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04.10.2019 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

Why Secrets Are Destructive

Shh. Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve been thinking a lot about secrets lately. . . specifically, the destructive nature of secrets.

What is it that makes secrets so destructive?

Secrets Divide and Exclude

In my work with systemic constellations, we talk about the impact of excluding someone from the system. The premise behind this dynamic is that everyone who is in the system has a right to be there. We may not like the fact, for example, that the CFO is part of our system, but to exclude him from vital conversations is to exclude him from the system itself.

Whenever we exclude someone from the system, whether it be a family or organizational system, we create an imbalance in the system. You’ll know the system is out of balance because chaos, in one form or another, will typically arise.

Where there is exclusion, there is division.

Case in point: I tell party A a secret and whisper, please don’t tell party B. In the moment that I speak these words, I position party A against party B. In order for Party A to keep his promise to me, the secret holder, he must withhold information from party B.

It’s a messy formula for disaster: Secrets + exclusion + division = chaos.

Not to be Confused with . . .

Confidentiality or Processing of Information.

Before I go any further, allow me to offer a distinction. There is a difference between keeping a secret and the need for confidentiality. There is a difference between seeking counsel from a therapist, coach, or HR advisor because you need to process a situation or event.

Such opportunities are safe places where we are permitted and expected to process issues and concerns as they occur in our lives. I’d even go so far as to say that a spouse or life partner fits into this category.

Beyond these safe places? I’m not so sure.

Because . . . let’s be real here for a second. If you’re someone who’s really trying to protect another person’s confidentiality, why would you be sharing the secret in the first place?

The telling of a secret is merely a way to divulge a story that is not ours to tell, but it’s offered up under the guise of self-protection. In other words, I can feel good about myself in the sharing of information as long as I insist that the person on the other side of the conversation holds that information close.

I can’t imagine that there isn’t a one of us who hasn’t shared a secret at one point in our lives. But, just because we convince ourselves that we mean well in the telling, doesn’t make it’s right.

Secrets Destroy Your Credibility

When we agree to secrets, we risk losing credibility.

This happens for both parties—the secret whisper and the secret keeper.

Here’s how it works.

When we whisper a secret (often for the sake of appearing to be the one “in the know”), yes, we exclude and divide. But, we also become known as someone who cannot keep a secret—both of which undermine our overall credibility.

If it’s your secret to share, it’s a matter of choice. If not, there’s a good chance that you’re coming from a passive-aggressive stance that is harmful to yourself and others. Beware.

For the secret keeper—assuming he can keep the secret—the risk is far less obvious. Still, dangerous in that the secret keeper has now positioned himself as more important than the party being excluded. The chosen one. It’s a heavy burden to carry, and it can work for or against you, all depending on the situation and people involved.

So, What’s the Answer?

I’m not sure I have an answer. I’m simply processing out loud. In my executive coaching work, I find that it’s a sticky walk because most of us have one or more individuals that we know we can trust—people that we can share anything with, but, we must always remember that they, too, have people they can share anything with, and on it goes.

It’s the rumor game we played as children, right? By the time the secret gets to the other end of the line, it’s an entirely different story—no longer a secret at all.

Here are a few points to consider about secrets:

Examine Your Intention

Behind every moment of communication, there is an intention. Before you engage in a secret, it’s wise to ask yourself, what is my intention in this moment? Only you can know if your intentions are pure enough to facilitate a meaningful exchange of information.

Can you really keep a secret or do you just want to be in the know?

Ask Yourself, Is This My Story to Tell?

This is a tough question to answer because we often care very deeply about the people in these murky waters. It’s difficult to separate our caring hearts and our need to serve from that which doesn’t belong to us.

If it’s not your story to tell, silence is the best option. If you’re someone like me who’s deeply interested in human behavior and the reasons why, this can be a real challenge. Especially when the story involves family members. Seek counsel from someone wiser than yourself so that you can reach some deeper understanding without falling down the rabbit hole of secrets.

If you need to process the scenario, who’s the best person to do this with?

Refuse to Engage in Secrets

A secret is a secret is a secret. Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to call a spade a spade. If someone is asking you to keep a secret, you might suggest they keep it to themselves.

If someone is asking for wise counsel, you might then position yourself to offer up what advice you can, but be sure to keep the conversation confidential.

Just remember this.

In families, secrets are destructive because issues are never resolved—just swept under the carpet to fester like rotten bananas. So, it is in organizations. Not every bit of dirty laundry needs to be aired and discussed, but consider this.

Whenever we honor what has come before in the system, either good or bad, we make space for something new to emerge. Family and business secrets only keep the system stuck and the toxins flowing.

Secrets are the darkness behind the light of truth.

Secrets divide, exclude, and undermine credibility.

How we choose to engage or disengage in the business of secrets is a tough balance between our need to process information, our desire to listen and support another, and our internal need to be in the know.

I’m still thinking about all this.

Would love to hear your thoughts on secrets. When have you done it well? When have you faltered? What was the outcome?

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. April 10, 2019