When Not to Keep a Secret

Photo Credit by pdjs-photos; creative commons license

Keeping secrets can be dangerous. It’s not that they can’t be kept, but if they’re kept at a price, then that price tends to manifest into something harmful.

Though I’m fairly open myself and have very few secrets, I still know and keep many secrets that aren’t harmful to me, but there’s a difference in the nature of those secrets. Those are the secrets told to me by someone I’ve counseled. The secrets are shared with me, but they don’t involve me directly. The same is true of secrets that friends have told me over the years. Some have been truly awful secrets that they felt they had to share with someone and I was it. I never asked to be their confessor but I treat those secrets–ones that never had anything to do with me–as their private information that stays private. I was specifically asked to keep it secret and, since I’m not culpable in these cases, I have. I’m sure that there are former friends of mine out there who worry that I’ll write about some terrible secret that happened 20 years ago that had nothing to do with me, but they need not worry: I’ve never disclosed their confessions.

In all of these cases, I did not take on the burden of the secret myself. It was confessed to me, but the burden was not shifted entirely to my shoulders. And that’s the difference between a secret I’ll keep and one I won’t.

In both my personal and professional lives, every time I’ve let someone shift a secret to me instead of bearing it themselves, I’ve gotten burned–both personally in my health and professionally in my reputation. For example, in 2003, a colleague came to me with a secret. She alleged fraud, and by telling me in the position I worked in then, I had no choice but to take responsibility for what I’d been told and follow-up on it. She shed her ownership of the burden of what she knew by telling me, and put me in a precarious situation of having to report it to my boss, even though she was the eyewitness to it. Three other people followed her lead and made the same allegations, all of them turning the secret burning in their chests over to me and to the people in my office. They all gave evidence but only if it was anonymous. The whole thing blew up in our faces before we’d gotten more than a couple of days into our investigation, with the person we were investigating calling for us to be fired for even thinking there might be fraud. The identity of one of the four–the first and most senior one–was discovered through someone else and when asked by a council to explain her allegations, she recanted, later apologizing to me because she was afraid she wouldn’t get promoted if anyone knew she was the one who’d come to my office for help, afraid that the person she’d turned in would retaliate. The other three were terrified of being found out and remained silent out of fear of retaliation and because the most senior of them had hung her head and said it was all a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, my office was left looking very foolish and vindictive because I was ethically unable to divulge any identities.

That will never happen again.

In my personal life, there have been a few occasions where I’ve carried other people’s secrets. I didn’t mean to be the sole one bearing that burden but in each case, the other person unloaded the secret entirely on me, somehow made me responsible for keeping it, lied through their teeth to save their own skin (much like my colleague who desperately wanted a promotion), and then walked away to breathe easily because they’d dodged the bullet.

And I caught it. Between my teeth.

I let that happen. I felt I was the stronger in each of those cases, that I could take it on until they could better bear their circumstances. They never reclaimed it though. They became content to let me bear it. A few have come back into my life to tell me how ashamed they are that they dumped it on me and ran away. Most avoid me now out of fear that I won’t be responsible for their secrets any longer. That’s probably a good idea.

Because in all those cases where I was keeping someone else’s secret while the person who committed whatever act pretended to know nothing–even in some cases pretending not to know me–I let myself bear the emotional and sometimes physical strain of it. I let myself stay up nights worrying, while the real owner of the secret was quite happy not to stay up worrying.

There’s a fine line between keeping mum about someone else’s secrets while that person works through his issues–and agreeing to keep someone else’s secrets so that he doesn’t have to own up to his own problems.  Sometimes the other person, the one whose secret it is, has to man-up. Other people will not grow if I take on their secrets as my own…and neither will I.