Secret of Adulthood: Pay Careful Attention to Anything You Try to Hide.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


As I’ve been studying habits, and how we make or break habits, I’ve been struck by the fact that we should pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide The desire to prevent family or co-workers from acting as witnesses—from seeing what’s on the computer screen or knowing how much time or money is spent on a habit—shows that in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values.

One way to attack a hidden bad habit—secret smoking, secret shopping, secret monitoring of an ex-sweetheart on Facebook—is to force it out into public view.

Also, when we pay attention to the things we try to hide, we learn something about ourselves.

In Tory Johnson’s remarkable memoir The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, she writes, “From the day I got my driver’s license, I developed a habit of pigging out at drive-throughs. When I rolled up alone to the window, I would pretend I was ordering for a few people by saying out loud, ‘What was it they wanted?’ As if the clerk at the window cared.” She was hiding the fact that she was ordering food for one person–and that told her something about herself.

Of course, we might hide a habit for many reasons. A reader posted: “I’m a closet writer. Whenever anyone asks me what I’ve been up to, I never tell them that writing a novel is occupying half my time. I somehow feel dishonest, but there’s something about telling people I’m writing that makes me feel overly exposed.”

Sometimes it’s helpful and healthy to keep something hidden — but sometimes, it’s not. In either case, it’s probably useful to notice that we’re trying to hide something, and to know why.

In my framework of habit-formation strategies, this principle is an aspect of the Strategy of Clarity. The more clearly we understand ourselves, our values, and our actions, the better able we become to foster good habits. Ironically, the Strategy of Clarity was very obscure to me; it took me a long time to grasp its importance for habits.

How about you? When you think about what you try to hide, does it reveal anything to you about yourself? Self-knowledge! So important, and so hard.

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  • The habits in my marriage that I tried to hide for so long formed the basis of a huge shift in my life when I finally opened up and took better control over them. It’s already a blog, draft book, and becoming a speaking and coaching practice to help others bring their bad marriage habits to the surface and overcoming them.

    Such a true and powerful point.

  • hayleynjones

    I don’t hide it as such, but I’m reluctant to talk about my efforts to get fit and lose weight. I’ve had eating disorders in the past and a lot of the things people tend to say when they know you’re trying to lose weight are triggering. I get around it a bit by focusing on the fitness aspect — I don’t want to discuss my eating habits, but I will happily bore anyone by talking about running for hours!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I agree that it is hard to be outspoken about a weight loss program when it is your third, fifth, ninth or twentieth try. I signed up with an on-line coach whom I email regularly. So I have an ‘accountability partner’ and I am not in a discussion with anyone else about what I’m doing unless I want to be. Privacy is your right! Let people talk to you about your weight loss when they can’t help noticing your success, and then only as much as YOU want to.

  • Felicity

    This is the best secret of adulthood yet! I’ve pinned it 🙂 and let’s hope I act on it!

  • Randee Bulla

    This SO resonates with me, Gretchen. Over a period of about 6 years, I had multiple miscarriages and other health issues. After most of these painful periods in my life, I coped by rapidly overspending to the tune of about $20k each time on my credit card. I would spend the next year or two paying it off and hiding this dirty little money secret. Yes, we had a good income, but never had any spending money because we were having to pay off that debt. I hid this from my friends and family and it ate at me and shamed me every time I covered it up with a lie or change in subject. The 3rd time was the game changer. I kept having to put off visiting my parents “until I get this debt paid off.” But in this last conversation, instead of avoiding what I had done, I straightened my shoulders and told them about this debt and the details. My mom looked at me so sad and said, “I thought you weren’t going to do that again.” It was then that I decided I was going to shine the light on what I had done and I was going to work on why I was doing what I was doing so I could end the cycle. I told my friends and instead of being judgmental, they were incredibly supportive and shared their own stories. I told other family members and got back the same support. Then I went public on a cable TV show and shared my story with thousands more. It’s been about a year and I can tell you I’ve never felt more free. I know why I was overspending now and being public has held me accountable. Instead of shame, I am excited. My credit card is nearly paid off and my financial habits are now very healthy and sustainable. While it was terrifying to bring this secret out of hiding, it truly helped me be the best version of me and own my part in this cycle so I could figure out how to stop it. And The Happiness Project really helped give me the courage to do it. I was in the process of figuring out how to Be Randee and what I needed to clean up in my life to best allow me to do that. The timing was perfect for priming me for that initial conversation with my parents and start the process that has gotten me where I am today.

    • penelope schmitt

      As I have heard it said in 12 step meetings “we are only as sick as our secrets.” I am so glad you are getting well.

