A friend of mine recently committed suicide. After his death, I discovered that he had been keeping secrets from those he loved. It sounds cliché to say he was the last person you’d expect, but it’s true. He was known as an exemplary husband and father figure. He had a compelling story of overcoming addiction and inspired many. And yet, he himself still had secrets. There’s no doubt it was his public image that added to the shame he had experienced from the secrets he kept. I don't know for sure, but I assume he wasn't open about all aspects of his life because he had a reputation to maintain, he was afraid, and when he could no longer hide from whatever struggle it was, he wasn't able to handle it.
That was an eye-opener for me. Who else holds secrets? It could literally be anybody. It could be most people. Your brother, the guy across the aisle at Mass, your oldest friends, your casual friends at work. But that’s the thing about secrets; they tend to stay hidden.
Our first reaction is to say, “Get help. Live transparently. Talk to a priest. Get an accountability partner, or seek counseling or therapy, or just talk to someone. Don’t keep your secrets in the dark! There are a plethora of ways to get help!”
All of that is true and good. But these encouragements don’t always work. If the secret is too deep. If the shame is too heavy. Unless there is a personal conviction that you can overcome it, these things don’t always work, and the secrets stay hidden.
That’s why more men need to be the one to make the first move. You never know who is hiding something. Initiate the first conversation. Go there.
Be the Friend to Initiate the Conversation
One guy, we’ll call him Keith, was in line for confession again, feeling particularly discouraged. He’d been battling porn for over a decade and was going through the motions. It was wearing him down.
But then right there in the confessional line, another guy approached Keith and just asked if he wanted to get coffee later. Perhaps he noticed the defeated look on Keith’s face. That conversation led Keith to discover a small accountability group of men that met regularly. In the next two months, he made more progress than he had in the past ten years. It was the secrecy that was the problem, and it took someone else making the first move to pull him out.
That story is true, but all too rare. Because, well, how do you do this? You can’t just walk up to anyone and say “Hey, you look like a closeted pervert. Want to talk about it?”
Step 1: Don’t Judge
Maybe porn or other sexual sins aren’t your particular struggle. For a lot of us, it just isn’t. But we know it’s very common, and that the shame that accompanies this struggle is no joke. The first rule is to break the shamefulness.
You can’t assume everyone is hiding something, but also don’t assume they aren’t. Just make it clear that your opinion of them will not be diminished, no matter what.
Let me repeat that. People need to know that the status of your relationship will not change if they reveal their shameful secret.
That begins before the conversation even starts. You need to be approachable. You can’t be judgmental. You have to be someone that can be trusted with dark secrets. You can’t have a history of shaming people who come to you. If someone were to come to you and tell you their secret, roll with it. Even if it is something that would rightfully be seen as wrong. The fact that they told someone is vastly important. Don’t lose respect for them. Don’t judge them. Help them. If they feel safe that nothing will change about your relationship, they’ll be more likely to open up.
Step 2: Share Your Own Secrets
The second important step in taking the first step is transparency. It is a lot easier to divulge and talk if others open up first. You could try abstractly mentioning things like “I heard about someone who did X. If I had a friend who struggled with X, I’d still be his friend and respect him for all the good in him. We all have struggles!" That might make any friend who does happen to struggle with X think that maybe, just maybe, you’d be safe to talk to.
Share your own shortcomings or secrets. Getting it out there helps thin the veil of transparency in a healthy way. But don’t just talk about your victories. Talk about your current struggles. And that leads us to step 3.
Step 3: Talk About Current Struggles, Not Just Victories
We need to be more willing to let our friends know that we do or have struggled in the past. But especially if we still do! So often I hear guys who admit that they used to struggle. It’s amazing that you’ve overcome that struggle! That’s something that every struggler aspires toward! But it can be intimidating for the other guy, who is still deep in it. When everyone else at the table says, “I used to have secrets, and now I’m free,” he thinks of his own demons. It’s easier to pull the blankets up over your head and hide. “I’m not there yet, and they can’t know.” It’s intimidating, not helpful.
That’s not productive. Let’s hear about your current struggles. Alcoholics Anonymous is filled with people admitting they’re still struggling and rejoicing together when someone hits a milestone.
The most powerful moment I heard was in a men’s discussion after all the guys had been “admitting” that they had struggled on and off with porn. It was all past-tense talk, until one guy in the back finally spoke up, and admitted that it had been less than 24 hours since he last masturbated. He was in the thick of it, and miserable. That really brought down everyone’s walls. Left and right guys started admitting that living alone was a bad choice and things like that.
When you’re currently struggling with the hopelessness of it, it feels like everyone else is better than you, and you’re the only one. Knowing that someone you know and respect also struggles makes it easier to start to believe you are not as terrible as you thought.
Let them know you don’t have to have had exactly the same experience as someone else to be able to talk about it, but because you have a shared experience, you’re open to talking about it if they want to.
We Need to Step Forward
Remember, it’s people like Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade whose suicides shock those closest to them. We need to step forward and just check in on those who appear to have it all together. Don’t hold anything against them if they open up. Try opening up first, to make it easier. And don’t be afraid to share your own secrets.
“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.” —John Paul II
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