Shameful Secrets and Why You Should Share Them

Sometimes at around midnight, Brian and I lie in bed scouring the Internet for songs we loved during our youth that might carry us to dreamland.

Occasionally, we discover something embarrassing. (“Oh. You like Wilson Phillips too?”) But other times we rediscover an old gem, and can’t believe that we were once young strangers in different parts of the country, looking up at the stars to the sound of the very same Ben Folds song. Last night, it was this one:

But our nostalgic slumber party came to a disturbing halt when I paid closer attention to the lyrics and Googled their meaning. Here’s what Ben Folds himself had to say about this song:

“People ask me what this song’s about… I was asked about it a lot, and I didn’t really wanna make a big hairy deal out of it, because I just wanted the song to speak for itself. But the song is about when I was in high school, me and my girlfriend had to get an abortion, and it was a very sad thing. And, I didn’t really want to write this song from any kind of political standpoint, or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect what it feels like. So, anyone who’s gone through that before, then you’ll know what the song’s about.”

And revealed, “Folds has also said that neither teen wanted their parents to know, so Ben ended up taking most of the presents he received that Christmas and selling them at a pawn shop so he and his girlfriend could afford the abortion.”

Yesterday, as I listened to Ben Folds sing about emotional drowning, loneliness, and exhaustion, I thought about the shameful secrets we keep and why we keep them.

My Shameful Secret (Or at least the one I’m willing to share on the Internet.)

Back when I was 22-year-old high school teacher, one of my male students snuck up behind me and put his hands around my waist as I was reaching up to put some books away.

Nothing happened beyond that, thank God. But it is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I might be sexually assaulted. I felt so ashamed of what I thought it meant about me– that although I was supposed to be an authority figure in the classroom, I was really just a target, a weakling, a young pretty girl who had no place working in a school with metal detectors and male students with criminal records.

So for as long as I could, I kept the incident a secret until one day, in a tearful confession, I brought it up with the Assistant Principle. She asked why I didn’t report it to her when it first happened, and I answered, “Because I thought I could handle it.” She replied, “Oh, you handled it alright.” (Again, more shame.)

Fortunately, time and maturity have given me a better perspective on what happened and what all that shame was about. Every time I share the story, the incident has less power over me. And I think the reason why is because *I* get to tell the story of what happened in a way that is respectful and compassionate to myself. That is how anyone, no matter their shameful secret, experiences relief.

Why We Should Share Our Secrets

Brene Brown said, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

If we don’t talk about the incidents that shame us, we will forever remain a mere shadow of who we really are. We will lose the opportunity to replace harmful, incorrect thoughts about ourselves with truthful ones. We will be prisoners of our past.

Secrets do not protect us, they destroy us. They are the heaviest weight anyone can carry. And the only way to come out from under the weight of shame and secrets is to open ourselves up to trusted people who can help remove the rubble, brick by brick.

Your Turn: Have you ever felt liberated after sharing a shameful secret?

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13 Responses to Shameful Secrets and Why You Should Share Them

  1. Jared says:

    I loved this blog post, and I think the telling is so powerful because we are the stories we write for ourselves. Our self perceptions and understanding of our relationships are so often co constructed by our internalized experiences and external expectations.

    My own shame centered and at times still does around sexuality and gender. I often struggled with the fear of not being “masculine” enough, of not fitting into the box of masculinity and all the privileges therein. The truth was that i was a queer dude who needed to love all of myself, my feminine my masculine my in between. So many of those messages were external stories and micro aggressions that I had internalized. It took a therapist finally saying two simple words; so what? Those words invited me to explore my experience of my gender in a different way. Those words were an invitation to re write my story and my relationship to my own gender.

    • Kimberly says:

      Hi, Jared! Thank you for being so transparent and courageous in sharing this. I love your point about our stories being the co-construction of internalized experiences and external expectations. The story of Who We Are is a fluid, fragile, and impressionable one. But ultimately, we must learn that we hold the pen. It does not belong in the hands of others. And I think most people have to talk through their shame in order to realize this.

      As for your particular shame, I’ve seen dear family members and close friends struggle in the same way, so I know what kind of courage it takes to sort through the complexities of gender and sexuality. “So what?” is such a great way to begin that journey. Glad to know you’ve come so far!

  2. Holly says:

    Surprisingly I knew what the lyrics were about… and I love the song more so because of the soft sadness of it.

    As for being liberated by sharing a shame: In college we ran retreats on weekends in the spring and fall. One fall I was a leader at one which meant that on saturday of that weekend I had to tell a deep, powerful story about a struggle I had overcome. My secret shame. I sat in a room of dim lights and candles surronded by 5 close friends (other leaders) and 20 strangers and I told a story about something very dark – something I struggled with for so long. I was an emotional mess before but after I started I found comfort in the arms around my shoulder and the silence and after when I was approached by someone who suffered from the same issue and told me I inspired her to get better – well that made it all the better. I left that weekend feeling 1000 lbs lighter AND to top it that girl who approached me? We are now still friends and she has overcome so much since that retreat and she still tells me how my sharing my secret helped her feel not alone.

    Powerful thing.

    • Kimberly says:

      Very cool! Glad you got to experience that. It’s amazing too that you’re still friends with the person who was so touched by your story.

      And hot damn, do I love retreats. I did something similar for most of my 20′s. Good times!!

