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Archetypes of the Secret

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

This is a taxonomy of types of secrets and how secrets play their power in relationships. It also includes an assessment of psychological underpinnings and effects of secrets.

I. Official, Classified, Restricted, Confidential.

Most of the goings-on of the Secret Service, CIA and FBI can be described by the poetic phrase ‘cloak and dagger’ and surely ‘top secret.’ The State Department and the military conduct a lot of classified, privileged and ‘eyes-only’ activities. The shadows of these organizations are the bungler, the spy, the mole, the traitor and the whistle-blower. Hello, Julian Assange and others.

Corporate trade secrets are shielded as if they were national security matters. The anxiety and paranoia of executives are played out painfully, but comically, by actor Paul Giamatti in the film Duplicity. He is the dupe of two corporate spies who collaborate to steal a product formula.

The dealings with lawyers are protected by ‘lawyer-client privilege.’ School records, credit history and institutional records of all kinds are classified.

In the medical world there is the rubric of ‘doctor-patient privilege’ with the regulations of HIPAA—the acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.’This was passed by Congress in 1996. 

Psychological diagnoses and counseling treatment are covered by HIPAA. All helping professionals, however, are legally bound to break confidentiality if they become aware that a client is likely to harm self or others—the duty to warn and protect. The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics states, “When a client’s condition indicates that there is a clear and imminent danger to the client and others, the licensed counselor must take reasonable personal action or inform responsible authorities.”

The ethics code is based on the 1969 case, Tarasoff vs the Board of Regents of the University of California. Prosenjit Poddar, a student at Berkeley, revealed to his counselor that he planned to kill Tatiana Tarasoff. Many steps were taken to deal with Poddar—campus police were alerted, for instance. Tarasoff, however, was never warned and unfortunately she was killed. Since then, the code of confidentiality has been altered to protect possible victims by suspending the right to confidentiality of the potential perpetrator.

Religious pastors keep to themselves what the flock reveals. Catholics trust their priest will honor the ‘seal of confession,’ a phrase aromatic with the magisterium of Rome. You can almost smell the incense.

Initiatory protocols of societies such as the Freemasons are kept secret. Myself, I attended a weekend retreat which produced an initiation into my mature masculine—for many of us older men it came years after we missed getting it right as adolescents. We promised to hold in trust the details of the various protocols in order to allow future initiates to experience the vigor of the processes on their own.

II. The Personal: ‘The unconcealed’ and ‘the secret.’

The ‘concealed’ refers to the deliberate hiding of what actually is, what is going on or what has happened. Secrets live in the mind, in sealed documents, or in encryptions, or buried somewhere.

“I’ve learned that we’re all entitled to have our secrets.” —Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook

Some matters regarding what is happening may not be actual, but rather personal perceptions, a delusion or an illusion. In the film A Beautiful Mind, this is vividly illustrated by the paranoid imaginations of the mathematical genius John Nash.

In any case, the secret has an ethereal reality. It takes many forms, depending on the nature of the something that is held hush-hush.

III. My Secret/Our Secret

“I thought about how there are two types of secrets: the kind you want to keep in, and the kind you don’t dare to let out.”
― Ally Carter, Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover

In the drama of one’s personal life there are various scenarios of secret sharing. The secret is the backstage of the public play.

Scene I— The person with the secret enlists his ally who says, “Yes. I promise not to tell.” This may entail everything from just being a shoulder to cry on to hiding the fugitive. The secret-holder ideally must understand the level of need of the secret-giver. There is such a thing as a ‘cover story,’ which constitutes a strange kind of secret in itself, a kind of meta-secret or a secret within a secret.

“A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Scene II— The ‘confidant’ alerts the secret giver: “Yes, you can tell me. I don’t foresee a reason to reveal. However, if some situation warrants, I won’t keep the secret. You are forewarned.”

“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” —Freud

Scene III— There are people who do not want to keep secrets, especially about grave matters. They would simplify matters by declaring, “I don’t want to know.”

Scene IV— Lovers share their hidden and personal accomplishments and sensitive, bruised and aching pasts. They reveal the tenderness of their souls, the hopes, dreams and wishes—but only between each other.

“‘I never lie,’ I said offhand. ‘At least not to those I don’t love.’” ― Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

III. “Angelo di strada – diavolo di casa” and “Skeletons in the Closet”

“You cannot let your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.” ― Alice Munro, Open Secrets

The ‘family secret’ is the fleur du mal of an injurious occurrence or chain of events. This ‘secret’ is enmeshed in self-defensiveness, in a cocoon of silence and fear.

It might be that Aunt Minerva never really did marry Uncle Punk. Cousin Harry relates with men and not women. Dad didn’t commit the crime, but took the rap and did hard time. The child knows not that his aunt is actually his biological mother.

“That, my dear, is what makes a character interesting, their secrets.” ― Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden

IV. Flaws

A secret may be about: 1) being wounded from outside by others, or 2) having a sense that one is inwardly flawed. Here, the secret might be taking the form of the Jungian ‘shadow.’

