Secrets Are Bad For You

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At some point in life, secrets are not always so fun. I already know what I’m getting for my birthday, that Santa Claus isn’t real, and I told all my childhood crushes that I was the secret admirer long ago. Sometimes I think there are no more good secrets, because as I reflect on the purpose and consequences of keeping secrets, I see how this can create more harm than joy.

In the wake of the #MeToo Harvey Weinstein explosion, it has become abundantly clear that the combination of power and secrecy have been fuelling abusive and harmful treatment of women for decades. And Hollywood has just taken the spotlight in this moment. To believe that the same dynamics are not at play in corporate settings, technology, labour industries, and government, is evidence of the pervasiveness of secrecy. The power of secrets can be found everywhere.

At its worst, my eating disorder was my best-kept secret. I would lie and sneak around in order to preserve that intoxicating sense of control I felt I had earned by restricting my intake. I felt empowered and superior in exerting willpower over my body, all the while, denying I was actively dieting and chasing the feeling of control. The lying, the secrecy, fuelled the ED because I had nothing to challenge the perspective of the hungry, sick voice in my head. Only when I was finally confronted by my family and my doctor about the obsession with eating (or not eating) and food, did my secret finally spill out and I felt embarrassed and weak. I wasn’t in control at all – my illness had been dictating my every mouthful, social event, and passing thought. It had been controlling me. This secret had imprisoned my mind and harmed my body.

Working as a Probation and Parole Officer, I see countless clients who have endured some form of trauma or abuse that has deeply affected their lives, and without a doubt has contributed to the reasons they are seated across from me in my office. Whether they experienced abuse as children, or experience it present day in a toxic domestic relationship, clients disclose that their abuse was founded upon secrecy. To protect a loved one, an abuser, families and children, fear or threat of life or livelihood– I’ve heard every combination of reasons why a victim would keep their abuse a secret. And therein lies the power, and permits the harm to continue.

While I generally try to navigate my life being as forthcoming as possible (this blog being one of a number of exercises in honesty) at one time, I allowed myself to be swept up in secrecy in my personal life. The effect of keeping the secret was poisonous, and took its toll on my sense of self. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself– and while I did not have the mental toughness to punish my physical body like I did when I was a teenager, I was in a near-constant state of emotional self-harm. All that negativity had to be directed somewhere, and my self-esteem and confidence were easy targets. Keeping secrets created a toxic discrepancy within me that I could not live comfortably with. I wanted to be a good person, but I was not acting like one.

Freeing myself from secrets felt like shedding a snakeskin, and I felt immediate relief from it’s hold on me. I could honestly believe others when they reminded me that I’m a good friend, that I’m thoughtful and a good listener. I remembered that I can expect from others everything I’m willing to give in relationships, that I don’t have to settle. I had forgotten that being honest with myself and being happy can be achieved at the same time. Who I want to be and who I am are back in alignment, and I can feel good about that. Growing up may mean there are fewer fun secrets left, but that’s okay with me.

Be Hard on Yourself

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Whenever I make the mistake of sharing my unfiltered negative self-talk with my friends or family, as in, the really abusive things I can sometimes say to myself that I would never dream of saying to anyone else, I always receive some variation of “you are being way too hard on yourself!” in return.

And I would take this gracious bit of validation that I was doing just fine, doing my best, chugging along. In my lowest places, I really lean into this practice:

Don’t be so hard on myself – the dishes can wait.

Don’t be so hard on myself – I’m so tired, I can’t possibly get to the gym today.

Don’t be so hard on myself – cooking for one is exhausting, I’ll order butter chicken delivery instead.

Don’t be so hard on myself – I’m too sad to take this call from my mom, best friend, auto insurance company… maybe later.

Does it smell like bullshit in here, or is it just me?

Whether this is a testament to my improved state of mind as of late, or whether it’s becoming more work to spin my tendency for avoidance into a cute anecdote, I think I am lifting the lid on some of the ways I am, in fact, way too easy on myself. I’m not sure I want to be the girl surrounded by takeout containers in my bed, cuddling with my computer watching calls go to voicemail between mouthfuls of naan bread. I’m not sure she’s doing her best.

There will always be things we don’t want to do – the tedious administrative parts of our jobs, taking out the leaky garbage, spin class at the gym. And yet, people do them. Those things get done. In my experience, the first casualty of depression is my motivation, and during a depressive low, the list of things I don’t want to do can become quite the long read. How do other people get up on time, even after a bad night’s sleep? They just do it. How do other people save money by meal prepping and grocery shopping ahead of time? They make time. The gym? They go, whether they are particularly feeling like it or not.

I may never feel like doing something, but I should do it anyway. Why? Because there are certainly consequences for doing it (it will be hard, exhausting, take a long time) but there will be consequences for not doing it, and I will likely regret these more. I need to care enough about Future Vic to take care of things for her and to not make life any more difficult than it already is by avoiding it. If I would do something for a friend without thinking twice, I need to do it for myself whether I feel like it or not.

I think we wait for inspiration or motivation or willpower to kick in at some point. And like being stood up for a date in the 1990s before cell phones, we may be waiting a long time. I’ve referenced Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck in a previous post, and I shamelessly do it again to promote his idea of flipping the script on motivation to read something like this:

Action → Inspiration → Motivation

*not the other way around.

The brief moments of motivation and energy are fleeting, and this feeling is usually front-loaded at the top of a project or goal we have some emotional attachment to, like starting back up at the gym after seeing a particularly ratty-looking tagged photo of yourself. But it takes a lot of energy to keep that motivation revving, and it will inevitably wane. This is where Mark Manson says we need to DO SOMETHING, even something small in the direction we want to go in, because the act of doing something – anything – can cultivate some of those feelings of accomplishment and passion that got us started in the first place.

By forcing myself to do something small, like taking a moment to prep the coffee machine the night before, I initiate a chain of steps in a positive direction. With coffee prepped, I can turn it on in the morning while I get dressed, fill a travel mug with the life-giving nectar, leave the house on time, skip Starbucks, save money, and roll into work caffeinated and on the right foot. I didn’t feel like doing it, but I was looking out for my future self #thxbbgirl.

I think I’m particularly prone to the paralyzing effect of being too easy on myself, where, in my desire for comfort while in a particularly bad place, I monopolize my decision-making. I’ve seen my willful ignorance affect my relationships, my social life, my ability to fit into my jeans – most recently, I’ve taken the blinders off to the state of my finances (more on that later).

I get it. Doing things is hard. Doing things is very hard when living with a mental illness, and all you seek is to feel comfortable in your own head. I can’t promise that you will feel better soon, but I can assure you that those brief moments of discomfort that come from doing something good for yourself, can help.