat itself.

 

In the Beginning….

In the book, “Quirkology:  The Curious Science of Everyday Lives,” Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., discusses the phenomenon of secrecy and lying.[i]  He describes an experiment done with three-to-five-year-old children.

“During these experiments a child is led into a laboratory and asked to face one of the walls.  The experimenter then explains that he is going to set up an elaborate toy a few feet behind the child.  After setting up the toy, the experimenter explains that he has to leave the laboratory and asks the child not to turn around and peek at the toy.  The child is secretly filmed by hidden cameras for a few minutes, and then the experimenter returns and asks the child whether he or she peeked.  Almost all three-year-olds do, and then half of them lie about it to the experimenter.  By the time the children have reached the age of five, all of them peek and all of them lie.”

 

The children appear to have broken two social rules.  They disobeyed, and then they lied about disobeying.  They obviously saw no harm in peeking at the toy; they probably saw it as something fun like playing hide and seek.  They still had curiosity, and pure child-like curiosity is a quality of the heart.  There was certainly no bad intention in their behavior.

Curiosity is the life force that drives us to crawl, stand, walk, learn, and dream.  Love, curiosity, and creativity don’t exist in the same perspective as rules, beliefs, and secrets.  And this gets us into trouble.  What the children lacked was the ability to predict that someone would ask them if they peeked.  They lacked the ability to predict judgment.  They lacked the ability to predict consequences of their disobedience.  They lacked blind obedience.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
Eleanor Roosevelt

 

We are Born Innocent and Curious

People have been so conditioned to believe that they are born sinful that they often look astounded when I say it is not true.  These children prove my point.  They are innocent; they have no ability whatsoever to predict a consequence for peeking because their peeking came from the heart.  They still see a fun world and probably feel life force flow through them as they peek.  To later learn that the experimenter really didn’t want them to peek, when peeking was harmless, would not make sense.

We learn that there are consequences for disobedience from punitive-minded adults in our lives that teach us to obey their rules.  Most of those rules are just conveniences for their benefit.  We are taught that keeping them happy and unemotional is our mission in life.  Sadly, this experiment proves that not many of us made it past five before our curiosity and innocence were squashed.

We are not born with a sense of right and wrong; it is a man-made invention.  We borrow it from adults and authority figures in our life.  We don’t realize as children that right and wrong is subjective.  We don’t realize that judges are often wrong.  Right and wrong separates us, and as innocent children we cannot understand separation.  We have to learn it.  Sadly, people go out of their way to teach it to us.

Once it is learned, we try to find ways to heal the separation.  We miss the oneness.  Affairs and “don’t tell anyone” secrets appear to cure the pain of separation because we focus on the secret bond where judgment doesn’t exist.  We deny the separation from the world that we avoid.  The fact that the separation we create is so much bigger than the bond demonstrates the incredible pain of being judged.  Avoidance of judgment is one of the key components behind the psychology of secrets.

These children demonstrate the incredibly important moment in our lives where we traded in curiosity for obedience.   We traded our innocence for rules.  We trade our oneness for separation.  And if we borrowed the need to please, we will spend our life trying to fit into other people’s finicky definitions of good.

Before the throne of the Almighty, man will be judged not by his acts but by his intentions. For God alone reads our hearts.
Mahatma Gandhi

 

All Roads Lead to Our Fear of Judgment

There is only one way to please everyone, and that is to keep secrets about the rules we break.  That way people think we followed their rules and don’t judge us.

We fear judgment so much, that we allow it to take our power, our authenticity, and our freedom.  But we can let our self judgment go; and then we can recognize that the judgment of others came from their beliefs, their opinions, and their self-serving rules.

In truth, when man projected his judgment on others and started making others the keepers of his fate, he took a long, hard fall.  But when we turn our judgment inward, and we start to judge our thoughts, the actions all start to make sense.  We see the intention that drove us to do what we do.  We find our inner goodness.  We slowly return to innocence and curiousity.  We are still obedient, but not to others with stupid beliefs and rules; we obey our heart.  That realization puts us back on the path to oneness, where separate doesn’t exist.  Secrets become unnecessary.

I dream of a time when we drop our unnecessary rules, beliefs, and judgments — a time when parents applaud their children’s curiosity for peeking behind the curtain.  When that happens, the children will also tell the truth about peeking.  We’ll laugh as we join them in their playfulness instead of whipping them with obedience.  When their heart-felt curiosity is honored, their innate desire to live without secrets will follow.  The truth will set us all free.

 


[i] M. Lewis, “The Development of Deception,”  in Lying and Deception in Everyday Life, ed. M. Lewis and C. Saarni, 90-105 (New York:  The Guilford Press, 1993).

Cathy Eck has M.S. in Transpersonal Psychology and a Ph.D. in Esoteric Studies, but her three children were her finest teachers.  Cathy researches ancient texts, symbols, and mythology exposing ancient secrets.  We live in a time when secrets are being exposed and  the psychology of secrets affects every aspect of our life.  Cathy mentors people in the art of letting go of secrets, beliefs, and suffering. 

 

 

 

 

Comments

By Lois Carr-Yeager on February 7th, 2014 at 10:29 am

Googled “Why do we keep secrets” & found your web site…so glad that I did as I love your common sense approach on the subject & have shared your website w/ others….I kind of had an idea that we all had been conditioned to not tell the truth from a very young age….& U explained it very well…Thank you…Hugs…Lois

Thank you Lois for your kind comment and sharing my site with others. I’m always glad when I can provide confirmation to others
that they have been thinking rightly all along. Cathy

I truly appreciate this article.Really thank you! Fantastic. dkeadddecekdkdee

By Phil Schumacher on March 5th, 2015 at 11:34 am

If I had read this when I was 5 years old I’m sure it would have made sense of everything I was feeling at the time. Maybe I would be sickened by not telling a secret and that’s all I want right now – to be sickened by it like I probably was from the start.

Like you said, obedience takes over curiosity and then we are the ones that truly pay the price. Thankfully I can read this now and start to undo all the shit I have been doing and hearing for so long.

Thank you so much. Love Phil

Your welcome. I think that every day. What if we had never lost this wisdom to obedience? What would the world look like now? And that question always gives me one more thing to let go. Now you can undo it all and live the life you were meant to live. Love, cathy

 

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