I grew up in a family with a lot of secrets. That may sound dark, but luckily, most of the secrets were pretty low-grade. "Don't tell her I told you this, but when Aunt ______ was young, she did ______ [insert something the teller of the story disapproved of]." "I'll buy you these books, but don't tell your Mom." "Dad says you never call. Will you call him more? Don't tell him I told you though, because he told me not to tell." "Did you know that Grandpa was married to someone before Grandma? Don't tell anyone, though."
Thankfully, none of the secrets I was asked to keep as a child had to do with abuse or people hurting each other. Still, as a child, I had a hard time with being asked to keep the secrets of the grownups around me, no matter how silly they were.
Sometimes, secrets are a way to protect those who have done terrible things. Sometimes, secrets keep you from having conversations you'd rather not have. Sometimes, secrets are just a way to gossip and hope that it won't catch up with you. Especially in a family with undiagnosed mental health issues, it's easier to tell someone to keep a secret than to deal with the wrath of the family member that you're a little bit afraid of.
Keeping secrets can be toxic and stressful, but here's the surprising thing I learned from growing up in a family that constantly asked me to keep their secrets.
Authenticity and Coming Out
You may think that, considering my family of origin, that I'd be wholly against keeping secrets within a family. Of course, secrets can be toxic and problematic. But, what I've also learned is that sometimes, what we think is a secret is instead a boundary we're setting.
We live in a culture that values "authenticity" and "coming out." This idea of coming out was championed by politicians like Harvey Milk, who said in 1978:
Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! [ . . . ] break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.
If your civil rights are at stake, it makes sense that sharing information about yourself with those around you would help them feel positively about a group that had previously only existed in a scary abstract. If you know a gay person, you are much more likely to be invested in them and to understand why something like marriage equality is important. In that instance, divulging information about yourself or "coming out" may be the way to go. It is an act of courage and one of faith.
But, sometimes, we feel that others are entitled to information about ourselves, all in the name of us being authentic or our true selves. If we're not comfortable sharing about ourselves, we must not be comfortable with ourselves, according to that line of thinking. And, since the goal is to be comfortable with ourselves, we must share the information with the people around us in order to be fully self-actualized.
I used to believe this too: that by keeping things a parent had told me from another parent that I was betraying someone. That by not sharing every bit of my life with my parents, I was hiding things from them and therefore not comfortable with myself. I lived 2,500 miles away from them and always felt conflicted about how little I shared with them. I felt like a fraud when I would talk to them on the phone, feeling like I should confess the problems I had with the religion I grew up with (which they were still very active participants in) or tell them about my boyfriends I knew they wouldn't approve of. If my sibling told me something about another family member, I wondered if I was hurting the relationship by keeping that information to myself.
When I would admit to my friends that my parents didn't know who I was dating or didn't know that I wasn't active in our church anymore, they seemed to think that I was doing something wrong. I thought so, too.
Then, I learned something that changed my mind.
Secrets vs. Privacy
While it can be beautiful to divulge information about yourself, whether or not you think the people you are giving the information to will be happy to receive it, there is also such a thing as setting boundaries — limits that are meant to protect you both.
It's also okay to value privacy. Choosing not to share information with people who would take that information poorly doesn't mean that I'm ashamed of that information, it means that I have chosen to exercise my right to privacy. Choosing not to divulge information is not the same thing as not being authentic.
When I first was presented with this idea, I was skeptical. "So, where is the line?" I thought. "What counts as keeping secrets and what counts as keeping something private?"
To be honest, I'm still not always sure where the line is. That's one of the fun things about being human — we get to live each day to the best of our abilities, then start fresh the next day.
But, this has been an important realization for me because it has transformed my guilt and feelings of fraudulence to those of agency — I get to decide where the line is. Perhaps I should tell my parents about the person I'm dating or that my sibling is thinking about quitting their job, but maybe that's not information they need to know. Perhaps I should tell them about my concerns with the church they believe in, or maybe that's information that I will keep private.
Boundaries Mean Better Relationships
Learning that not everyone is entitled to every bit of information about me was a game-changer for me. Sure, a lot of the time, I can and should share information with the people who love me. But, if I choose not to, that's my prerogative and is nothing to be ashamed of.
While keeping a family secret having to do with abuse or an affair or potential danger someone is in may not be the right decision, it's okay to keep secrets that are about information that won't hurt someone else. And, I've learned that keeping other people's secrets can sometimes be fine, but it's also okay, if someone says "I have something to tell you, but you can't tell anyone" to say "No thank you."
Interestingly enough, by reclaiming ownership over my sense of self and feeling okay with not sharing every detail with the people I love, I have gotten closer to many of my family members. By setting boundaries that keep us both safe, I feel better about our relationship and feel more secure in what I do share with them. In realizing that divulging information is not the same thing as being authentic, I've rid myself of a lot of needless shame and gotten to focus on building relationships and learning to trust myself.
Christine Clark is a freelance writer based in Vermont. She is also a certified cheese professional with the American Cheese Society and you may have seen her in publications like Bon Appetit, VinePair, Epicurious, and Wine4Food. For more about cheese and feelings, check out her podcast "Is This a Brie?"