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Opening Pandora's Box: Secrets, Embarrassment, Guilt and Shame

Updated: Feb 12


I never thought about the importance of secrets in therapy until I attended a presentation, and later, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Professor Dale G. Larson (Department of Counselling Psychology, Santa Clara University). I will share some of what I learned in this article.

Some of us keep secrets, some of us bury feelings. Some of us bury shame, anand d some of us live in it. Sooner or later, though, all these things bubble up to the surface—and not always in a good way. A secret is like a festering wound. I'm writing this article because we should all know it's possible to be more authentic with ourselves and others by learning to heal from shame. Here are some tips on how you can start doing that today!

Feelings of shame can be like a festering wound.

Opening Pandora's Box

"Pandora's box" is a metaphor that refers to a situation where something is opened, and the contents inside cause negative consequences. The phrase comes from Greek mythology, where the gods gave Pandora a box (actually a jar) and told her not to open it. However, her curiosity got the better of her, and she opened the box, releasing all manner of evil and suffering into the world.

Secrets are kept to avoid embarrassment, shame or guilt. The phrase "opening Pandora's box" describes any situation where the consequences of revealing something are likely negative. Secrets, embarrassment, guilt, and shame can all be seen as negative consequences arising when something is opened or revealed.

Pandora's box is the act of revealing secrets, emotions and thoughts that have been repressed. In this article, we will explore why opening Pandora's box is important and how we can achieve this goal safely and effectively.

By opening Pandora's box appropriately, we can deal with our past experiences in a healthy way. We can also find ways to deal with current difficulties and understand why they happen by looking at our past experiences.

For example, say you want to improve your relationships with others but feel anxious when talking to people. It may be because, at some point in your life, you were rejected, betrayed or bullied by someone who then made you feel ashamed about who you are. If so, it may be helpful to uncover these internalised negative feelings about yourself and find out what caused them (by exploring what happened). As you build better insight, those feelings will lose their power over you, enabling more positive interactions with others in future. The outcome could include friends becoming closer as you are less guarded and more willing to be vulnerable.

What are the Most Common Secrets?

Research has found that some of the most common universal secrets include:

  • Abortion

  • Abuse (Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, self-abuse)

  • Abuse of others

  • Adoption (surrendering baby for adoption)

  • Alcohol or drug use

  • Failure or feelings of inadequacy

  • Fears

  • Illegal or unethical behaviour

  • Loneliness

  • Marital or relationship difficulties

  • Mental/physical illness, addictions

  • Negative thoughts about others

  • Romantic attraction

  • Secrets about others

  • Sex and sexuality (infidelity, premarital sex, homosexual experience, sexual activities, desires, fantasies)

  • Suicidality or the suicide of others, particularly family members

  • Work/career-related secrets

In clinical practice, I have also found infertility and miscarriages are also commonly kept secret. These are all life experiences which we need to process deeply felt emotions in order to live a full life.

The Health Implications of Keeping Secrets

People internalise bullying, abuse and maladaptive parenting. Keeping secrets can have negative effects on our mental and physical health. Secrets lead to rumination and impact self-esteem. Secrets can be a source of stress and anxiety, which can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. They can also lead to emotional problems such as depression, guilt, and shame.

Impact on Relationships

Secrets can also affect a person's relationships. If a person is keeping a secret from someone they care about, they may feel isolated and disconnected, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction in the relationship. Additionally, keeping a secret can create a sense of duplicity and mistrust, eroding the trust and intimacy in a relationship.

Chronic Pain

Some people can also experience chronic pain due to underlying feelings of shame that have been repressed. This is particularly common in repressors. Repressors are highly socialised and invest in maintaining certain self-perceptions. They tend to smile even when feeling displeased or other negative emotions. Minimising their perception of their own negative affect makes them deceive themselves. They wear a mask underneath which they suffer.

Limited Help-Seeking and Loneliness

Secrets can also prevent people from seeking help when they need it. For example, someone who is keeping a secret about addiction may not seek treatment because they are afraid of the secret being revealed.

