As a therapist, I am likely in a relatively unique position to be an authority on this having witnessed this more times than I can count: The weight of a secret can be staggering.
- being abused as a child
- having an alcoholic in the family
- repeating a grade as a child
- having an affair
- having a sexually transmitted disease
- heck…even farting in public and having people look around and wonder who did it
Carrying the secret can feel like a burden. A heavy emotional weight that is lugged around in your life, sapping a person of joy and freedom and energy, vigilant to ensure it is not exposed
Disclosing a secret is often difficult because of the shame we feel…”If others knew of ____, what would they think of me?” Gosh, it’s terrifying to think of disclosing a secret.
The internet has an app for that.
Seriously, it does. Actually, more than one.
A fairly new app is Whisper. It claims that it is “anti-bullying” because of it’s anonymity. Folks can post disclosures on it, and then others can respond. The idea is it can be a support network where care and concern can develop, in ways that are difficult on other places in social media.
Many social media sites have moved away from anonymity to encourage accountability so that people will “own” their content. Seems to me that makes sense…why shouldn’t people take responsibility for what they say online…just like anyone has to do so in the real world?
However, one of the implications is that when your name is attached to everything you write, is that folks manage their public personae to put their best foot forward…folks are on their best behaviour leading to an artificially positive on line presence. A recent Yahoo article states: “It’s like people are living their digital lives in front of a window. No one is not going to show their best self…Identify can feel sort of shackling.” So then, the question becomes where does one go to reveal one’s shadow side online?
The answer appears to be sites like Whisper or Secret, places where folks can say things that they aren’t likely to post with their names attached. They are venues for oversharing, really. The idea is that folks can disclose intimate thoughts freely, with a candidness that wouldn’t be possible if their name was attached. Painful thoughts that can feel like an unburdening, such as this, from the article,”My baby boy passed away recently. I saw his picture today and cried. I cried because I love him and miss him. I’m a guy, so no one thinks to talk to me.”
Spouting stories anonymously online, that one doesn’t dare to tell others in real life can happen for several reasons:
- Attention seeking…One can post outrageous things, which may or may not be true, to receive feedback from folks who will send their reactions to statements…which means people have read your stuff and are thinking about it. That feels good to people who are looking to know that they matter.
- Hot wiring connection…Oversharing is a way of strategy to create intimacy by turbo boosting it. However, it’s sort of like putting on one of those sumo wrestling suits to say you’ve bulked up. It doesn’t authentically work, even if it has some qualities of intimacy. To hear supportive comments may be meaningful at some level, but their anonymity would water down the power of them exponentially from what it would be with someone meaningful in your life saying the same sorts of things.
- Poor boundaries…Folks that have grown up in chaotic, dysfunctional or alcoholic households often have a poor sense of boundaries…so they can make poor choices about sexual partners, cheating on exams, substance abuse with under-the-influence-mistakes. And then those poor boundaries have them sharing inappropriately online, not understanding what is appropriate sharing is. Some things are private and are not appropriate for sharing with the world
- A desperate need to tell someone and there is no one in their lives that can hear the story. A feeling like, “If I don’t tell my story, I’m going to explode or implode or disintegrate or DIE”
This last one breaks my heart.
If our society has a need to have anonymous places to tell shameful/painful/secret stories, then we are living in a world that has to figure out how to become a more supportive place.
We are wired for connection. We are wired to tell stories, We are wired to hear stories. We are wired to connect through stories.
Stories that have weight to them…a heaviness–because of the serious content, the private content, the painful content…those stories need to be told in relationships that have the strength to hold the weight of those stories.
I have often witnessed one family member take a deep breath to dare greatly to tell a long held story to a partner or parent in session. To see support and care and comfort being extended, to hear gratitude of the trust that was demonstrated, to see the burden lifted with a secret now shared…well, to witness that is such a holy experience, I almost avert my eyes because the beauty is so exquisite it’s blinding.
To share one’s stories intimately but anonymously…well, that’s a sentence that doesn’t really make sense. Sharing vulnerably is about trust, intimacy and connection. I suppose there is a measure of connection to have fellow anonymous folk send messages of support back…but connection is hardly being built. Trust isn’t being developed. And intimacy? Intimacy with anonymous people…that seems an oxymoron.
It would seem to me that sharing one’s secrets anonymously online is a bit like taking your sister to the prom for your date. You do it to look normal and feel OK…but once you’re there with her, you realize that it really doesn’t work to have your feel great about the date on your arm.
There may be a need for telling secret stories that the internet fulfills…but I think then, the larger question becomes, “How can we raise our children to create, develop, and nurture meaningful relationships in their lives so that when something enormously painful arises, they have a connection that is strong enough and trusted enough that can hold the weight of the story.”
We all need someone that we can, with baited breath and wobbly knees, tell them we are terrified to disclose but here it is…and then have that person look us in the eye, put their hand on our shoulder and say, “I admire your courage in telling me. That was hard, and you were brave. You know our friendship is stronger because you’ve told me. I’m here for you.”
And for those that don’t have a friendship like that, well…anonymous sharing sites may be a very, very distant second best.