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Are Secrets Good or Bad?
Written by John Howard Prin, LADC   
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This article appeared in The Phoenix, February 2004

The simple answer is both. As voters casting our ballots, we rely on secrecy to protect our vote from the knowledge of others. As planners of a surprise birthday party, we create a benign conspiracy that conceals our plans from the person being honored. As scientists, we study the secrets of nature to learn more about ourselves and our world. As lovers in private, we protect our privacy by closing the curtains, shutting the bedroom door, or taking a vacation to a secluded setting.

All of these qualify as harmless secrets, secrets that aren't "bad" or shameful or morally foul. We often engage in keeping such secrets-intentionally hiding or concealing information from others to protect what is vulnerable-without giving it a second thought.

"We call him a good man who reveals himself to others."

—Meister Johann Eckhart,
13th Century German Theologian

But negative views of secrecy are common. "The link between secrecy and deceit is so strong in the minds of some that they mistakenly take all secrecy to be deceptive," writes Sissela Bok in her definitive book, Secrets (Vintage, 1989). "To confuse secrecy and deception is easy, since all deception does involve keeping something secret."

And it is the deceptive nature of keeping secrets that concerns us. For anyone striving to move from addiction to recovery, the essential question is this:

Do secrets play a role in my behavior?

If the answer comes back "often" more than "hardly ever," then for individuals aiming to enhance personal growth or wishing to make vital changes in their lives, the next question becomes:

Can I move from living a secretive, closed, deceptive life to living an open, transparent, honest one?

"Yes" is the answer, given a determined effort at truth-seeking.

The above examples-voters, surprise birthday planners, scientists, and lovers-are all acting without guile. All depend on the protective aspect of secrecy: protection of a democratic right, of a surprise party, of intellectual curiosity, of intimate acts. That's the good news about secrets.

A look at Bok's statement above hints at the bad news: "all deception does involve keeping something secret." To discern the destructive power of secrecy, it helps to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. Both are closely linked. Often they overlap, so let's carefully separate them and see how they differ.

Secrecy vs. Privacy

Privacy can be defined as limiting unwanted access by others. Privacy means, something kept from the view of strangers. People rightly seek protection for the innocent, harmless, legitimate activities of life. One keeps a file of taxes private, or underwear in a drawer or prescriptions in a medicine cabinet. We take for granted the legitimacy of hiding silver from burglars and personal documents from snoopers and busybodies, all meant for nobody else's eyes. "They're nobody's business but my own," we might say.

Bok adds, "But secrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden may not be a secret garden; a private life is rarely a secret life. Conversely, secret diplomacy rarely concerns what is private, any more than do arrangements for a surprise party or for choosing prize winners. In each case, one's purpose is to become less vulnerable, more in control."

Less vulnerable. More in control. These are the main aims of privacy, and they are justifiable, defensible. Privacy aims to protect one's identity, personhood, plans, and/or property. How? By defining boundaries that others should observe or respect without requiring physical force. A sign on a neighbor's fence says, "Private Property - No Trespassing." A door in an airport is marked, "Authorized Personnel Only." These act to separate what
is public from what is private. However, should anybody jump that fence or open that door, then secrecy may be required because it offers additional protection .

"Secrecy serves as a shield should the boundaries of privacy fail."

Sissela Bok

"Secrecy (helps) guard against unwanted access by others - against their coming too near, learning too much, observing too closely," notes Bok. "Thus you may assume that no one will read your diary; but you can also hide it, or write it in code, or lock it up."

An extreme example of private identity guarded by secrecy is that of the fictional main character Winston Smith in George Orwell's novel, 1984 . Orwell portrays a ghastly view of the future-where Big Brother watches every citizen every minute of every day. We see an ordinary man with ordinary thoughts take extraordinary measures to think for himself. Alone in the evenings in his miserable flat, Smith sits in a nook writing in his diary attempting to evade the Thought-police-at the risk of death. To even keep a diary means capital punishment, let alone to write private thoughts in it. Smith, an anonymous clerk in a government bureaucracy, even risks death rather than forego the chance to set down his private thoughts in secret.