    • gretchenrubin

      What an achievement to have mastered this secret and all the other happiness challenges. It’s thrilling to hear about what you’ve accomplished.

      • Randee Bulla

        Most of my life I used to say longingly, “I just want to be happy” and it seemed so elusive. Over the past year, I can definitely say that I AM happy and it’s so obvious to others around me. When asked what I did and how they can do something similar themselves, I point them towards your book and say that they can start their own journey at any time. It’s not always easy to dig deep within yourself to find the answers, but it’s so worth it.

  • Vera

    It’s so familiar to me. I have to hide lots of things from others. I work as an instructor at university, and everybody seems to be so much involved in their work that I often feel ashamed to confess that I always find time for leisure activities- reading for pleasure, watching movies, reading your blog, Gretchen! I don’t know why, but I really think my colleagues would consider reading a blog a waste of time. So, it’s my private pleasure. But, Gretchen, I want to thank you! Through reading your blog I get so many ideas for my work with students ( by the way, I’m Russian, and I teach Russian students English). One of such ideas- using quotes to discuss different topics. Your blog also helps me improve my English, which I never cease to study and get a real pleasure in this.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m thrilled to hear that my work is useful to you.

    • Donna Carnahan

      Vera, it is great that you have time for leisure activities, that means that you manage your time well. We do what we chose to do ( although a lot of people won’t admit that). Keep up the good work, I’ll bet you are a great role model for the people that you teach.

  • Jeanne

    The key word here is “secret,” the number one word in addiction. If we’re hiding it, we’re ashamed of it. Shame is a powerful negative in our lives. Honest is the best policy, especially with ourselves. We don’t have to tell everyone everything, since sometimes people can rain on our parade. But as Peter Parker’s Aunt May says, “Secrets have a cost, they’re not for free.”

  • PolarSamovar

    Oh my goodness, this is so true. I find that just *noticing* that I want to keep something a secret is often enough to motivate me to either not do something, or get honest about doing it.

    Honesty about my less-than-stellar qualities so often results in bringing me closer to my friends and family, rather than chasing them away as I fear it will. They’d rather be around the me who sometimes has two or even three glasses of wine in an evening and then feels bad the next morning, and doesn’t pay her credit card off every month, than the me who pretends to be perfect.

  • Emily

    This one sentence speaks a thousand words. Thank you.

  • TracieClaiborne

    That is so profound! I picked up Tory Johnson’s book one day in Barnes and Noble and stood there reading the first few chapters. I meant to go back and buy it and forgot. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Leslie Rieger

    I think this is often true, but not always. Certainly, if we’re hiding a specific thing like overspending or something – then sure. But some people are just private. I don’t like people looking over my shoulder while I’m on the computer – it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, though it’s especially bothersome if I’m engaged in some sort of creative pursuit. I don’t show my creative work to people before it’s at a certain state of doneness. If you come up behind me while I’m writing, I’ll probably minimize the program. If I’m playing a Facebook game, I probably won’t minimize it, but I won’t just let you stand there and look over my shoulder either. There’s a difference between wanting to hide something because it’s shameful and just desiring to keep some things private. (It really drives me nuts when people assume that if you won’t give your significant other access to your passwords, that you must not be trustworthy.)

    So yes, it’s good to think about why you choose to hide things, but the fact that you choose not to share something does not automatically mean you’re doing something out of synch with your values.

  • Amina Islam

    Great post as usual!

  • Yes, sometimes we hide things because they don’t reflect our values. That’s often a bad kind of hiding that can lead to all sorts of problems.
    Other times we keep them quiet because the accompanying emotions are too painful, or because we’re still determining our response.
    And other times we are private about things because we really need some alone time.
    In each case, though, it can be helpful to pay attention to whatever we are hiding, as you pointed out, to find out what is going on. It’s a very profound and helpful thought. Thank you, Gretchen!

  • TiSaysStuff

    Yes, in that I hide the packages when I eat chips, pretzels, or a whole bar of chocolate because I am ashamed at how my actions don’t match my beliefs. I once made myself toss every single empty Jujubes box on the back seat of my car so I would be open about how I was abusing sugar. (Didn’t take long for the whole back seat to be covered, to give you a clue.) No, in that hiding my open-souled beliefs and some of my wilder behaviors is a smart choice so that I can keep my job at a church without wasting time defending a life I love. Would I like to work somewhere I can express more of me? Oh, so YES, and I’m looking for that, but I’m okay with hiding parts of me in a work environment. There’s stuff to be done and discussing potentially controversial parts of our personal lives can be unnecessarily distracting.