A good way to let go of unconscious beliefs and to see yourself more honestly is to examine the secrets you keep from others. I have never met anyone who doesn't have secrets. But consider this: the fact that you have secrets is the same thing as affirming, "If people really knew me, they wouldn't accept me" (translation: "I'm not acceptable as I am"). We knock ourselves out to appear acceptable by doing things that reinforce the feeling that we are not.
What secrets do you have? What things have you done (or thought) that you wouldn't want anyone to know about? If you can let yourself look at your secrets, you can learn from them. In some of my workshops I do a Secrets Exercise, in which I pass out blank three-by-five cards and ask people to anonymously write one of their secrets on a card. Then I collect the cards, shuffle them, and pass them out again. All the participants read aloud their new card (probably not their own secret) as if it were theirs. They attempt to feel what it might feel like if this secret belonged to them. They then talk about what it feels like to have this secret, to have done, said, or thought whatever had been reported on the card.
This exercise provides a healing experience for everyone in the room. As you hear your secret read aloud and discussed by someone else in such a tender, intimate way, you see your secret in a fresh light. Your secret, the thing you thought too terrible to reveal, starts to seem more normal. In fact, the depth of self-disclosure in this exercise sometimes amazes the participants. It's as if people are actually dying to unburden their darkest secrets. Perhaps they know intuitively that if others could hear and possibly accept their secrets, they would be provided with some measure of reassurance or healing.
In one of my groups, a man of about fifty shared a very painful secret, first anonymously on the card, and then openly by claiming the secret as his after it had been read and discussed. His secret was that he felt responsible for killing his best friend when they were in the seventh grade.
Smitty, the man in my group, and his two friends, John and Brian, his very best friends since kindergarten, had taken Smitty's dad's handgun to the golf course one day to play around. Hoping to impress his friends with his bravery, Smitty got the idea of playing Russian roulette. The others, especially Brian, protested, saying it was a stupid idea. But Smitty persisted and somehow got his friends to agree. Smitty loaded one chamber of the pistol and volunteered to go first. He spun the barrel, put the gun to his temple, closed his eyes tightly, and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing happened. He was lucky. Feeling a bit more confident, Brian took his turn next. But this time, when he pulled the trigger, it went off, killing him instantly.
All these details were not written on the card. All Smitty had written on the card was, "I am responsible for someone's death." But after he heard the person read the card with such heartfelt remorse and with such compassion, Smitty decided to speak up. He told the entire story with tears streaming down his face. When he finished, a hush went over the group. Several other group members were crying with him. As Smitty looked around, his sobs got deeper. He cried out to his dear friend's memory, asking for forgiveness. In subsequent group sessions, we learned that this confession was a life-changing healing experience for Smitty. He had allowed his most shameful secret to be seen and had experienced love instead of the contempt he expected.
Here is an exercise you can do alone to help you become more transparent. On four different cards, write the names of four people you respect. Now shuffle the cards and turn them over. On the other side of each of the cards, write your top four secrets. Shuffle the cards again. Read each card in turn, starting with the person's name, then turning the card over and reading the secret. If the secret belonged to this person, how would that change your opinion of him or her? If you're saying to yourself that it wouldn't change your opinion at all, notice that. If it would, notice that too. Can you accept other peoples' dark secrets more easily than your own? Or is it the other way around?
Now pick one of the secrets you have written and feel your feelings associated with it. If it's a memory of something you have done, feel the feelings you have about having done it. As you go into the feeling, notice any tendency you may have to run away from it. Notice any judgments or imaginings, then come back to the feelings. If they take you into a memory, stay with this memory. If not, simply feel what you feel. Either way, by experiencing what is, you allow light to shine on one of the dark places in your psyche, allowing this dark place to be integrated into the whole of your being. Once integrated, it won't have any hidden power over you.
Everyone lies, everyone has secrets, and everyone has fears, so there's no point in admonishing people to stop it. What works better, what helps us to become more transparent, is to admit our fears and to name them. Most people have one or two "favorite fears." Some of us tend to fear being ignored; others fear being singled out for attention. Some of us fear abandonment; others fear being smothered. Some fear being overwhelmed or overstimulated, others avoid emptiness or having nothing to do. Frequently your favorite fear only emerges in certain types of situations.
