The other day, I read an essay on the importance of giving children room for secrets. It sparked a series of revelations about my own childhood and what I brought into my relationships as I grew older. Especially what it says about how important secrets are in order to understand and build trust, bond with others, and differente between insiders and outsiders.

I believe we all have some aspect or other that we lacked in our childhood for which we make up as adults. For me, it’s been learning to eat cheese (seriously, I grew up convinced I hated it) and learning to keep secrets. Now, I am actually very good at keeping secrets that others share with me. As Tiffany Jenkins says in the essay, “Secrets are a currency that is spent creating inclusion and exclusion”, and I want to be an insider. I have, however, been rather bad at keeping my own secrets.

Looking back I started to find patterns in the way my family interacted, including my extended family. I was raised almost as much by my mother as by her sisters, and my cousins are more like siblings that I did not share a home with. This made a very interesting combination with the extreme use of secrets that we had as I was growing up. On the one hand, adults were secretive about everything in order to protect us children, and on the other hand, we children were expected to keep no secrets at all. There is no doubt that all of this was done with the best of intentions and, hey, nobody comes to this world knowing how to be the perfect parent. But having no room for secrets at all had its consequences. Some of us became incredibly quiet and elusive about their lives in order to reclaim control over them as soon as they could. And others, like me, became very bad at keeping their lives private.

When I say I am bad at this, it’s not that I cannot keep quiet. I am the last person to overshare on social media, and even this blog and others I’ve had along the way, keep it personal without giving too much away. The problem is not not saying things, but rather being at peace with intentional silence. And of course, social media only makes this more difficult as it normalizes the publicity of the private.

I still question myself when I decide to share (or not) an aspect of my life. One voice says “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, and it encourages me to prove my transparency and trustworthiness by verbalizing everything. My fears, my dreams, my resentments, my plans. Another voice says I have the right to have space where I can keep anything to myself if I want to. This is the voice I am trying to feed lately, to drown the irrational guilt that comes whenever I give myself permission to stay private. It’s going well, but my family is still my Achilles’ heel. Old habits die hard.

There is also the possibility of it being a cultural issue. I have talked a little about it with friends I grew up with, and to some extent we have had similar experiences. In my studies about intercultural communication we never brought up the topic (I regret that) although we largely discussed how decisions are made and the involvement of parents or elders in the decisions of the young, and I begin to suspect there could be some relation.

Jenkins argues that learning to keep secrets, as well as knowing if/when to share them, is a fundamental aspect of becoming an autonomous human being. Although I cannot say that my autonomy was irrevocably impaired by this fact, I do wish I had learned to be strong enough to step up for myself already at age 10 and tell some adults to back off. Suddenly I also feel more kind towards teenagers and their experimenting to get some boundaries. I guess when I went overboard hiding in my closet while calling a friend I was trying to make a point that privacy was a necessity. Constant monitoring made me feel essentially untrustworthy and had me double-guess my words and actions. Fast-track to today, and I understand why I look extra attractive to micromanaging bosses. I’ll just take the nitpicking as the natural order of things. Who would ever want a life like that?

Luckily for all of us, life is a process. We learn something new everyday, also about ourselves. And as stated by all famous programs for overcoming self-destructive behavior, the first step is to admit to the problem. This is my official admission.

I am going now. I won’t tell you where or to do what, and I will be fine with it. See? I’m getting better already.

Afterthoughts: I should get some funding and turn those coffee talks about secrecy into a serious study. Just for the fun.

Featured image: Melt by Remedios Varo.

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