Secrets shared, secrets kept

What if you could share a secret that has been bothering you? What if you could do it anonymously? A community art project built around people sharing secrets has grown into a vehicle for discovery and support.

The site PostSecret, which weekly publishes postcards sent to founder Frank Warren’s Maryland postal address or by email, has gathered more than 667 million views. The idea was first inspired by a dream in 2003, he explains on a related website where visitors can communicate, find out how to attend one of his events, learn about his books, and connect with wellness resources such as hotlines for abuse and suicide prevention or eating disorders. Since the secrets are anonymous, it isn’t possible to know how many of the half-a-million things sent in are true, but he shares some follow-up stories about how lives were touched by a sharing a secret or reading someone else’s secret.

Sometimes, taking the time to write down a secret or create an artistic postcard about it can help the person lay claim to a truth that has lingered inside, unclaimed. By reading others’ secrets, people can learn that they are not alone in their feelings and actions.

Revelations shared on the site range in intensity from what some might not consider a reason for secrecy at all — personal habits or tics — to life-shaking fears about love, work, school, and the meaning of life. Some are confessions of actions traditionally thought of as immoral or illegal, such as deception and theft. Others express regret or hope.

Secrets contain power. They can draw people together through intimacy and trust or breed destruction through self-criticism and unresolved emotion. Secrets are kept for a reason, such as fear of expected consequences such as social isolation and loss of connection, possessions, or freedom. While some secrets feel like an honor to keep — being trusted with a loved one’s email password — others can gnaw at a person. The desire to share a secret may be an important indicator that the weight of carrying it may be too heavy to continue bearing. Keeping the secret may come with the high price of rejecting your yearning to be heard and accepted for who you are or may prevent you or someone else from connecting with help to reach a place of greater happiness and fulfillment.

Whenever you carry a secret, it’s wise to examine the reasons behind not telling and to weigh the feared consequences against the power of liberation. Some secrets are worth keeping. Some secrets seemed necessary to keep at one point, but the reasons are no longer valid. Some secrets can be shared with those who have earned the right to hear them. Others are secret more because of the keeper’s fears than the actual consequences, as some find once they have shared.

What if you could share a secret that has been bothering you? What if you didn’t have to do it anonymously?

Want to read more about the potential impact of secret-keeping on individuals and relationships? Check out the Psychology Today article “The Power of Secrets.”

Has complaining sidetracked you or your group?

Are you wasting potential and avoiding improvement by focusing on what is wrong instead of attributes that could lead to more happiness, satisfaction, and solutions? Could you, your company, your organization, or your community benefit from a better balance between identifying or complaining about negatives and imagining or bonding over positives?

A post on The Daily Love asks whether your relationships support your empowerment. Read it here. It provides insight and questions to help you reflect on the relationships in your life and whether they’re helping you. Apply that examination to all aspects of your world, from social groups to City Hall.

It’s common to find fellowship through complaint. You get together to grumble about work, your significant other, your lack of significant other, the government, the economy, something that happened in the past, current affairs, relatives, your weight, what others think of your weight, mutually despised individuals or groups, and countless other sources of irritation and frustration. These complaints can be reasonable, and pretending that problems don’t exist or refusing to talk about them creates a false sense of the world or a blanket of protection for a real issue.

Yes, the government wastes money sometimes. Yes, some corporations put their profits above what is good for their employees or society. Yes, some people are shallow and mean and difficult to understand. Yes, you have valid feelings and thoughts and deserve to recognize them. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can help you gain perspective on how you might change your situation or interpretations.

However, the allure of connecting over faults or problems can work against the best interests of yourself or your community. The binding power of negativity can blind you to strengths and solutions. This is true of one-on-one relationships, of organizations or communities, of businesses, and of concepts that bring people together, such as the Occupy movement or the Tea Party. Show up to the discussion, but then put up or shut up.

If the foundation of your connection is opposing something or complaining about something, improvement of that thing can feel like a threat to your connection. And connection is an incredibly powerful motivation. Having something to get angry about together can create feelings of belonging, but if it also requires that you maintain anger to maintain that belonging, then what you’re really choosing is to become an angry person. Do you really wish to incorporate more bitterness and frustration into your personality?

What happens if your friend changes eating or exercise practices, and you haven’t developed other reasons for the two of you to connect beyond weight loss or body improvement? Or if the person you always talk to about the trouble with singlehood gets into a relationship or decides to make peace with it and stop looking? Or if people develop a solution to the problem that has been stirring you up; do you develop a “need” for a new problem? Or what happens if you realize you don’t have the power to improve a situation: You’re not on the board of a company or you don’t win a leadership role in your organization or government?

How many of the people who are currently in your life would still be interesting or companionable if the thing you complain about improves or won’t improve with your current level of power or action?

You can spend your life dwelling on pain and problems. Complaining can provide the illusion of purpose and connection, but if it doesn’t result in things getting better, then why are you wasting your time and energy on it? If those around you are wasting their time and energy, do you really want to give them a place in your life, to influence your actions?

What are the stepping stones that exist, right now, that could move you closer to “better?” What are the strengths of you, your company, your organization, your community? How could your form bonds of improvement? What prevents you from giving up the negativity habit, and what would your life and world look like if you changed your focus?

Be more than a bystander

I was driving on the freeway on a mountain pass when I came around a curve and spotted a crash. The car was off of the freeway on the right-hand-side bank, facing the wrong way, hazard lights flashing. I didn’t have time to see if anyone was in it before I was headed into the next curve, but it was pretty clear from first glance that it was wedged into the bank pretty solidly and would at least need some help getting unstuck.

Driving alone, I was surrounded by vehicles that I reasoned surely had a passenger who could call about the crash. With passes, it’s not positive that whoever had been driving that car would get cellphone reception, providing that person had a cellphone. Maybe it was an old crash, I reasoned, and the person had already been helped. Was I sure someone was in the vehicle? Someone would call. Someone would stop.

But I’d recently seen this video about the importance of men as bystanders or active participants in changing the culture of acceptable violence in society. It’s an excellent talk that has nothing to do with car crashes.


Watching the video had reminded me of the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon where having others around dilutes the feeling of responsibility in individuals. In it, people who might otherwise act hold back because they figure that someone else will do something. Just like I was thinking in my car on the interstate.

I pulled off the freeway at the next ramp so that I could safely dial 911. I told the dispatcher where the crash was and what details I’d seen, and she said they would send someone if the crash had not already been investigated. That told me that she hadn’t heard about the crash from any of the other drivers just then. Moments later, I was back on my way north. Not long after that, I saw a state trooper, lights flashing, speeding to the south. Could have been to help with the crash. Could have been going to another call. I’ll never know. I don’t need to know. I wasn’t calling just for the driver of the crash. I was also calling for me and for us.

If it were me in that car, I’d want someone to call. That’s the social contract that makes it possible for me to get into a vehicle all by myself and travel hundreds of miles from anyone I know who has any personal reason to help me if something happens. A compassionate society must be made up of more than bystanders.

Want to read more the bystander effect in society? Consider Kathleen Parker’s opinion on rape convictions in Steubenville and this in-depth piece from the Greater Good Science Center exploring altruism and inaction.

— Patricia S.