Keeping secrets and harbouring shame can have a negative effect on our mental and physical health, as Postsecret creator Frank Warren found. Sarah Breen spoke with him before his Dublin talk on Saturday
There have never been more people on the planet yet loneliness has never been more common
In November 2004, Frank Warren printed 3,000 self-addressed postcards and invited random strangers to anonymously send him a secret they had never told anyone before. What started as a small community art project in Washington DC soon spread and before long Warren was receiving hundreds of postcards every week, from all corners of the globe. And so Postsecret.com, the most visited advertisement-free blog in the world, was born.
No one was more surprised by the popularity of Postsecret than Warren, who now spends 50 to 60 hours a week curating his collection of over half a million secrets, posting them online and speaking on college campuses around the world. Next month, on December 8, he brings Postsecret Live to Ireland for the first time.
"When I started this project I had no idea it would ever take off like this," says Warren, speaking from his Maryland, US, home. "I'm actually a pretty lazy person by nature so I'm surprised it turned my life upside down like it did. I probably spend most of my time travelling now, sharing the stories behind the secrets and listening to audience members share their secrets live, which is electrifying. I also do a lot of work here at home, going through emails and postcards.
"Other things pop up too. There's the Postsecret play, which has been taking up a lot of my time."
A play isn't the only thing that Warren's little art project has spawned. There's also the small matter of five best-selling books and numerous web awards too. He didn't come up with this "crazy" (his words) idea in order to gain fame and internet notoriety though, rather to see if, through our secrets, we are all really connected in some way.
"When I started Postsecret I had this knowledge that I had a rich interior life with little inside jokes and sexual peccadilloes and dreams and hopes and fears that I kept to myself," says Warren. "The belief was that other people might have that too. I thought that if I could create this safe, non-judgmental place where people could share these hidden parts of themselves in a way that they wouldn't be vulnerable, that it could be really special. And it's always been special for me, but I have been shocked at how it's connected with people everywhere."
And boy, has it connected. Warren now receives around 200 postcards, usually creatively handmade, every single day from people keen to share their deepest, darkest secrets.
Some are cute: "When I assign my students to groups I try matchmaking them," some are sad: "I smile all the time so nobody knows how sad and lonely I really am" and some are just plain weird: "There is a Skittle on the bathroom floor at my job. Every time I pee I am tempted to eat it."
"One of the beauties of sharing secrets on Postsecret is the international reach," says Warren.
"When people on different continents and in different countries are visiting the website and purchasing the books and getting that same feeling as somebody that lives next door to the secret sharer, not only is it just affirming your own sense of humanity, but it's also building connections with others. It leads to deeper empathy with people across the street and around the world."
One of the recurring themes of the stories shared on Postsecret is the feeling of loneliness, an emotion that seems to go hand in hand with keeping a secret.
This reason, and the urge to feel part of a community, Warren claims, is why Postsecret is one of the most popular blogs in the world.
"There have never been more people on the planet in the history of the world, yet loneliness has never been more common," says Warren.
"Once we have that understanding that at times we may feel alone, but we're never actually alone in that feeling, that's a powerful realisation. There are two kinds of secrets that I see often.
"One is the 'I pee in the shower' type, which, for whatever reason, is pretty universal around the world. And the other is a secret written a thousand different ways, all expressing the same story: the struggle to find intimacy. The search that many of us are on, looking for that one person we can be our full and true selves with."
So why do we keep secrets when it's a fact that sharing can prove so cathartic?
"The underlying motivation for people to keep secrets is they fear some kind of negative evaluation or rejection," says Dr Anita E Kelly, Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and author of 'The Psychology of Secrets'.
"We choose to manage that by editing personal information about ourselves."
Being ostracised is not something that Postsecret participants face though, thanks to the anonymity of the blog. That, and a primal urge to share are two things which contribute to its resounding success.
"I think that there is a sense of relief when people feel like they can put their secret on a postcard and send it off," says Warren. "They can choose the words and take ownership of it and then physically let it go. We're traditionally taught that when we share a secret that there's some authority figure that going to tell you what to do, whether it's a priest or a psychiatrist or a parent. But one of the beauties of Postsecret is the power of real anonymity. I think that's very empowering for the individual."
"People are hardwired to share because, according to our ancestors, dangers were better faced as a group than individually," says Dr Kelly. "Perhaps we're born into the world predisposed to wanting to share bad events with others so that we can work together to fend off danger?"
Every Sunday, Frank Warren is faced with the difficult task of sorting out the latest batch of secrets and selecting which 20 odd to post on Postsecret.com. Often, if there's a special event in the calendar, like Father's Day or Christmas, there will be a notable theme, but on regular weeks, he is careful to make sure that his choices ensure every emotional box gets ticked.
"Sometimes I draw upon filmmaking, storytelling or even music in arranging these secrets, these notes, so there's a melody and a song at the end," says Warren.
"As I'm selecting each secret, which is painstaking, and arranging them and rearranging them, to tell this story, I'm very aware of the different emotions that are being touched. I try and touch on all these issues so at the end you feel like you've had this full, emotional experience."
And it doesn't quite end there. Occasionally, certain secrets will elicit an interesting reader response, something that Warren will often display on the blog.
He maintains that this sense of community is where the internet is headed.
"Posting responses lets the story continue and I think it lets people open up, knowing their secret is going to be treated in a safe, non-commercial environment," says Warren. "Postsecret is not about creating ads and generating revenue.
"The internet is now in its super-infancy and because of that it's used for more base reasons than it will be in a decade or a century from now. I'm hopeful that websites and projects connected to spirituality, our higher purpose and the mysteries of life will really emerge in ways that are evolutionary."
As well as providing an outlet for those struggling under the weight of their secrets, Postsecret is also closely linked with the suicide prevention charity Hopeline, a cause close to Warren's heart.
"In my own life, I've lost a friend and family member to suicide and I've struggled with mental illness myself," says Warren. "It's really important for me to do whatever I can, through Postsecret, to address the stigma of mental illness.
"Even though there aren't ads on the website to generate profits, I do use it to raise awareness for suicide prevention. In the life of Postsecret, people who have visited the website have raised over $1m for Hopeline."
For Frank Warren's first Postsecret Live event next month in Dublin City University's Mahony Hall, he is making it a family affair.
"It's a thrill to be coming to Ireland for the first time," says Warren.
"I'm bringing my wife along and we are really looking forward to it. There's music and video and I project images of postcards that were banned from the books by the publisher. I also get a chance to share postcards that have changed lives or brought people together or even saved lives. My favourite part is I will invite audience members to stand at a microphone and share their own secrets live in front of everyone. That can be very emotional, cathartic and sometimes funny, but always memorable."
Frank Warren will be speaking at The Helix on December 8 at 7.30pm. For tickets, priced at €40, see www.live postsecret.com