When do your secrets hurt your wellbeing?
From an article in Greater Good magazine
A secret is something about yourself or something you did that you hide from one or more people purposefully, distinguishing it from something you merely want to keep private. Everyone keeps secrets, at least occasionally. That’s because we all have inner thoughts and feelings that either are not worth sharing with others or would hurt us or another person if they were revealed.
But does keeping secrets come at a cost to our well-being?
Researcher Michael Slepian, author of the book The Secret Life of Secrets, explores this question in depth and comes up with some answers. Through summarizing his and others’ research on secrets, he helps readers better understand why people keep secrets, how it affects their well-being, and when it’s best to reveal secrets to others.
Michael asked hundreds of people about their secrets and created a sort of taxonomy of secrets, ranging from hurting another person (emotionally or physically) to past drug use to unusual sexual preferences to one’s qualifications for a job and more (34 more categories, to be precise). Then, he surveyed more than 50,000 people from around the world to find out where their own secrets fit in and found that 97% of them had at least one secret from the list. Common sources of secrets included lies, romantic desire, infidelity, and finances, while the least common sources were sexual orientation, pregnancy, a marriage proposal, and abortion.
The average number of secrets held was 13, with most people having five secrets they’d never told anyone and eight they’d confided to at least one person (but intended to keep from others).
One of the biggest reasons we keep a secret is that we feel shame around it and fear we’d be judged if it came to light. The more immoral we feel our secrets are, the less likely we’ll share them with others. However, shame is a difficult emotion to live with, which is why people sometimes eventually spill even their most shameful secrets.
“The more immoral you judge your own secret to be, the more that secret evokes shame, [the more the secret] is associated with a heightened tendency to repetitively think about the secret, and feel less capable of coping with it,”
People also keep secrets to avoid conflicts and protect their relationships. Another reason to keep secrets is that revealing one could harm our personal or professional goals. After stretching the truth on a resume, we wouldn’t likely confess that to a potential employer questioning our qualifications.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with having secrets - it depends a lot on what the secret is and what revealing would involve - the more burdensome it is for you to keep to yourself, the more likely it will affect your well-being. If a secret causes you to feel a lot of shame or to ruminate on negative aspects of yourself, it’s probably good to pay attention and figure out what you can do differently to cope. On the other hand, people with secrets often choose to think about them, because they want to understand what happened and what they can learn about themselves. As in the case of dealing with trauma, expressive journaling can be a good way to explore your experience, bring some perspective to it, and help you move forward emotionally.
But, if that’s not resolving the issue in your own mind, it might be a good idea to confide in someone you trust. Michael says, "Usually, people think better of us than we expect them to and they will more likely empathize than judge. Plus, a trusted confident may be able to offer an outside perspective that helps you - whether that’s a close friend, your partner, or a therapist."
The act of hiding is not necessarily what brings you psychological harm. Instead, it’s the way that keeping a secret from others can make you feel isolated and less connected to them. Especially among intimate friends and romantic partners, being secretive can create emotional distance - and make you feel inauthentic, as well.
There are some situations when it might be better to keep a secret, though. A few guidelines:
Leave past mistakes in the past. It’s better to focus on how you’ve grown since your mistake - the lessons you’ve learned from the experience - and to promise not to make the same mistake twice than to beat yourself up over past wrongs.
Look for ways your secret benefits others. Keeping a secret may actually be a kindness to another person. So, before revealing a secret, ask yourself, “What impact would telling your secret have on those around you? Could someone get hurt?” You may have to suffer the burden of it, but it’s better than making others suffer, too.
Recognize your reasons. Even if living with a secret is difficult, you may still have good reasons for keeping it - and that’s important to recognize.
If the secret drags on your well-being, even just occasionally, take a close look at that hurt, and try your best to understand it.
Read the full article here.
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From an article in Greater Good magazine, 11/10/2022