It can be big. Small. Sensitive. Spread to the public. Taken to the grave. A secret can be shared with your mom, cousin, sister, or friend. In other cases, it can be disclosed with those you do not know. This idea of sharing of secrets with those you do not know is the basis for PostSecret.
In 2004, Frank Warren printed three thousand postcards and handed them out on the streets of Washington DC. He invited strangers to write down a secret and mail it back to him. When postcards began arriving in his mailbox, he scanned them and placed them on a website. Soon, the website went viral, and this project became known as PostSecret.
“I started getting hundreds and thousands of postcards from all around the world,” Warren said. “From people who buy their own postcards or made their own postcards, confessing secrets that were heartbreaking, hopeful, funny, sexual, or painful or healing.”
Warren was curious about people’s secrets. He knew that he had secrets and suspected others did too.
“If I could create a safe, nonjudgmental place where people could trust me with their secret confessions, it could be really special for me,” Warren said. “I was shocked that millions of people around the world found it so special too.”
Today, Warren has received about a million secrets. Each week, he spends about fifty hours on secrets.
“I have been thrilled that I have been able to earn the trust of so many strangers around the world,” Warren said. “Telling me these confessions and secrets that they might have not shared with a spouse or a parent or a therapist. For me, it just increases my empathy, understanding, and compassion for others and myself.”
These secrets have been compiled into six PostSecret books. There is a PostSecret play called PostSecret the Show which is currently on a twenty three city tour. At the Smithsonian in Washington DC, there is an art exhibit with a half million postcards on display and hundreds more that people can read the front and back of. Warren has also spoken on TED (see below).
“My favorite part of the project is traveling to schools and universities and talking about the stories behind the secrets and sharing confessions that were banned from the book by the publisher and listening to audience members share their secrets live,” Warren said.
Warrens believes that when sharing a secret for the first time, it is often easier to share it with a stranger on a train than a parent or a spouse.
“I think that sometimes we’re afraid to tell how we really feel because we feel that we will be judged,” Warren said. “We feel that other people may think of us to be different or weird or lonely. Really the truth is our secrets don’t separate us. They remind us of how similar we all are. They remind us of our connections.”
Yet, he also believes that we do have a desire to share secrets with those we are close to.
“I think secrets are the currency of intimacy,” Warren said. “In the same way that we want to find that one person who we can share all of our secrets with, I think that we also have this desire not to conceal, but to reveal who are true selves are and to understand who others truly are.”
Warren believes there are two kinds of secrets.
“There are the ones that we keep from others and the secrets that we hide from ourselves,” Warren said.
What these secrets mean is a secret in itself. Here is what three professors at Mount Mary University think.
Psychology of Secrets
Laurel End, a psychology professor at Mount Mary University, shared her insights on the PostSecret project. She said that some people are dying to tell others their secrets, and it starts to become an obsessive thought if they do not.
“It’s hard to get rid of it, and it does take a processing capacity, executive function and memory,” End said.People have bad days or bad experiences, but it is considered taboo to express negative emotions. Therefore, people do not know how to do that in a way that is constructive. That might be part of the appeal of PostSecret.
“As a society, we are supposed to be upbeat and positive and happy all the time and that’s not normal,” End said.
End said that people make up names or are anonymous to say the harsh things that they would not say if their identity was known.
“There could be the desire to avoid responsibility for behavior if you are doing something that you shouldn’t, like the Ashley Madison people,” End said.
Even though people may not want people to know they said these awful things or to think they are a terrible person, they might still want to get things off their minds.
“The ability to get things off your chest for a lot of people is really helpful,” End said. “To just get it out there and not have it in their head anymore.”
Philosophy of Secrets
Jennifer Hockenberry, philosophy professor at Mount Mary University, wonders why we so often don’t keep secrets confidential. People keep secrets to prevent destruction of reputation and often but sadly, other times secrets are disclosed for mean and hurtful reasons.
“Sometimes it’s just ‘fun’ to gossip,” Hockenbery said. “Which probably is not a good thing.”
With shows and celebrity gossips blogs such as TMZ or Xtra, it’s more acceptable to make a mockery out of others when you are not in the spotlight.
Judging by our Mount Mary post secret experiment, students often felt the need to disclose more when kept anonymous. Hockenberry compares secret telling to the withdrawal of a child from its abuser.
“I think we think that way we won’t get in trouble —like Deepthroat told on Nixon because he believed the secret was toxic but he knew if he told in public he would be harmed or lose access to the secret,” Hockenbery said. “The same can be said of a child who tells on an abuser.”
A person who is obligated to keep one’s secret, carries a large amount of pressure to keep a strong trust and bond in the relationship.
“Some people like priests and counselor are obligated to keep secrets, but I rarely trust anyone else with a real secret as opposed to just a story I would rather not have everyone know—or a surprise I am saving for someone,” Hockenbery said.
Jim Conlon, philosophy professor at Mount Mary University, ponders what constitutes a secret. He says it depends on the information.
“There’s parts of ourselves that we don’t want other people to know,” Conlon said. “We certainly like the power of knowing something other people don’t know.”
Conlon thinks that we live in a society where secret telling is not taken seriously.
“There’s a difference between a secret I have about somebody else’s life and a secret that I have about my own life,” Conlon said.
PostSecret at Mount Mary
For two weeks, wrapped boxes will left in various locations around campus such as the library, the residence hall, and outside the dining hall. Each box had a note asking students to write their secrets on a note card and drop it in the box. Twenty five responses were collected at the end of the two weeks.
Counseling Services at Mount Mary
Because of how deep some of the secrets are, we would like to remind everyone that the counseling center at Mount Mary is a welcoming place for students to go if they need someone to talk to. The services are free, and it is a great outlet to relieve stress or any other issue that a student is facing. Appointments can be in person (HL 132 and HL 134) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Hours for the Spring Semester:
Mondays: 9:30 am – 5:00 pm
Tuesdays: 8:00 am – 4:00 pm
Wednesdays: 9:30 am – 5:00 pm
Thursdays: 8:00 am – 3:00 pm
Join the online PostSecret Community or send a postcard to Warren at 13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germantown, Maryland 20874.
Buy The Books
See the Play
PostSecret the Show is coming to Milwaukee on February 25 and 26. Book your tickets now at https://www.marcuscenter.org/show/postsecret:-the-show/.
Frank Warren’s TED Talk