We all have secrets. We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t share with anyone else. But when do these veiled truths become destructive? What drives a person to live a double life? Why would a soccer dad by day become a pimp by night? Or why would a law-abiding woman in her 50s have another “self” who shoplifts? In her new book, “Anatomy of a Secret: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a regular “Today” contributor, examines how several people — composites drawn from her patients as well as famous historical figures — created secret lives. Dr. Saltz was invited on the show to explain our impulse to create and nurture alter egos. Here’s an excerpt:
The Secret Life
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
— from The Shadow (1930–54)
A woman in the doctor’s waiting room natters on about the weather, oblivious to the fact that no one’s really listening. Maybe she’s a chatterbox. Or maybe she’s terminally ill.
A man stands in line at the bank, frowning to himself. Maybe he’s overdrawn. Or maybe when he gets home he’ll tell his wife he no longer loves her.
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A child on the swing in the playground wears long sleeves, though it’s the height of summer. Maybe her mother is overprotective. Or maybe her mother beats her black-and-blue.
The husband in bed turns to face you. He may be thinking only of you. Or he may be thinking only of your closest friend.
The man on the treadmill next to yours at the gym runs as fast as he can, turning his iPod’s volume up as high as it will go. Maybe he can’t lose those last five pounds. Or maybe he can’t get rid of the image of that woman he met at the bar, and can’t drown out her screams.
And you: Maybe you know yourself. Or maybe you don’t.
We all have secrets; we live and breathe them every day. We may not know what one another’s secrets are, but we know they’re there. They’re always there, invisible presences in everyone’s lives, the subtext beneath the text, the almost uttered but then swallowed sentence, the cryptic, fleeting expression on someone’s face. Humankind’s basic needs are food, water, and shelter, but secrets aren’t too far down the list of essentials. They provide a safe haven that allows us the freedom to explore who we are, to establish an identity that is uniquely our own. But even the deepest secrets can also be shared; they are the currency of close relationships, the coin of exclusivity, sometimes the key to love itself.
Under some circumstances, however, secrets can also be profound sources of shame, guilt, anxiety, despair. While we’re always surprised when we learn about the misbehavior or strange habits and predilections of friends or public figures, in another way we aren’t surprised at all. We’ve grown to expect that such behavior will crop up occasionally, that unusual personality traits will be routinely revealed.
And we expect it not only because we’ve seen it in other friends or public figures (and we certainly have), but because we have been known to behave in this manner sometimes, too, and because we also possess well-concealed traits and habits and interests that would be considered strange by other people.
Video: Inside look at secret lives and their dangers Secrets can cause people to behave in ways that seem entirely out of character — to go to any desperate length to conceal what simply must be hidden, at all costs. They can require so much vigilance and attentiveness and sheer time that they begin to dominate an entire life, in effect becoming that person’s life. Everything that is unrelated to the secret becomes secondary and irrelevant and is cast off. A kind of fear — sometimes, nearly a paranoia — sets in at the mere idea of the secret being unearthed. What if someone finds out I stole that money? What if my employer reads my blog and sees that I’m not just an ordinary nanny, but that I also have an active sex life and have taken Xstasy? What if my best friend finds out I hate her husband? What if my most private self is revealed? Then everything will be lost. The possibility of discovery is played out again and again like a sickening loop of film.
Many secret lives remain sub-rosa for surprisingly long periods of time. Relationships are kept hidden through sheer ingenuity, and dark acts stay in perpetual darkness. The serial killer learns to live with secrecy as his constant companion; so does the illicit lover, or the tax cheat, or the thief. The balance of power between secret and secret-keeper is constantly being negotiated. If we can control our own secrets, making sure they occupy the place we want them to, then our lives can seem manageable. But when our secrets start to control us — and far too often they do — then a normal life clicks over into something else: a secret life.
When that happens, everything changes. Suddenly we find ourselves forced to give up any remaining vestiges of openness and casualness and instead submit full-time to the exacting rules that the secret life inevitably demands.
And the reason we are forced to submit in this way is that the secrets we keep to ourselves are only half the story. The other half is composed of the secrets we keep from ourselves. These are the ones that have been forced underground over time, in some instances since early childhood. They are the ones that we simply don’t want to know about, so embarrassed or enraged would we feel if we were forced to confront them head-on. Glimmers of those feelings occasionally surface without our understanding why; we may overreact to seemingly trivial events, or have a strong response to a particular person, or be disturbed by a dream we’ve dreamed without really knowing why. In these moments, we’ve somehow entered the cordoned-off territory of the secret from the self, and while we may not understand this has happened, we know enough to tighten up security even further.
But without access to these inner secrets, we can’t really know ourselves at all. Instead, we’re forced to spend our lives in a state of continual vagueness, ignorant of the reasons behind our own actions and perceptions.
In the following chapters I take the basic concept of secrecy — which is intrinsic to everyone, though sometimes subtly so — and magnify it so it can be viewed as the powerful, dramatic, life-shaping force it is. Some of the stories trace the ways that people’s lives have been destroyed because of the secrets they keep. Other stories tell of lives that have flourished because of the layers of complexity and richness that secrecy provides them. At times, secret-keeping proves to be a question of choice, or even luxury; at other times, it has life-or-death consequences.
A few of the secret-keepers here are composites of people I have seen in my practice as a psychoanalyst. Their circumstances might seem extraordinary at times, but they arise out of the ordinary complications of daily life. I’ve chosen them precisely because they are representative. You might even recognize aspects of yourself.
Other stories in this book come right from history: a world-famous hero who, at the height of his fame, secretly fathered many children with several women; a composer of international renown whose sexual predilections might have forced him to commit suicide; a beloved military figure who could find sexual pleasure only at the receiving end of a whip. If these descriptions sound far removed from your own life, that’s deliberate on my part; some of these lives have been chosen for their sweeping, dramatic scale, which makes it easier to see not just the ways in which specific secret-keepers operate, but the ways in which all secret-keepers do. And that includes every one of us.
“Know thyself,” urged Socrates, while a more modern maxim insists, “Ignorance is bliss.” The two proverbs, often quoted, deliver opposing messages. Some people live by one, some by the other. But most people, at different times in their lives and in various ways, live by both. They try to remain open and honest as much as possible, keeping some details fuzzy and vague and hidden from certain people, while concealing other details from everyone, including themselves.
Secrets: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They are here with us at all times, swirling around us, causing problems, generating excitement, forcing us to be watchful. “I know something you don’t know,” goes the singsong of children. This is true for all of us. We all know things that other people don’t, things we’d love to blurt out but that we simply can’t. Secrets are like a long inhaled breath that can’t wait to be exhaled, and perhaps never will. They are maddening, thrilling, dangerous. Secrets routinely meet in the air and then disperse, unspoken. And every day, secret-keepers keep on doing what they do: living one life, and then living another.
Excerpted from “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. Copyright © 2006 by Dr. Gail Saltz. Excerpted by permission of Morgan Road/Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.Story: Have a secret life? Hiding debt? Cheating?
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