Secrets & Lies – The Tangled Web of Human Nature

 

locksMy guest this week, Carol Bodensteiner, offers another thought-provoking perspective on the cost of keeping secrets.

 

The Lies of a Child  

When I was ten years old, I made a bet with a classmate. The payoff was $1,000,000.  I lost. At ten, I could no more grasp the concept of a million dollars than I could space travel, but I knew two things: 1) I was honor bound by my word to pay the debt, and 2) No one could know I had been so stupid. 

I was about $3.00 into stealing nickels and dimes from my dad’s pants pocket before my horror at being a thief trumped my need to keep my word. It was more than 50 years before I told another living soul about that million-dollar bet.

This was my indoctrination into the dark underworld of secrets. 

Keeping secrets – and telling lies to protect those secrets – is part of human nature. We’ve all felt the thrill of having and keeping a secret. We’ve all seen the devastation that results when a secret is revealed. We may even have felt the pain of having a secret of our own leaked. Secrets make wonderful fodder for novels. 

The Lies of an Adult

As I grew up, so did my secrets. When I learned in the 1970s that my husband was gay, I embarked on a long and elaborate path of keeping that – and my own life – secret. 

The impact of these secrets on me as the secret keeper lingers to this day. 

Initially, I didn’t tell anyone about my gay husband because I feared how others would react, what they would think of me. In the 1970s, it was not unrealistic for my gay husband to fear for his job and possibly his life. It was not unrealistic to believe that people would blame me for his being gay. We had a child. We had jobs. We genuinely loved each other. We agreed not to say anything to anyone. 

Keeping the secret became everything. In the isolation of my own thinking, the secret grew more powerful. My imagination created bigger, more damaging results should anyone find out. Even after my husband and I divorced, I did not tell anyone. After all, it was the past. Why dredge that up again?

What I didn’t realize was that by not saying anything, I was letting the secret define how I thought about myself. No matter the reality, the secret told me I was not a good wife, a good daughter, or a good mother. The conflicts between how I needed to see myself and the other reality of my secret world were huge.

I resolved the conflicts with strict compartmentalization. I was a good wife and mother. I was a good daughter. I was an excellent public relations practitioner (who could be counted on to keep secrets!). I was married to a gay man, but we never talked about that. I coped with my conflicted sense of self as woman and wife in some unhealthy ways, and I most certainly didn’t talk about THAT. As long as I operated within the rules of each compartment, as long as no one ever found out, life was fine.

Keeping secrets requires a tremendous amount of energy. Neuroscientists have found that secrets cause the brain to fight within itself as part of us wants to tell and another part wants to keep it hidden. The result? Huge stress. 

James Pennebraker, a University of Texas psychologist, found that “people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer.” Pennebraker says, “Keeping a secret often becomes less about protecting people and more about becoming overly preoccupied with the “thing” or maintaining the double, secret life.” 

Hiding my double life was exhausting. But, letting go of the secrets was terrifying. What would everyone really think of me when they knew the truth of who I’d been all those years?

Fifty years after the fact, I wrote about my schoolyard bet in my memoir. I told my mother the story before writing it. She didn’t stop loving me as I’d convinced myself she would. Amazing!

When I finally wrote about the secrets of my first marriage, told trusted friends, and unloaded with a counselor, I received positive, supportive responses. I found others who had experienced some of the same things. I was not rejected. In fact, I found community.

Confession has been good for my soul. Each time I tell the stories, the secrets own a little less of me. Telling makes the events a part of my life, not all of my life. 

 

BodensteinerC-copy-220x300Carol Bodensteiner is the author of Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. She finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. 

 Her essays have been published in several anthologies. Her debut novel, historical fiction set during World War I, will be published in 2014.

Carol’s website/blog:  http://www.carolbodensteiner.com

Tweet @CABodensteiner;  LinkedIn 

Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/CarolBodensteinerAuthor

Quote from James Pennebaker comes from “How can a secret hurt me?” on the website for Discovery Fit & Health

 This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place

 

Parenting During Divorce

  

My guest today is Sherrey Meyer, a Portland-based writer and book reviewer, sometimes proofreader and beta reader. Her insightful essay addresses a key theme in A Fitting Place — how to manage the expectations of children during a divorce.

