Keeping Secrets


I am delighted to welcome, as my guest today,  Debra Engle and her musing on the barriers that secrets impose on connecting with those who matter in our life.  She has graciously offered to give a copy of her new book “The Only Little Prayer You Need” to one of the people (drawn at random) who leave a comment on this blog. 



Keeping SecretsIn my imagination, I have appeared on Oprah dozens of times. I am always scintillating, well-groomed, and wearing three-inch heels that would immediately topple me in real life.

During one of these imaginary appearances, Oprah asked me about the subject of lying.

“I used to lie all the time,” I said. “I lied when I was nine years old and told my mom I was wearing a slip when I wasn’t. I lied about wanting to marry my ex-husband.

“I lied to protect people. I kept secrets to protect myself. I didn’t even think it was wrong, because I always had what I thought were good intentions.

“Besides,” I said, “when it came to being honest with myself, I didn’t know what that meant.”

In my imagination, Oprah gave me one of her big girlfriend smiles, leaned forward, and asked, “So what did you learn?”

I thought for a minute, then answered. “I look back sometimes,” I said, “and think how much faster I could have moved through my life. Being dishonest with myself has been like constantly keeping my foot on the brake.”

This subject of honesty—of lying and keeping secrets—has been on my mind lately, both in real life and in my imagination. I’m at the fish-or-cut-bait stage of life, when I’m finally willing to disappoint other people rather than sacrifice myself.

Now when I write and speak and mentor, my question is not, “What do others want to hear?” It’s “What am I uniquely called to say?” That question comes with an initial dose of fear-based thinking, knowing I’m risking disapproval and criticism. What if someone challenges my beliefs? What if people leave the room shaking their head in disagreement? What if…gasp! … someone doesn’t LIKE me?

It took me a lifetime to be willing to take that risk, reminding me of a news magazine program I watched years ago. The program featured a World War II veteran who had kept a secret ever since his years in the service. Throughout the hour-long interview, the veteran talked with sadness about how much his hidden story had haunted him and shaped his life. Clearly ashamed of what he had done, this fine, caring man had been constantly companioned by his secret.

It built a wall between him and his family, convinced him that he was a disappointment and a coward, and sapped every bit of joy out of his life.

Finally, at the end of the program, the veteran agreed to tell his secret. With great effort and enormous shame, he revealed the story he had kept to himself for at least 50 years:

During a major battle, he had hidden beneath a fellow soldier’s body to keep himself from being killed.

That was it. He’d practiced the same act of self-defense that any of us would have in the same situation. But he’d condemned himself for it for half a century.

My heart hurt for this man, who clearly had lost his life not to bullets during the war, but to his own fear that he had committed the ultimate act of cowardice. The secret didn’t take his life, but the self-judgment behind the secret did.

That’s the secret about secrets. When they’re finally brought to light, we can see them as the imposters they are—illusions that we imbue with powers they don’t deserve. They slow us down, hold us ransom with fear and, like the veteran who couldn’t forgive himself, keep us from being the magnificent mortals everyone knows we are anyway.

So, this is my new story on another self-imagined Oprah: No more secrets. I’m off to write, to think, to dream. And to chuck the imaginary three-inch heels so I can put my foot squarely on the accelerator of life.


Deb Engle secrets 1Debra Landwehr Engle is the author of The Only Little Prayer You Need: The Shortest Route to a Life of Joy, Abundance and Peace of Mind, a brand new release from Hampton Roads that features a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

She is the co-founder and facilitator of Tending Your Inner Garden®, a program of creativity and personal growth for women. In addition, Deb teaches classes in A Course in Miracles and offers mentoring in writing, publishing and life skills. You can learn more at


  1. I hold advanced degrees in keeping secrets, Debra, so I can attest to the truth of what you say. Writing, and supportive critique partners, helped me let go of secrets I’d held for 30-50 years, freeing me to be (gasp) human. What a revelation.
    Congratulations on your new book.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Carol … your story is a wonderful example of how freeing it is to let go of old secrets. It’s been an amazing journey to watch you grow as you let go of them.!

    • Carol … Writing really brings out the honesty, doesn’t it? It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth to readers, but I think that’s what forges such a strong bond between authors and their audience. You’re a great model of that, Carol.

  2. I’m always fascinated by this Secrets topic, and Mary has led me to become hyper-aware of the matter. We probably all have something we’ve invested huge amounts of ego-effort into protecting. And we all have things we chose not to say for one reason or another, or just didn’t find an opportunity to express in a timely manner. While I’m all for transparency as we move ahead, I don’t see fessing up as the best alternative in every situation. Life isn’t that simple!

    • You raise a good point, Sharon. Is it sometimes more loving NOT to tell the complete truth? I think confessing is always good for the confessor since it relieves self-judgment, but sometimes we need to find a neutral third party to hear our secrets. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  3. Sounds very familiar, Debra. I think most of us ccould win a Nobel Prize for keeping our secrets. I imagine how that man felt after he told on himself. I hope that he discovered that letting his secret fly up into the light that he was happier and could breathe more deeply than he had before.

