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.
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.