Have you ever had a conversation with a close friend, colleague or family member and found yourself thinking, “If only you knew what I’m going through,” or “I wish I could tell you what’s really happening,” yet something holds you back?
Many years ago, this happened to me often. I’d be having coffee or a wine with a close friend, laughing and joking, and as we relaxed and began to feel comfortable, our conversation would shift to a different level. She’d share something more personal, maybe a challenge she was experiencing at work, or a worry she had about one of her children. These deeper conversations are a sign of great friendship, but back then they made me really uncomfortable. I was hiding a secret.
My mind chatter would take off ; “I wish I could tell you. This secret is weighing me down and causing me so much pain! Yes, I’ll tell you… No wait, if I tell you my children may find out or worse, I’ll be forced to make a decision I’m not ready to make…”
I felt like I was strapped in tight on a rollercoaster ride, gripped by fear with no escape.
“Can I survive on my own and support my kids? Can I really trust you? Everyone else I’ve trusted has hurt me. Will you tell others? What will you and others think of me? There’s no going back once I say it.”
On and on my mind would go.
“I’m not ready to face this! No, the safest option is to supress it. Act like nothing has happened and it will all go away…”
It was confusing and exhausting.
I could come up with countless reasons why I didn’t reveal my painful secret for a very long time, but the truth is there was just one BIG underlying reason… shame.
The dictionary defines shame as:
‘A painful emotion caused by the belief that one is, or is perceived by others to be, inferior or unworthy of affection or respect because of one’s actions, thoughts, circumstances, or experiences.’ *
I was filled with shame – humiliated because I’d put myself into a situation that had turned bad; embarrassed because I’d been so naïve and foolish not to have seen what was happening around me; afraid of what my children and parents would feel if they found out.
Often people stay silent about secrets because of fear about the consequences, or guilt, the feeling that “I’ve done something bad”. Shame is quite different to guilt. Shame makes you believe, “I am bad”.
Shame is why many victims of various forms of abuse (bullying, sexual abuse, domestic violence, racial abuse, etc.) stay silent. We tell ourselves that we deserve what’s happening to us, and that we are not worthy of something better. Instead of placing responsibility back with the perpetrator where it belongs, we somehow convince ourselves that we are responsible. The more our mind wanders to our shameful secret, the heavier it becomes. This is the very seed for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
But there is a way out of shame and back into life.
The burden begins to lift when we take the step of confiding our secrets and breaking our silence. Once I finally broke my silence, I got the support I desperately needed from friends, colleagues, and family. Slowly, the heavy weight of shame began to lift and I was able to make decisions I wanted to make a long time ago. I’m not saying it’s easy, and that’s why I’m now so committed to helping people break their silence.
I want to live in a world where our children and grandchildren do not feel compelled by shame to live burdened by silence. I don’t want them to carry painful secrets that steal their vitality, their happiness and even their lives. Bad things will continue to happen, but silence gives them a power they do not deserve.
If you struggle with the same mind chatter that kept me silent for so long, you are not alone. Confide your secret safely to someone you trust. And if you are that person who is trusted with someone’s painful secret, please listen. You don’t need to fix it, just hear their story with an open mind and a caring heart. That’s how we change the world – one conversation at a time.
With a full heart,