 Parenting During Divorce

talking to teen daughter webmdParenting sounds simple when reading the dictionary definition. Most sources define parenting as the “rearing of children” or as simple as “ the act or process of becoming a parent.” In most instances, it is not as easy as these definitions imply.

Specifically, let’s think about the parent faced with divorce and the impact on children involved. During divorce, emotions rise and conversations become heated. Children are innocent bystanders witnessing these emotional changes and exchanges unless the parent or parents make every effort to control them.

Depending on the age of children, parents are encouraged to keep communications open. Honest responses to questions will help keep them and you healthy during this time of change.

A personal note here may be helpful. My divorce occurred when my son was a little past his first birthday, too young to pick up much from conversations or emotions.  However, when my husband and his first wife began the process of separation and divorce, their children were six and five, a daughter and son, respectively. They told the children very little about what was happening and why. The basics were all they received, i.e. they were moving to an apartment with Mom, and Dad would stay at the house and be with them as much as possible.  

Fast forward a few years and suddenly his children didn’t understand my presence in their lives, nor did my son understand his presence in my life.  We made a mistake with all three children. Wrapped up in loving each other and rejoicing over what we had found, we gave no thought to sharing what was happening. Nor did we explain that we were getting married and why.

All in all, three adults managed to confuse three children over simple matters of fact that could have kept all relationships healthy and thriving. 

In Mary’s novel-in-progress, A Fitting Place, the protagonist, Lindsey, has an adolescent daughter who has questions about the changes taking place in her mother’s life and how they impact her life, home and relationships. What Mary’s characters are playing out for us is the perfect scenario where parents take a non-inclusive attitude toward their daughter.

For example, bright and savvy 11-year old Zoey witnesses an odd behavior in her dad. It’s  Sunday morning, a time she always spends with her dad, her best pal, over breakfast. During their shared time, Dad gets a call. He looks at his cell phone, and puts it back in his pocket.

Daughter dearest goes home and tells Mom about the call. Mom questions what’s so funny about that, and Zoey responds with, “Have you ever known Dad not to take a call? Do you think it was his mistress?”

Lindsey pooh-pooh’s her daughter’s question.  When the marriage does break up, and no one tells her about her father’s affair, Zoey begins to assume the break-up of the marriage is somehow her fault.

Let’s give our children credit. In today’s world, they are smarter and savvier at an earlier age. They are able to put together the pieces of any human puzzle, noodle over the solution for a couple of days and then bring it up in casual conversation.

Never should we minimize a child’s ability to hear, see and understand conceptually what adults might expect to fly past those ears and eyes and mind.

Whatever your situation may be, there are benefits to your children in discussing changes in their family:

  • Honesty: We expect our children to be honest with us. Should we be anything less with them? In sharing honestly what is occurring in the family, children will gain an understanding that even difficult things can be shared with their family.
  • Trust: Discussing a difficult time or situation with your child gives him/her a sense of being trusted by you. In turn, your child may turn to you when he/she is going through a difficult time.
  • Love: In sharing with your child these difficult times, he/she will feel more loved than if they sense they are being shut out of all communication.

We should not overlook that even with the telling of your story, there is no guarantee that there will not be repercussions. Children may understand what you’re sharing and yet feel anger toward you for upsetting things for them. Behaviors may change, and attitudes never before seen may blossom.

Still, the best path is the right path – honesty, trust, communication, and above all expressions of love and security.

 

sherrey2013_2Sherrey, who spends much of her time as a wife, mother, grandma and great-grandma, is actively working on a memoir and several short essays. 

Sherrey is the author of “The Crumb Gatherer” (in Jonna Ivin’s anthology, “Loving for Crumbs”) and “The Unexpected” (in “Fall: Women’s Stories and Poems for the Season of Wisdom and Gratitude”), edited by Debra Landwehr Engle and Diane Glass)   

She maintains two blog sites:

Healing by Writing, devoted to memoir writing, and  Found Between the Covers, offering reviews of books that Sherry has enjoyed.