In her DVD presentation, The Shadow Effect, Debbie Ford explains two distinct contents of shadow: one content is guilt that I believe or have been told I’ve done something “dishonorable.” The other content includes wonderful things about myself that I have been told by others or I have decided, to hide, deny or abandon because I have not measured up to social norms or expectations of my caregivers. Read Robert Bly’s A Little Book of the Human Shadow.  (Bly, R. (2009). A little book on the human shadow. Harper Collins.)

V. Woundings 

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in its most severe form, is defined as the aftermath of witnessing, experiencing, or confronting a threat of death or injury to self or others, often associated with a single tragic event.

Another form of trauma goes by the name “ritual abuse” or “complex/compound trauma.” Harm, insult, betrayal and injury may be strung out over a long drama of painful childhood or relationship. Chinese water torture.

Commensurate with the severity of the trauma, the reactions can be as strong as shock, numbness, horror or subtle minimizing, outright denial or involuntary dissociation. There is often a self-protective need to keep the secret of the abuse. “I have been harmed. I have a feeling—rage, hurt, fear and self-doubt. I’ve been betrayed. How could they have done this to me?” Then shame and self-blame may arise. “I AM the mistake. Did I do something to deserve this? Maybe so. I hope ‘they’ won’t tell anybody what happened.”

VI. “I’ll hide and tell no one.”

“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” —André Malraux

A defensive, self-effacing stance becomes the style. The shoulders stoop. The gate becomes uncertain. Instead of offering a heartfelt reaction, one proposes a tentative opinion. Then comes depression, which is fear/anger, frozen or turned inward. One begins to doubt one’s feelings, one’s right to speak, one’s validity. There is hypersensitivity to gossip or curiosity. “Don’t you also betray. My victimizer has already betrayed me.”

The shadow of the wound (itself a kind of shadow) is disgrace, embarrassment.

“I feel bare. I didn’t realize I wore my secrets as armor until they were gone and now everyone sees me as I really am.”
― Veronica Roth, Insurgent

VII. The Personal Flaw: Shame, Sins, Mistakes and Disease

Do we not all have flaws of one kind or another mingled with our powers? No one is perfect. We stumble and make mistakes. We screw up. We get ill. We become embarrassed and ashamed. We commit sins. 

Guilt is the feeling after making a mistake. But guilt allows for making amends. “I’ll make it right.”

Shame is worse than guilt in that shame says to me more than, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “You ARE a mistake.” The mark of Cain! I can choose to keep this ‘wrong’ secret. I can also decide to contract with another to hold my secret as a confidant.

With shame and guilt, life can become constricted. Liberty, self-worth and the joy of living are stifled. The defensive attitude and deportment overtakes us like a gloom.

The greatest fear of the ‘flawed outcast’ is the snoop, the meddler and the gossip. Irony, mockery, derision and suspected ridicule are dreaded by the shamed one. 

VIII. Milarepa’s Solution

“Once exposed, a secret loses all its power.”
― Ann Aguirre, Grimspace

There is the story of the Tibetan Saint Milarepa, who met and faced his Demons. And this might be compared to facing the world with one’s truth and hiding no longer. This parable of courage and bravery seems to be the applicable antidote to the destructive poison of our secrets, if you will.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and very far from here, a great Tibetan poet named Milarepa studied and meditated for decades. He traveled the countryside, teaching the practice of compassion and mercy to the villagers he met. He faced many hardships, difficulties, and sorrows, and transformed them into the path of his awakening.
Finally, it was time to return to the small hut he called home. He had carried the memory in his heart through all the years of his journey. Much to his surprise, upon entering, he found it filled with enemies of every kind. Terrifying, horrifying, monstrous demons that would make most people run. But Milarepa was not most people.

Inhaling and exhaling slowly three times, he turned toward the demons, fully present and aware. He looked deeply into the eyes of each, bowing in respect, and said, “You are here in my home now. I honor you and open myself to what you have to teach me.”

As soon as he uttered these words, all of the enemies save five disappeared.
The ones that remained were grisly, raw, huge monsters. Milarepa bowed once more and began to sing a song to them, a sweet melody resonant with caring for the ways these beasts had suffered, and curiosity about what they needed and how he could help them. As the last notes left his lips, four demons disappeared into thin air.

Now only one nasty creature was left, fangs dripping evil, nostrils flaming, opened jaws revealing a dark foul black throat. Milarepa stepped closer to this huge demon, breathed deeply into his own belly, and said with quiet compassion, “I must understand your pain and what it is you need in order to be healed.” Then he put his head in the mouth of his enemy.
In that instant, the demon disappeared and Milarepa was home at last.

Markova, D. (1994). No enemies within: a creative process for discovering whats right about whats wrong. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

“That blessed be he who says one word of truth to the almighty his entire life.” —Rabbi Nachman of Breslov



Originally published February 28, 2013 at:

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