    I hope you and your new book will bring grace to our world.

    • Joan … I love the way you described that: “letting his secret fly up into the light.” That’s where the healing happens, isn’t it? Thank you for your good wishes about the book!

  4. I grew up in a close-knit culture where secrets were guarded by the tight-lipped phrase “What would people think?” Sometimes these secrets exploded into a suicide or even murder, a tall price to pay for saving face.

    Keeping or divulging secrets? Sometimes a quandary as to what to do. I think honesty is the best policy but that doesn’t mean I have to broadcast everything I know. I kept a colleague’s secret to safeguard her position, but she was later let go for a different reason. No regrets there.

    I like the imagined Oprah scene. And those 3-inch heels would kill me too! All the best on your book launch, Debra.

    • Marian … “What would people think?” really stifles the soul, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder people sometimes turn to suicide or violence when they feel they can’t be who they are. Thank you for your kind wishes about the book. The only heels I have in my closet are about ½-inch high!

  5. Deborah Jansen says

    Thanks for showing the release of secrets more vividly than the isolation of clutching them! Until I walked into a recovery community three years ago, I couldn’t identify the crust of secrets that had calcified on my soul. I first learned the dark skill of keeping secrets at the age of four. I can honestly say that UN-learning that skill is anything but easy. It’s as painful as waiting for ear pressure to equalize when going snuba diving. (I’m too chicken to scuba dive.) Thanks again, Debra! I look forward to reading The Only Little Prayer You Need.

    • Deborah, thank you for sharing your story. It takes a huge amount of courage to break through that crust. Kudos to you for having that courage, tenacity and trust.

  6. Cheryl Dawson Leach says

    I sometimes ponder what paths my life might have offered if I had been more willing to speak my truth and speak the truth as I knew it, early on!

  7. Beautifully said Deb!

    Sometimes our mind keeps secrets from our awareness which is a gift of safety for the time that it needs to be. Often the secrets become a poison in our life and they begin to seep into our awareness. Much like an archaeological dig, with careful intention and support, our secrets can be released into the light to be acknowledged and healed. All secrets are the root of much fear in our world.

    Your newest book is amazing and I know it will raise the vibration of living on the planet!

    • Angela …

      They do become a poison, don’t they? That’s such an apt description of how toxic they are. And like you say, they don’t just affect us—they impact the people around us and, ultimately, the world. Thank you, thank you for your comments about the book—and for everything you do to raise the vibration.

  8. Diane Baker says

    So well said Deb! I grew up with a blunt truth teller who had no friends and a diplomatic ‘liar’ with ‘friends’. I spent decades straddling that fence. Once I learned to combine diplomacy with truth telling (to myself & others) I found magic in my life. The challenge continues to keep going on this less familiar path. Yeah to all the courageous folks on it with me!

    • Thank you, Diane. It really is a balance, isn’t it? I think the litmus test is whether the truth is being expressed with (or from) love or fear. It’s exciting to find that magic, and then help others find it, too. You’ve been a real mentor that way.

  9. Frances Brent says

    Thank you for coming to BG. How ironic that an old friendship with your mother should be the link. I have been clearing the way for the dessert like treat of plunging uninterrupted into “A Fitting Place.” Lose strings to tie up, Anthony Doeer’s “Memory Wall Stories” (highly recommended) and David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” (a wrenching reminder why Oboma reiterates, “No boots on the ground.” Every news commentator should read it. Then I am probably the only human on earth that stays current with New Yorker issues. Soon grandson and sleepover friends will leave for band and football, and I will be free to read until 1:30 PM tomorrow. That is what I shall do. Plunge into my new book and swim to the far end.

    As to Secrets……never have watched Oprah. I admire who and what she is, but one secret to wallowing in the written word, is that you cannot do more than dip your toe in television. To me some secrets are simply areas of privacy which some people love to jump up and share. Daytime TV? Secrets transformed into literature are a different matter. This is what I am looking forward to.

    • Secrets often are the stuff of great literature, aren’t they? Enjoy your reading time…it sounds like you’re living the coveted life of a dedicated reader!

  10. Loved this, especially the part about keeping your foot on the brake

  11. Mary Gottschalk says

    Deb … I loved your essay and the multi-faceted discussion it engendered. The keeping of secrets plays a major role in my new novel … the keeping of them is so much more significant than the substance of the secrets.

    Thank you for being so generous with your time, your words and your insights. I know your book will be a great success!

    • Mary, thank YOU for sharing your space with me and other writers. You’ve done a terrific job of cultivating a relationship with your readers, which is a testament to your writing and your willingness to explore topics that matter. I’m grateful to be part of this conversation.

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