To help you get perspective on your fears and take them more lightly, look at the following list of situations and put a 0, 1, 2, or 3 next to each one, 0 meaning you're confident and self-trusting in this situation, 1 meaning you'd be moderately shaky or unsure of yourself in this situation, 2 meaning you'd prefer to avoid it, and 3 meaning you hope never to be faced with this situation. Then, after you have given each situation a rating, go down the list again and wherever you have put a 1, 2, or 3 ask yourself, What do I imagine would happen to me if I were in this situation? What specifically am I afraid of?
1. Telling a lover I don't like what they are doing to pleasure me.
2. Being told my lover isn't happy with something I'm doing during lovemaking.
3. Telling an employee or coworker that I'm not satisfied with something they have done.
4. Being told by a boss, coworker, or customer that they are unhappy with my work.
5. Starting a conversation with someone I'm attracted to.
6. Having someone whom I'm not attracted to ask me to accompany them to a party.
7. Walking into a gathering full of people and doing something unusual, unexpected, or foolish that makes everyone notice me.
8. Walking into a gathering full of people and having no one notice me.
9. Being asked to do an assignment at work that I think is beyond my capabilities.
10. Having to give a performance review to someone I detest or don't respect.
11. Being caught in a lie.
12. Being blamed for something I didn't do.
13. Expressing a tender feeling and being misunderstood.
14. Being told that I'm not good at something that I want to be good at.
15. Having my boss tell me she is angry with me.
16. Having a customer tell me he is angry with me.
17. Having someone tell me I have done something that hurt her feelings.
18. Telling someone he has done something that I feel hurt about.
19. Telling someone he has done something that angers me.
20. Telling someone "it's over between us."
21. Negotiating for what I want with someone who is behaving in a dominating, threatening manner.
22. Telling someone she has to leave my home or office.
23. Being told by someone that he wants me to leave.
24. Shedding tears in a group meeting.
25. Having a temporary physical condition that makes it necessary for me to ask for help.
26. Being asked for help with some physical task.
27. Being asked for nurturance.
28. Being told to calm down or to not be emotional.
29. Being told to shut up.
30. Hearing a negative judgment about myself.
31. Letting someone know my judgments about her.
32. Being told by someone I like that he doesn't like something about my personality.
33. Telling a friend or mate that I want to be treated a certain way and having her refuse.
34. Wanting my friend or mate to pay attention to me and being ignored.
35. Being told to do something that I don't want to do by someone whose approval I seek.
36. Being told I'm wrong about something I feel strongly about.
Getting familiar with your fears can help you to take them more lightly. Many people suffer unnecessarily because they try to hide what they're afraid of. If you accept your fears, they won't rule your behavior as much as if you try to pretend they don't exist. The exercise you just did was to help you identify the things you imagine could happen to you in certain situations that may be fear provoking to you. Being specific about what you fear helps to eliminate the kind of generalized anxiety that many people live with every day. Often, when you attempt to name what you specifically fear, you realize that your fear is without substance. You discover that your fear is an imagining -- probably related to a false belief that originated when you were at a much more vulnerable stage of life.
If you do have a specific fear that feels powerful and real, take the time to acknowledge it so you can feel it fully, get down to the false belief that may lie beneath it, and clear it out of your system. Perhaps you will discover a desire underneath the fear. Since expressing a desire takes more emotional strength and courage than expressing a fear, many people tend to express their fears as a "sideways" method of asking for what they want. For example, Jean tells her co-worker Tara that she is afraid to ask for Tara's help with her project. She imagines that Tara is too busy. When Jean checks in with herself to discover what she specifically fears, she finds it's about being told no. Once she admits this, she is able to see the want underneath the fear. Now she can say to Tara, "I'd like your input on this project." After acknowledging the fear of being told no, she realized that hearing no is not so scary after all. It was more frightening when it was a vague sense of dread. Now that Jean has named the fear, it doesn't seem so serious and she can let go of it and simply express what she wants.
Remember, when you try to ignore your fear and push it into the background, it won't go away. Instead, it will either create confusion in your perception of what's true or it will lead to a lack of authenticity in the way you express yourself. So if authenticity is your goal, acknowledge your fear, clarify what it's about, and let it fade away.
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
Susan Campbell, Ph.D. has worked for many years as a relationship coach and a teamwork consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She is the author of five previous books, including The Couples' Journey, and Beyond the Power Struggle. Visit her website at www.susancampbell.com.