By the time a client walks through my office door for the first time, they are usually in a lot more trouble than they would have been if they had contacted me earlier. They often ask, "How did things get so bad?... I thought I could handle it... I thought I was handling it." We have all had moments like that in our lives-- when we look at the situation we are in and wonder how we got there—and more importantly, how we are going to get out.
In this episode, we have DC's finest madam—Sharon Marquette. Her case revolves around protecting those on her client list from any public association with her. Her refusal to provide this list to authorities invites legal consequences for her, but bowing to the pressure of the ensuing investigation would threaten the reputations and careers of those for whom she has taken such meticulous and creative measures to protect. We also have a secret that is threatening to send shockwaves throughout the political arena when it seems that a nominee to the Supreme Court may be trying to cover up past indiscretions.
It's funny how one little secret can have so much power over us. We often tell ourselves that we can compartmentalize our secrets—tuck them away deep inside and go about our day. As I see with my clients though, two scenarios usually have unfolded by the time they first walk into my office. They either have let their guard down so much and have deluded themselves into thinking the skeletons in their closet would never see the light of day or they literally take on a second job trying to keep their indiscretion from others; they spend so much time in fear of such a secret getting out that they are driven to make irrational decisions.
The problem with secrets is not just the power they have over our own decisions, it is the power we indirectly give others when they can hold our secrets over us. Sharon Marquette knew what was involved in keeping a secret—it was a burden she was willing to bear at the cost of her family and her freedom. Most of us, however, might not be so calm and collected when our secrets begin to catch up with us. And that's when the problem arises—we are prone to lying, making irrational decisions and are more vulnerable to manipulation by others who know what we are hiding.
Let's face it, I'm not here to tell you that you need to be an open book. Secrets are a part of life. We all have moments in our lives where we acted in a way that didn't represent us at our best. We all have unique circumstances that we try to spin into something less offensive or embarrassing. Some secrets may be well worth protecting, but we all need to be strategic about it and we need to know when to let go of them. I can't tell you which secrets are worth keeping and which ones are not. I'm not the morality police. I can only warn you to be aware of the signs that your secret is taking over your life. Hopefully, this will stop you from getting to the point that many of my clients reach—where you are left feeling as if everything has spun out of control. When you have a secret, ask yourself the following questions to help you determine if the jig is up (or about to be). This is the time to come clean and not risk turning a dirty little secret into a full blown scandal.
1. Are you lying to the people you have the deepest relationships with in order to maintain your secrets? Are your secrets, and the lies you tell to cover them up, affecting that relationship? Remember that the cover-up is usually always worse than the crime.
2. Are you on record as denying something you know to be true? It's one thing to have something about you exposed, but it's another to have to go back and not only explain your actions, but why you lied about those actions when you were directly asked.
3. Is your secret "active and ongoing"? Are you repeatedly engaging in behaviors or actions that are, for whatever reason, misleading and deceptive? If so, you might want to ask yourself how long you can truly afford to keep it up.
4. Are you keeping your secret in a misguided attempt to protect yourself or someone else? If so, consider how your actions could actually make the problem worse- especially if the revelation is forced out on someone else's terms. Remember that there is rarely a good time to let go of a damaging secret—but sooner is usually better than later. It's always better to get ahead of the potential crisis—you have more control that way.
5. How safe is your secret, really? Don't be delusional about it. The more random people involved, the higher the probability that your secret will get out—don't make the assumption that people be will be loyal in a time of crisis.
It's amazing the lengths we will go to in order to keep our secrets safe from others. In the end though, we usually just make it worse. So at the end of the day you have to be real about your secrets-- some simply aren't worth keeping. I can't guarantee a happy ending for everyone out there, but I can say that in some cases, you're only making a bad situation worse by holding on to a ticking time bomb. Be smart and be real about what the costs of holding on to your secrets really are.
Judy A. Smith is the founder and President of Smith and Company, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles as well as a Co-Executive Producer of ABC's Scandal. You can follow her on Twitter (@JudySmith_) or "Like" her on Facebook, and you can get more information about managing personal and professional crisis situations by visiting her site, judysmith.com.