Carl Jung highlighted that nothing makes people more lonely than possessing an anxiously hidden secret. The Schachter Affiliation Studies demonstrate that when exposed to shock, people seek others. When exposed to embarrassment, people retreat and want to be alone.

'Nothing makes people more lonely than possessing an anxiously hidden secret.'

It's important to acknowledge that keeping secrets can have negative consequences and finding healthy ways to cope with them is good. Talking to a therapist, psychologist or a trusted friend or family member can be helpful in processing and releasing the secret and finding healthy ways to cope with the resulting emotions.

Sharing and forgiving yourself are important to your mental and physical health

Why Do We Keep Secrets?

We keep secrets for a variety of reasons. Some may keep secrets to protect themselves or others from harm, such as in cases of abuse or shame. Others may keep secrets to maintain privacy or to preserve relationships. Additionally, some individuals keep secrets because they believe that sharing them would be inappropriate or would be met with negative consequences. People may also keep secrets for strategic reasons, for example, to gain an advantage or protect others.

So, secret-keeping can be for practical reasons or due to shame. Practical reasons include such examples as maintaining safety, relationships or confidentiality. However, where secrets are held because of shame can be more problematic.

Social constraints on self-disclosure have also been found to be associated with a wide range of health conditions, including bereavement, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV infection, cancer risk, abortion, traumatic injuries, chronic pain and community violence.

Secrets are often kept to protect others but can damage the person who keeps them. If you have a secret that is affecting your life and you don't feel comfortable talking about it, seek support from a mental health professional.

Understanding the Difference Between Emotional States

Embarrassment, guilt, and shame are three emotions that are often intertwined yet have distinct characteristics and causes. It is important to understand the differences between common emotional states. When you have a secret, it can cause embarrassment, guilt and shame.

Embarrassment - That Awkward Moment!

Embarrassment is a common emotion that we all experience. It is the feeling of discomfort or self-consciousness in a social situation. It usually involves self-consciousness and regret over an act that causes one to look foolish or ridiculous in front of others. It is often when we see ourselves in a negative light through the eyes of others. Embarrassment usually involves a feeling of anxiety, humiliation, or distress.

Embarrassment is a normal response to an unexpected or awkward situation and is often accompanied by a red face, sweating, and a sense of vulnerability. It can be caused by something as simple as tripping in public or forgetting someone's name. Embarrassment is usually short-lived and can be overcome by acknowledging the situation, laughing it off, and moving on.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is feeling remorse or responsibility for something we have done or failed to do. The feeling of guilt arises from a sense of responsibility or accountability for one's actions. It is a normal emotion that can serve as a reminder to make amends, take responsibility for our actions and even change our behaviour. Feelings of guilt are a natural emotion that helps us learn from our mistakes so we don't repeat them.

When guilt becomes excessive or prolonged, however, it can lead to negative consequences such as anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. It is important to differentiate between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt and to seek help if guilt is affecting your mental health.

Shame Meaning - Definition of Shame

So what is shame? Shame is a feeling of being unworthy of love, respect and acceptance. It is a feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy often associated with one's entire self rather than a specific behaviour or action. Shame is a negative self-evaluation that can lead to feelings of isolation, secrecy and a sense of being unwanted. Shame is often seen as a more global, pervasive, and self-focused emotion than guilt.

Shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation. You may feel shame when exposed as a loser, fraud or bad person. When you are feeling shame, it means that you think you have been judged and found to be not good enough. At some level, you also believe you can do nothing to make yourself better in the eyes of others.

Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt is not the same as shame, which is more complex than guilt and can have negative consequences if not properly managed.

Shame is a more intense emotion than embarrassment or guilt. It is the feeling of being fundamentally flawed or inadequate as a person.

To simplify, guilt is "I did something bad" and shame is "I am bad".

