We Are Only As Sick As Our Secrets

The older I get, the more profound the saying “we are only as sick as our secrets” becomes for me.

You have probably come across this saying. It is one of the AA slogans and it has been referenced by many great teachers over the years, including Brene Brown. In her most recent book Dare to Lead Brene shares her personal experience with the AA slogans saying “They are the damn truth and if you live by them, they will rock your world.”  

Your secrets may relate to past traumas, how you speak to yourself, how you numb yourself with over-working, food, shopping, alcohol or other drugs. Perhaps your secret is the real behind-closed-doors dynamic of your family relationships.

Whatever our secrets, I absolutely believe they make us sick.

Many years ago, my “big dirty secret” was that I was living with domestic violence. I hid this secret from the world for many, many years, and it was making me very sick. When I finally packed a tiny overnight bag and fled to the safety of a nearby hotel, my decision to leave home was not driven by seeing a Loreal commercial and suddenly realising that “I was worth it” and deserved better. My actions were driven by a fear of my secret being revealed to my colleagues, family and friends through physical injuries I could no longer hide. My decision to flee was driven by a fear that my carefully crafted image of the high-achieving professional who had her shit together would be shattered. My decision to leave that night was driven by the fear of the impending shame of people knowing the truth of how little I valued myself. The sad truth is that I had actually intended to go back home once my partner had sobered up and calmed down and I had figured out some new negotiation tactics the keep situation on the down-low. I am so very grateful that I had the sense to call EAP for “a little bit of relationship advice” and with the help of a psychologist embarked on the long road of disentanglement and self-worth building.

Over a decade later, I am incredibly grateful for this life experience. I am grateful for the hard questions it forced me to ask and answer (why did I knowingly enter a relationship with a highly volatile, violent man and why did I stay so long?). And I am incredibly grateful for the path of growth and personal development it has led me down.

So, you might be wondering what has this little story has got to do with leadership.

It’s simple – as leaders, we can’t give what we don’t have. Our ability to truly inspire others relies on us feel truly inspired. Our ability to build thriving teams depends on us thriving. Our capacity for compassion for others is determined by our capacity for self-compassion.

Secrets undermine our inspiration and our well-being. Keeping big secrets sucks enormous amounts of energy, stifles our growth and contributes to feelings of low self-worth, isolation, depression, being unloved, unlovable and inadequate.

Shame thrives on secret-keeping. Brene Brown’s work defines shame as a fear of disconnection and the belief “I am bad”. Guilt, on the other hand is the belief “I did something bad”. 

Brene’s research reveals how “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change” and leads to sophisticated vulnerability-avoidance strategies designed to “keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy”. 

And, of course, the problem with all of this if you are a leader is that shame and vulnerability-avoidance strategies destroy connection and therefore belonging – for you and for others.

Facing into the truth of our secrets and our shame takes tremendous courage.

Sometimes our current ways of avoiding vulnerability are so deeply embedded that we are tricked into believing that they are part of our essential nature – but they are not. We are biologically wired for connection so disconnection creates tremendous suffering.

I know there have been moments in my journey of personal development when I feel I have just lifted the lid on a deep, festering can of worms. My desire to put the lid back on and shove the entire disgusting matter into a small, locked cupboard in the back of my consciousness has been at times very, very strong.

However, when I have found the support and courage to open those cans of worms and clean out the stinky muck, it has been really hard, but also so very worth it.

“Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.”

Brene Brown

Our people pay attention to what we do, not what we say.Wholehearted leaders engage with the world from a place of worthiness and this is obvious to everyone who comes into contact with them. When we have done the work that enables us to embody a way of being as a leader that is deeply grounded in a place of worthiness – it changes everything. As leaders, when we find the courage to do the hard work along the pathway of personal growth to find our way back to wholeheartedness, the rewards are immense.

“We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”

Brene Brown

It is impossible to thrive and to feel deeply and truly inspired when you are hiding a big secret.

The idea of sharing your secret with a trusted friend, coach or therapist may sound terrifying, I get it. However, in my experience, the upside is tremendous. There is something so transformative about sharing the truth of our situation (in a safe and appropriate way) and experiencing the wonder of feeling no judgement, releasing the hurt and shame and allowing help and compassion to flood in.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. (…) Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.” 

Brene Brown

When we find the courage to speak our truth, we transform our secrets into struggles and it is absolutely possible to be struggling and to also thrive and feel inspired.

Michelle McQuaid’s research and frameworks tease apart thriving and struggle and shows that many people are flourishing and living well despite struggle. You can learn more about this research here.

Self-leadership is about taking responsibility to discover your own potential and finding the courage to grow into that potential. As we unlock our potential to really show up for ourselves as leaders, be begin to really show up for others. When you are truly thriving as a leader embodying compassion and courage you transcend the idea of optimising head-count, you become the sort of leader who inspires heart-count. I am sure that you agree that we need so many more inspiring leaders in the world today

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Visit my website if you would like to learn more about the work I do to support courageous leaders like you to inspire heart-count.

You can find phone numbers, access points and help for domestic violence, counseling and relationship advice services all across Australia here.

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