Secrets Are Small Soul-Deaths

A woman who carries a secret is an exhausted woman.

Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés

I gave up being exhausted in late 2008. For 33 years, I’d been collecting secrets (big and utterly minuscule) and stacking them precariously in various corners of my soul. Which meant I couldn’t round a corner without being smacked with a wall of shame.

And shame is soul-death, pure and simple.

Shame is also a liar.

Shame told me to keep these secrets because I was so vile that I’d be alone and reviled if they ever spilled out into the light. That I was unlovable, so I had to cling to anyone who told me otherwise. Because if they only knew about the secrets…well. They’d surely retract their love, affection, esteem. They’d go. Then it would just be me and the shame. And that felt–feels even now when I think about it–utterly unbearable.

Good news: this was all 100% bullshit.

Sometimes people remark on my willingness to be vulnerable and to share things that feel brave to them. Which is so kind. But, truly, this is my medicine. I don’t have secrets anymore. I can’t. They almost killed me.

But to be clear: I didn’t heal by trotting every secret out into the world, to be poked and prodded by everyone and their housecat.

But I did tell every secret–every single one–to one person.

I got sober through a 12-step program. And Step 5 goes like this: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

So, just to clarify for those of you who aren’t familiar, in Step 4 you take a “searching and fearless” personal inventory of yourself. That means owning all the things you’ve done that you wish you hadn’t. Facing all your resentments and fears. Squaring up with your part in the shitshow that you’ve spent your entire life trying to pin on someone or something else.

Then you lay all that out for one other human being. You lay all your secrets bare.

It sounds horrifying, right?

Or maybe it sounds freeing, depending on exactly where currently travail in your emotional landscape.

But horrifying or freeing–it is necessary.

Because those secrets lose their power the moment that they’re brought into the light. When you bring your most wounded self, the parts that flinch when anyone draws near them, to a person who has also been deeply wounded but who has begun to heal–they know how to create space for your secrets, to bear them with you for those sacred moments. And then to help you release them.

When we start thinking about embracing vulnerability over shame, we’re already moving in the right direction. But we have to choose wisely. Because sharing secrets indiscriminately with the world at large–or even with another person who proves untrustworthy in their response–can re-injure delicate scar tissue, can send us even deeper into shame.

Your secrets are killing you. They are depleting your soul’s energy. They are exhausting you.

Find your person. Someone sacredly trustworthy. A spiritual adviser. A therapist. Tell them the secrets that make you wake up in a cold sweat at night. Tell them the things that you are certain make you unloveable.

Give up being exhausted.

And then, just keep telling the truth. To yourself. To the people who hold your sacred trust. To the world.

No more secrets.

No more shame.

(*All my understanding of shame comes from Brené Brown, most specifically her book Daring Greatly. There’s also a great chapter on secrets & shame in Women Who Run with the Wolves, which is one of the most soul-freeing books I’ve ever read.)