Shame is often accompanied by feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, and hopelessness. Unlike embarrassment and guilt, shame is not related to a specific event or behaviour but to your core sense of self. It is a toxic emotion that can lead to long-term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety if not addressed.

Are Embarrassment, Guilt and Shame Negative Emotions?

Everyone has feelings of embarrassment, guilt and shame at some point. These feelings are part of growing up and learning to behave appropriately in various situations with others who may not share our values or beliefs.

There is nothing wrong with having these emotions but they should pass as we learn more about ourselves through experience, rather than trying to hide them forever behind closed doors (or computer screens).

Both Guilt and shame can be healthy emotions if they motivate a person to take positive action and learn from their mistakes. But when guilt and shame are overwhelming and not managed, they can lead to negative consequences like depression, anxiety and social isolation.

In conclusion, embarrassment, guilt, and shame are common emotions that we all experience. While they can be uncomfortable, they can also remind us to take responsibility for our actions and make amends. However, it is important to recognise when these emotions become excessive or prolonged and to seek help if they are affecting your mental health.

Burying Secrets Due to Shame

Often we keep secrets due to feelings of shame. Shame is a painful emotion. In fact, some believe it is the 'master emotion'.

Shame can lead to depression and anxiety, or even self-harm and suicide. Shame can also lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, and other forms of suffering. If you're experiencing shame because of something that has happened to you, it could be helpful for you to talk about it with someone who knows about these things—like a psychologist!

Feelings of shame can be caused by a variety of factors, including bullying, being in an abusive relationship or being sexually assaulted. Shame also lies behind many psychological conditions.

Shame can be difficult to deal with because it often goes unseen and unspoken. Secrets might not be shared even in therapy as clients can think you will think less of them.

To deal with shame, you need certain conditions to feel safe. Safety permits disclosure. Disclosure is cathartic. Through disclosure, there can also be meaning-making.

'Small sorrows speak; great ones are silent.'

How Do You Overcome Shame?

While shame can be challenging to overcome, there are things you can do to help yourself feel better. Understand the cause of your shame. Knowing the reason behind your guilt or embarrassment allows you to find a solution that works for you.

Talk with others about what happened. Talking with someone who understands what happened and doesn't judge you may help you feel less ashamed. If you are worried about confidentiality, speak with a psychologist who is bound by a strict ethical code (limits apply so talk with your psychologist before disclosing).

Know that no matter how bad an experience was, it will improve with time (and probably already has). Even though it hurts right now, these experiences won’t last forever!

What Therapy Conditions Are Required to Disclose Secrets

The therapy conditions required for clients to disclose secrets, and explore their vulnerabilities, may include:

  • A clear understanding of the boundaries of confidentiality: Clients need to understand the limits of confidentiality. They must understand the circumstances under which their secrets may be shared with others, such as in cases of imminent danger to self or others, or mandatory reporting requirements with regard to the abuse of children.

  • Safety and trust: Clients need to feel safe, and trust their therapist in order to disclose secrets. This can be established through a therapeutic relationship built on the core conditions of confidentiality, empathy, unconditional positive regard (respect) and non-judgment.

  • A non-judgmental and empathic attitude: As therapists, we must maintain a non-judgmental attitude and show empathy towards the client's experiences and feelings. This helps clients feel more comfortable and willing to share their secrets.

  • Support and guidance: Clients need to be supported and guided through the process of disclosing secrets. They need to be provided with appropriate coping mechanisms and tools to deal with any difficult emotions that may arise.

  • Gradual and appropriate disclosure: Secrets should be disclosed at a pace that is comfortable for the client, and the therapist should be sensitive to the client's emotional state when discussing sensitive topics.

  • Emotional Containment: Clients often need emotional containment as they disclose secrets that are associated with powerful and sometimes traumatic feelings.

  • A clear understanding of the therapeutic goals: Clients need to understand the purpose of disclosing their secrets and how it will help them achieve their therapeutic goals.