"To be able to hold back some information about oneself or to channel it and thus influence how one is seen by others gives power," states Bok.

So, it stands to reason that privacy can be healthy and beneficial. To have and maintain control over how we direct the flow of information to others increases our personal power. Keeping a secret, therefore, is not automatically unhealthy or damaging or "bad"-depending, critically, on the nature of what is being kept secret. If it is something shameless, not shameful or nasty, then secrets aren't "bad."

Secret KeepersSM

The opposite is also true, however. Some people's secrets have power over them and can motivate them to misbehave, become sick, or violate others. Burdened by unhealthy Secret-Keeping habits, they may "steal hours" away from their public lives to act out secret behaviors or passions - sometimes for decades. These people are plagued by self-defeating behaviors such as alcohol/drug abuse, compulsive gambling, sexual addictions, habitual Internet use, and eating disorders.

These Secret Keepers live in a parallel universe based on the intentional concealment of what is shameful or discreditable beyond the limits of privacy. By their very cleverness, Secret Keepers elude getting caught. The people closest to them may suspect their excuses or alibis at times and think to themselves how odd or eccentric they are, or they seem lost in a private world of their own . But hard evidence rarely surfaces and telltale clues, if there are any, go unnoticed.

Secret Keepers, even when they function smoothly in their public lives, carry with them the concealed secrets about themselves that nobody knows about-not wife, not parents, not siblings, not friends, not bosses. And so they live a double life continuously, whether stealing hours to act out or not. Secret Keepers may be too smart and too clever to overstep legal boundaries. They may skirt the law, but hardly ever get arrested or labeled as criminals. They may be alcoholics or drug addicts, but not the obvious ones who abuse openly and deceive nobody. Whether they are your next-door neighbor, the person ahead of you in the supermarket line, the driver beside you on the freeway, or maybe even you, they are human beings with two opposing selves existing in one body.

Projecting a wholesome self for all to see and approve of, Secret Keepers carefully hide their secret selves for none to discover and denounce. Meanwhile, the competing selves within them wage war and, over time, wear down the person until a crisis (still another secret unknown to everybody) threatens their sanity. Unavoidably, their inner warfare then leads to a buildup of pressure to disclose intimate knowledge to somebody, wreaking daily suffering until they surrender or "do something."

If these traits describe you or someone you love, there is help available.

Consider that we live and breathe on a continuum where openness is at one end and secrecy is at the other. What determines how open or secretive we act and behave? In the case of privacy, we guard the intimacy of personal information we believe is ours, as well as our need to control the flow of this information. In the case of Secret-Keeping, the stakes are much higher. Because of the shame and guilt attached to the information we are trying to hide or cover up, we block the flow of information and shut down avenues of communication or discovery as a way to protect our vulnerability.

  • Privacy is an act of choosing healthy boundaries and staying comfortably within them.
  • Secret-Keeping is an act of hiding from the embarrasent of disclosing things shameful or discreditable.

Clearly secrecy can debilitate character and judgment, and it can also lower resistance to the irrational and the pathological. "A stifling rigidity hampers those who become obsessed with secrecy," states Bok. "For them, it no longer serves sanity and free choice. Secrecy allows people to maintain facades that conceal. It shuts off the safety valve between the inner and the shared worlds."

Ultimately, truth-seeking is required, because shameful and discreditable information that remains hidden by deceptive secrecy will hurt the Secret Keepers and those who care about them until it becomes known, acknowledged, treated, and healed.

John Howard Prin, BA, LADC , writes on recovery topics and lectures to a variety of audiences about healthy ways to think, behave, and live. His career as an addictions counselor began with his own recovery from chemical addictions in 1996.

Since publishing his first book about Secret-Keeping, Stolen Hours: Breaking Free From Secret Addictions (Syren Books, 2004), he is currently writing his second book, Living Secret Lives. He can reached at 952-941-1870 or email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .