Wise Words – Reclaiming Our Public, Private and Secret Lives

“Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret.”

Gabriel García Márquez


We all have a sense of who we are as a person, even as a young child. It’s true that we grow and change, but we still feel that we know who the “me” is that is growing and changing. In fundamental ways, I am still that six-year-old, that ten-year-old, that fourteen-year-old boy from years ago; all of them feel like the same “me,” looking out at the world and experiencing the events of my life.

As we grow, we learn a lot of rules about how to be, what is acceptable and what is not. Some are basic rules of fairness and kindness, and some are the local customs and manners of our family and communities. This process teaches us how to present a version of ourselves to the world. This is our public life.

Our public life serves us well. It provides self-esteem, gives us some power to influence how people see us, and perhaps most importantly, creates a place of protection. Our public persona is a shield we can place in front of our most vulnerable spots. Many people over-identify with the image they have constructed for their public life. They hold their armor tightly and let few people in. Maintaining this shield takes a lot of emotional and mental energy, and it can become exhausting and ultimately lonely.

We also have a private life, a place behind the shield where we feel safe. This is where we let in friends, loved ones, and people we trust. We are willing to be vulnerable in this space. This is where we build connection with others.

But Marquez is saying there is another level, a secret life, which is what intrigues me about his quote. Here is where we hold the secrets we do not show even to our closest loved ones, the things we have been taught are so loathsome about ourselves that they make us unlovable. 

Do these words ring true for you? Are there things you fear to say out loud, things so despicable that you want to hide them even from yourself?

These three lives form a double continuum. The public life offers the most protection and the least connection. At the other end, the secret life provides no protection, to reveal its contents leaves us completely naked. But it has the most potential for connection.

Many of the beliefs we learned when we were building our public life are false. We all have false beliefs about ourselves, like I’m not good enough, I’m unattractive, I’m not smart, I’m not good at music-math-dance-athletics-fill-in-the-blank. 

These beliefs are all versions of “I’m not loveable.”  That’s how children think when they are forming their self-image. You took on those beliefs long ago because it was the only way you could make sense of things at the time, but beliefs that you are unlovable are false. They were helpful at one point because they protected you, but they no longer serve you. 

I have two suggestions to free up energy and increase your sense of connection. Here’s the easy one. Try to loosen the armor of your public life. Take some time to examine the image you have crafted to present to the world. See what parts of this you can drop or at least relax. 

Here is the harder one. Share a little of your secret life with others. Don’t tackle the biggest thing. Pick something smaller, for example, a childhood belief that you were unattractive. Picture your current “me” looking back at your younger “me.”  Tell him (or her; for me it’s a him) that this belief is false. Imagine reaching out, holding him tenderly, and telling him you love him. 

If it feels comfortable, share your secret belief with one trusted friend and see what happens. You can phrase it like, “You know, I had this funny idea when I was young that I was ugly.” See what your friend says. You might find they had a similar belief! This is taking one thing out of your secret life and placing it in your private life (or if you’re feeling brave, maybe even your public life.)

Healing happens when we reduce what we hide in our secret life or exaggerate in our public life. That six, ten, or fourteen-year-old boy is still alive in me, but he doesn’t have to carry the burden of the harmful beliefs he’s picked up along the way.

Photo by Nadin Sh on Pexels

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