It's important to note that not all clients are ready to disclose their secrets and some may need some time to build trust and safety, and therapist should respect the client's decision and work with them in a way that is comfortable for them.

Why Do People Disclose Secrets?

There are several reasons people might decide to disclose a secret:

  1. Legal requirements: Some secrets, such as criminal activities, must be disclosed to legal authorities according to the law.

  2. Ethical considerations: Some secrets, such as those related to abuse or exploitation, may have to be disclosed in order to protect vulnerable individuals or to prevent harm to others.

  3. Therapeutic reasons: Some secrets, such as those related to past traumas, may need to be disclosed in order to receive therapy or counselling, or to improve one's mental health.

  4. Relationship dynamics: Some secrets may need to be disclosed in order to maintain trust and intimacy in a relationship or in order to resolve conflicts.

  5. Personal growth: Some individuals may choose to disclose secrets in order to learn from them, to take responsibility for their actions, or to gain a sense of closure.

It's important to note that the decision to disclose a secret should be made with care and consideration of the potential consequences, and it's always recommended to seek professional help before making such decisions.

Practising Self-Compassion and Forgiveness

Practising Self-Compassion and Forgiveness can help us heal from shame. One of the most important things you can do when you're feeling ashamed, guilty or embarrassed is to practice self-compassion. Rather than beating yourself up and feeling guilty or even worse, trying to ignore your feelings and hide them from others, practice self-compassion. Self-compassion will help pull you out of those negative thought patterns so that you can focus on healing your wounds instead of digging them deeper.

Self-compassion is about understanding that everyone makes mistakes and everyone has flaws. Nobody is perfect! We are all human, mere mortals. It's about being kind to ourselves when we make mistakes and learning from them, instead of beating ourselves up for not being perfect.

We all have regrets in our lives, but it helps if we let go of regretting what has happened in the past by forgiving ourselves for making those mistakes. Forgiving ourselves means letting go of guilt or shame associated with past actions (or inaction) so that we are free from carrying those burdens around unnecessarily. This frees us up emotionally so we don't continue making similar mistakes over again because they were based on old baggage that no longer holds any power over us now! We must learn from our errors.

Practising self-compassion also involves learning how to forgive others as well as engaging in forgiveness towards yourself. Even though some people may have hurt us badly in the past, it only affects you when you carry anger, animosity, and even hatred.

How Can a Psychologist Help?

Professor Larson said 'The maladaptive person does not make themself known to others'. This powerful statement resonated with me as it suggests that for us to adapt and be truly whole and authentic we need to overcome our shame and embarrassment to be truly known to others.

'The maladaptive person does not make themself known to others.'

A psychologist can help you identify your feelings and emotions. You might feel guilty or ashamed, but be unsure of why. A psychologist can help you understand what these feelings mean and how to manage them in a healthy way.

A psychologist can also help you find forgiveness for yourself or other people who may have wronged you in the past. Forgiveness is an important part of recovery, especially if it's something that has been difficult for you in the past.


We hope our blog post has helped you understand the emotional, social and health implications of keeping secrets. Now, you should understand what shame is and the negative health implications of harbouring unresolved shame. We’ve also given you tools to deal with shame so that you can live a healthier life.

iflow Psychology is here to help. If you need more information or advice on how to cope with these feelings, get in touch today!

Help is Available

If you or a mate are experiencing difficulty, support is available. Please contact iflow Psychology today or book an appointment.

You can book an appointment online or call our friendly admin staff at 02 6061 1144.

iflow Psychology offers in-person, telehealth and telephone counselling. We are registered psychologists. We also offer Medicare Rebates when you have a doctor's referral and Mental Health Plan. We would love to be part of your journey.

Location Details: iflow Psychology is located in Leichhardt Inner West Sydney, NSW, Australia


  • The information provided in this article is for information purposes only.

  • It is always advisable to speak with your treating doctor, health professionals, and legal representatives before making decisions.

  • This is particularly important if you have: health concerns; existing mental health or medical conditions; or feel you are not coping.

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