  3. Shai Smith says:

    After reading the comments, I have to add that I’ve been obsessed with Stevie Nicks since I was a kid, and I’ve always known that song was about a break-up. But, I also know the entire history of Fleetwood Mac. lol.

    I have some secrets that I don’t tell anyone…that’s about to change. <3 I had some horrible things done to me and, while the person and I have had more than one positive discussion about it and have moved on, I feel led to tell others in hopes of giving them a voice – to share my story with others like me. My biggest set-back isn't shame or guilt, though – it's that others will figure out who it is and then that person will be faced with shame and guilt all over again. :/

    • Kimberly says:

      Your concern for the other person is a sign of real healing/ forgiveness on your end, which is awesome. I totally get why you’d want to protect someone’s identity though. Tough call!

  4. Anon says:

    Going anonymous for this one.

    I have some serious trauma in my past, something I am slowly opening up about to people I love (I’m actually telling a close friend later today, he and I have been friends for 7 and a half years). It happened a long time ago. But actually I find that I am still ashamed after I tell them, because there are things about myself that allowed the person in question to hurt me. It’s impossible to tell the story honestly and in full without acknowledging that I did some stupid things.

    I also feel very guilty about burdening people with something so dark and so awful. It’s a bad story, and I don’t like to make people feel bad when they think about it. This wasn’t helped when at the end of last year I told a close friend and then a mutual close friend, someone who already knew about it, said flatly that she didn’t think I should have told the other girl about it. I was already feeling shitty about opening up….didn’t need the extra guilt trip.

    I’m not sure shame goes away when you’re honest about it. Maybe that’s just because I am a very guilty, ashamed person.

    • Kimberly says:

      Your first full paragraph about not wanting to fully acknowledge stupid mistakes– it reminds me of a time I didn’t want to admit to a terrible thing I had done because I didn’t think I deserved to be forgiven for it. But then Brian said, “You’re not a bad person, you just did something bad.” This gave me the courage to admit to my secret out loud and not make an association between my crime and my worth and goodness as a person.

      Brene Brown is the real expert on shame, and she says that the difference between shame and guilt is the nature of the self-talk involved. With guilt, you tell yourself “I did something bad.” With shame you say “I’m bad.” Also, when you feel guilty about something you won’t necessarily have a problem confiding in someone about it. But when you feel shame, you keep it a secret because you’ve tied it to your identity, and you fear it might become more real or true if you speak it out loud. So despite this post, I know there’s no quick fix for feelings of shame (especially if there’s trauma in your formative years). But if you’re going to head in the direction of healing, it really does start with courage and talking. I just hope that the next time you share your story with someone, they’re worthy of holding that space with you. Because yes, you do deserve that. Hugs.

  5. Boyd says:

    I had an experience of letting out a “secret” in my group class while working on my master’s and it was one of the most impactful things I experienced in my training. What was equally liberating was the normalization I got when I found out that 2 others in my group struggled with the same sort of thing (a weird OCD type thing where I constantly spell words in my head and count the letters, divide them into 2 groups, 3 groups, 4 groups, etc,). In fact, the more I talked about it, the less it occurred. It got to the point that now it only happens when I’m really anxious, which is cool because it tells me “hey something isn’t right…let’s look into that”. This experience has helped me as a therapist and a school counselor because I can COMPLETELY relate to my clients struggling with anxiety. It also helps the client to know that EVERYBODY struggles with mental health stuff from time to time, even the person who is helping them through their rough spot. Great post today…LOVE IT!

    • Kimberly says:

      Boyd, what a great example! Thank you for sharing this! I love that your coping mechanism was normalized by others in your group, and I’m guessing they received the same gift from you. It’s great that your counting has become something you occasionally do as opposed to something you judge yourself for, and that now it serves as an alarm/ red flag, not just a crutch. How cool! Here’s to being a mental health professional with our own individual flavors of crazy! Woo hoo! :)

  6. Steph says:

    I think this is one of your most powerful posts to date! I completely agree that the best way to kill a secret’s power is to share it with a trusted person or persons.

    In addition, I had NO idea that’s what the song was about. (Foreshadowing my career, I thought he was taking her to a crisis center for a mental health evaluation. I shit you not!) Though this post inspired me to look up the lyrics and yes, I can definitely see now that its about an abortion.

    And finally, though its not the main point of the post I seriously LOVE this: “) But other times we rediscover an old gem, and can’t believe that we were once young strangers in different parts of the country, looking up at the stars to the sound of the very same Ben Folds song.” I’ve had this feeling many many times reminiscing with Ben about 90′s music :)

    • Kimberly says:

      Thanks, Steph! :)

      Not only are the lyrics subtle, but the video is too– it just showed a sink overflowing, which is what tipped me off to it possibly being about an abortion. Isn’t it crazy when you learn the songwriter’s intentions and it totally changes how you relate to a song, for better or worse? I’d say I like “Brick” even better now, knowing the backstory. But this wasn’t the case for one my favorite songs “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. When I was a young girl I thought it was about her father dying, and just this year I learned that it’s about the end of a romantic relationship with her band mate. I was so disappointed, lol!

      • Steph says:

        It definitely is interesting how learning the backstory can change your relationship to a song.

        Landslide is definitely one of my favorite songs. (I always just thought it was adapting to changes in general — bothromantic and otherwise) Your comment got me curious and I found this link where Stevie Nicks mentions the song being about her band mate, her father and life changes. So feel free to love the song again ;)

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