 

 

The Price of Nice

 

Don’t change yourself just to make someone love you.  

Be yourself and let the right one fall for you.

 

coinsOne of the most challenging aspects of life is finding the right line between the compromises you have to make for the relationship to work and the compromises that diminish your own integrity and sense of self (“the price of nice”).  It is a challenge my two key characters in A Fitting Place face on a regular basis, although in very different ways.  

I suspect there are very few people who have not, at some point, agreed to do something they didn’t really want to do, or given up something they did want because a friend or lover didn’t approve. 

My concern here is not with isolated incidents but rather with a consistent pattern of deferring to someone else, a consistent willingness to subjugate one’s own desires and needs to the desires and needs of partner or friend. 

A Pattern of People Pleasing

This pattern is often referred to in the psychology literature as “people pleasing.” Typical examples include:

  • Trying to be (or do) what you think “the other” wants you to be (or do) without actually checking to find out; 
  • Failing to ask for what you need or want, for fear your friend or lover will find you foolish, or perhaps too demanding;
  • Trying to be perfect when perfection is not required.

The motive behind these patterns is, of course, to be loved and/or appreciated, but as I learned from painful experience in my first marriage, it can have just the opposite effect.  

This is the price of nice.

If you are a people pleaser, you may find yourself angry because your desires are not being considered, your needs are not being met or your partner seems to be taking advantage of your good nature. 

If you are the partner of a people pleaser, you may feel guilty when your partner is so obviously trying to please you, but doing so in ways that do not, in fact, meet your needs. 

How do you establish a meaningful degree of intimacy when one of the partners does not trust the other to love or appreciate who or what they are … when one of the partners does not the trust the other to be honest about what s/he feels or thinks?

Through both therapy and hard work over the years, I have learned to put more trust my own judgment, which has allowed me to trust others more. Because of that, I no longer fit the people-pleasing mold I had in my marriage, but it is a tendency I still struggle with almost daily.  

Have you paid the price of nice?  How have you dealt with it?  Do you still struggle with it?

 

Conflict is Key

 

Conflict photoEvery good fiction writer knows that conflict is key. The main characters in a novel must have clearly defined desire lines … something they want badly enough to persevere in the face of every obstacle … and internal conflicts give their story depth and intrigue.

Establishing that desire line in the reader’s mind is a particular sort of challenge when the key characters have desire lines based on abstract goals–making a contribution to the world or being seen as loyal and dependable–rather than concrete goals such as becoming president of the U.S. or finding the murderer.

As with all good fiction, the story arc must still be based on desire lines that conflict and build tension. But where the goals are abstract, many of the problems the characters are trying to solve have been created by the characters themselves.  Throughout the story, the characters are often the source of the obstacles that get in the way of a solution.   

Just like in real life.  This is the dilemma most of us live with until we break out of our comfort zone and learn to do things in a different and more productive way.   

In fiction, as in life, The Enneagram system, which classifies personality types based on unconscious motivation, can be helpful. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, each of the personality types can be evaluated in terms of the effectiveness with which they go about converting their abstract goals into real world accomplishments.

In A Fitting Place, my protagonist (Lindsey) is a “thinker” who takes prides in being knowledgeable, capable and self-reliant. On her good days, she is thoughtful, perceptive, and a good listener. On her bad days, she can be self-absorbed, secretive, and remarkably unaware of the emotional mood of her environment.

In contrast, my antagonist (Joan) is a “missionary” who loves to be helpful and nurturing.  On her good days, she is compassionate, sympathetic and highly attuned to how others are feeling. On her bad days, she is possessive, manipulative, and masterful at inducing a sense of guilt into those who reject her overtures.

Because both my characters are flawed, the opportunities for mayhem and misunderstanding abound … as do the possibilities for significant personal growth and development.  

A Fitting Place is a story  in which the challenges, mis-steps and successes of characters in conflict should be familiar to readers who (like most of us) have both good days and bad.  Good days, when we are happy with who we are and how we respond to the people around us.  Bad days, when we are our own worst enemy.

Do you ever have days on which you are your own worst enemy?

 

This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place.  

More information about The Enneagram can be found in past blogs on this site, as well as here.