Quick…how many secrets are you keeping from the people in your life? The answer is 13, on average, says behavioral scientist Michael Slepian, PhD. Dr. Slepian has spent more than a decade studying the secrets of tens of thousands of people, and he has found that keeping dark secrets is nearly universal. Your friends, co-workers, family members—even your spouse—are almost certainly hiding something that would surprise you…and you likely are hiding something from them.
But our understanding and intuition about secrets often are wrong, says Dr. Slepian, including why they affect us so profoundly…how we can mitigate the power they have over us…and why confessing them may go a lot better than we think.
Dr. Slepian offers some answers to these questions…
How much do secrets impact our personal well-being?
We like to believe that if a secret is well-hidden and there is no risk of it being revealed, it doesn’t affect our lives that much. Problem: Buried secrets often wreak emotional havoc, shaping our identities and wielding power over how we perceive ourselves. It’s not the act of hiding a secret that causes all the inner stress and turmoil—most secrets really aren’t that hard to keep.
Example: My own parents were able to keep a shocking family secret with relative ease because the subject had never come up. I had been conceived by artificial insemination using an anonymous sperm donor, and my brother had been conceived with sperm from a different donor, so he actually was my half-brother.
Why do we suffer so much when we hold on to secrets?
When the only venue you have to work through a secret is your own mind, you are unlikely to find the most productive or healthy way to deal with it. You keep imagining the shame and anger if the secret was ever exposed. You reiterate the same regrets and then feel even more isolated.
What’s more, keeping a secret can damage your view of yourself as an authentic person—you may feel demoralized because you are holding back the “real you” from your loved ones.
What can we do to handle these negative effects?
Simply confiding in someone can be an antidote to the needless emotional pain of holding onto a secret. But sharing secrets isn’t simply about unburdening yourself so you feel less alone. Another person can provide practical and emotional support and validate your experience. That person can offer a different perspective that challenges your counterproductive ways of thinking.
In whom should I confide? Look for these characteristics when selecting someone you might confide in…
Compassion—your confidant should be able to empathize with your situation and want to help relieve your suffering.
Assertiveness—he/she shouldn’t just listen passively. He should be able to help you explore the possible solutions and suggest ways to move forward…and then push you to take action.
Experience—you want to talk to someone who has handled secrets in the past. That person can be anyone—a therapist or religious leader or at least someone who won’t be morally outraged by your secret.
Interesting: Confiding in strangers (bartenders, taxi drivers and even anonymous online chats) can allow you to get the secret off your chest…and the confidants are free to be candid with their advice.
Wouldn’t it be healthier to just confide my secret to the person who it affects most directly?
This actually is confessing—not confiding. Confessing is a more complex decision because it can have unpredictable repercussions and might even ruin or compromise your relationship.
Good news: When study participants confessed their secrets to their loved ones, the outcomes typically were much better and more benign than the worst-case scenarios they had imagined.
What if I can’t bring myself to share my secret with anyone?
Consider journaling to simply acknowledge your negative emotions—it provides an opportunity to step outside yourself and organize your thoughts.
Another option: Practice mindfulness. The next time you start rehashing the details of a secret, consciously replace that obsessive behavior with thoughts of what you learned from the experience…the self-improvements you’ve made…and/or what you can do to mitigate the damage from the secret going forward.
Are there ever times when keeping a secret is actually beneficial?
When keeping a secret makes you feel more in control and won’t harm others even if they were to find out, it may be better to keep it to yourself—for example, that you like watching reality TV or enjoy playing video games in your free time.
If there is the potential for harm to others, tread carefully. Sometimes revealing a secret will entangle your confidant into the problem. If the secret concerns a shared friend, you are asking your confidant to keep the secret on your behalf, and this brings additional burden.
If the secret must be kept at all costs, find someone removed from it all with whom to talk. Potential confidants are all around you.