What is out of sight is rarely out of mind.
What’s so difficult about secrecy isn’t hiding information from someone in a moment when they might discover it, but it’s actually living with it—going about your day knowing there is something that you shouldn’t say, turning it over in your mind when you’re stuck in traffic or in bed waiting to sleep. The more you dwell on your secrets, researcher Michael Slepian discovered in his breakthrough 2017 study, The Experience of Secrecy, the more stress, anxiety and depression you feel. But, “Everyone has secrets,” says Slepian. “Just because you have secrets doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. The average person has 13.” The lonely mind, he advises, has only two releases: confession, or changing the way we think about secrecy.
What part of secret-keeping, exactly, is doing damage?
Simply committing to the idea that you have information that cannot be known by some people leads to harmful effects. The only way we get around in this world is through our interactions with other people. We connect by sharing our experiences.
Do secrets affect their keepers differently?
Secrecy hurts people who are prone to feel shame more than guilt. If you experience shame, you feel like you’re a bad person, whereas guilt is more thinking, “I’ve done something bad.” You can intuitively see why guilt is the more healthy and adaptive emotion: If you feel like you’ve done something bad, you can address that—you can make amends, apologize, not do it again. If you have shame, if you believe you’re a bad person or worthless, the more your mind might wander into ruminating on your secrets. That’s a lot more toxic and harmful.
So, if secrets are bad for us, why do we keep them?
The question that often comes to people keeping their own secret is, “What damage would be done by revealing the secret?” The classic one is cheating on your partner and trying to decide whether to confess or not. Mostly people think, “You should obviously be truthful.” But you have to consider whether the relationship can withstand that kind of confession. I’m certainly not advocating for infidelity by saying that, but you can imagine scenarios where revealing the secret can do a lot of damage. When that’s the case, a person might think, “Well, maybe I just have to keep this secret.” The question then becomes, “Who can I talk to about this? What can I do differently? How can I find a healthy way forward?” When you confide your secret to another person, you get a new perspective on it increase your coping methods. Your mind ruminates on the secret less.
Does it matter who we offload our secrets to in order to feel better? Therapist or friend? In a confessional or with a partner?
We haven’t done the kind of research that looks at family member versus friend versus partner versus therapist versus confession booth, but we have looked at what personality traits you look for when confiding in someone. The more compassionate someone is, the more likely you’ll confide in them. Whereas, the politer someone is—simply being nice, following social norms, social conventions—the less likely you are to confide in them. We also want to confide in people who are assertive, who can take charge, people who are going to go out of their way to help you figure out what to do next. Enthusiastic people, less so—the happy-go-lucky, bubbly, friendly person doesn’t get confided in.
If we all have secrets—you say 13 on average—are we all doomed to have stress and anxiety in keeping them?
When I think about this work, I see it as a cautionary tale with an optimistic note. The cautionary tale is that even when you don’t have to hide your secrets, they still follow you, they’re still with you and you’re still alone with them. You don’t have to hide them from anyone but they’re still on your mind, and so they do quite a bit of harm. But the good news, the optimistic point is that finding new ways to think about the secret will improve your wellbeing. Confiding in another person will make a world of difference, as will focusing on the future: “What can I do going forward?” is a better way of thinking, instead of just brooding on the past, rehashing details of what happened. You can’t change that.
Artwork:Abrazo Tezontle, 2017.
Photograph:Courtesy of Tezontle / PEANA