“I’ve never told anyone this before.” I’ve heard this sentence too many times to count. When I hear it, I have immediate compassion, because whatever is to come next is extremely sensitive information that, for any number of reasons, has remained a deep, dark secret until this moment. And I admit, whenever I hear this sentence I also cringe a little inside, because there’s a good chance I’m about to hear something that will break my heart.
Why do people keep these secrets for years, or decades? Lots of reasons—all of them bad. There was pain or fear or shame (or all three) involved when the event happened, and there has been pain or fear or shame whenever the attempt was made to tell someone about it. To be trusted enough to be the one who is finally told is a great honor. It is also a great responsibility.
As the counselor, one of the questions I have to mull over is whether it should remain a secret or not. And when the counselee is ready, I discuss that question with her. Is this something that should now be held by just the two of us, or would it be right and good for others to be told? I do not rush to pose this question, being extremely aware of the vulnerability my counselee is feeling. She has just spread her most delicate china at my feet. I find that tiny, cautious steps are the most effective. China breaks easily and I do not want to add to her pain or lose any of the trust she has placed in me.
How we proceed has everything to do with the nature of the secret and the current status of the secret-holder. But something dramatic has already happened. The secret has been shared with one safe person. A little shaft of the light and love of Christ’s redeeming grace has entered where there had been loneliness, isolation, and fear. God works great things in moments like this. It’s an exciting time to be the counselor, able to watch God’s plan unfold, and being invited to be part of it.
Things for the counselor to keep in mind:
1) Compassion: Long-kept dark secrets will be tied to all sorts of sensitive aspects of this person’s life. Will some of those aspects contain sin? Yes, of course they will. But if your first instinct is to jump into the judge’s cloak and point out what she did wrong, you will confirm her fear and one of the reasons the secret was held for so long. Instead, work hard at understanding what it was like to live in her shoes, and what it is like to be in her shoes even now.
2) Complexity: Shameful secrets tend to get more complicated over time. The situation may truly have become more complicated, or fearful thoughts may have complicated the situation for your counselee. If you know her and her perspective well, you’ll be able to help her discern the truth. Even if it seems simple and obvious to you, remember that it may not to her.
3) Consequences: If this secret has to do with the abuse of children or other crimes, you may not have a choice to keep it secret. But you still need to approach your counselee with steady, Christ-like love. Know the laws of your state and follow them, but please do not suddenly become a different person if you discover you are looking into the eyes of a victim or (maybe even) a criminal. She is still more like you than she is different from you, and she still needs a compassionate, trustworthy counselor.
4) Culture: Fear is the number one reason people keep secrets. Our culture has come a long way in how we treat people, but there are still stigmas that affect relationships. It is your job to help this person who has lived in shadows for so long to learn to love the light. Help her love truth to the point of not fearing consequences. Whatever she’ll have to face — whether law enforcement, being shunned by family and friends, or mere embarrassment — the fear of it has been enough to keep her chained to her past. Show her that the truth will set her free. And be willing to walk the scary, difficult road of freedom alongside her.
So, when you hear the words: “I’ve never told anyone this before” be ready to listen well and tread lightly and… probably slowly. And pray. Pray that God will help you respond with compassion, kindness and wisdom for the journey ahead.