Why concealing secrets takes its toll mentally and physically


Can YOU keep a secret? Although we all have them ‒ as many as 13 at a time ‒ concealing secrets takes its toll on us both mentally and physically, says behavioural scientist Michael Slepian

Think of a secret that you’re keeping right now – chances are, it won’t take you long. On average, of the 38 most commonly kept secrets (see opposite), each of us is guarding as many as 13 at any time.

I find that on average people have five secrets they’ve never told anyone (what I call a ‘complete secret’) plus eight more they’ve discussed with at least one person but still intend to keep from others (a ‘confided secret’). This gives us the total of 13.

The story of secrecy is also the story of the inner workings of the mind. The moment we intend to keep a secret, we have a secret, and secrets can affect us even when people never ask about them. But we can learn how to live better alongside them ‒ whether or not we confess.

Think of a secret that you’re keeping right now – chances are, it won’t take you long. On average, of the 38 most commonly kept secrets (see opposite), each of us is guarding as many as 13 at any time.

Think of a secret that you’re keeping right now – chances are, it won’t take you long. On average, of the 38 most commonly kept secrets (see opposite), each of us is guarding as many as 13 at any time.

We talk of being ‘weighed down’ by secrets as though they are physical burdens. In one study, people who were preoccupied by a secret perceived even simple tasks – such as walking the dog ‒ to be more of an effort.

When our intention is to keep a secret, our mind wants to be easily reminded of it in order to remain vigilant. This is because the mind prioritises anything related to our intentions. This feature of human cognition goes to the heart of why our secrets loom so large in our thoughts.

In another study we asked several thousand people how often they thought about their secrets, discovering that, on average, a current secret returned to mind three times a week. But when we asked people to report on their most significant secret they reported thinking about it, on average, 20 times a week. And the more participants’ minds returned to their secret, the more they reported that the secret hurt their wellbeing.

Our secrets can have negative effects on our physical and mental wellbeing ‒ and our relationships ‒ so often we must find a means to cope with them. In many situations, one of three strategies can help.

The first is to remember that your past mistakes are in your past, and there’s no harm in keeping them there. Even when you recognise your prior actions as morally wrong, if nobody is being hurt by the information being contained, then keeping the secret is not necessarily wrong. You can feel bad about your past behaviour, but rather than feel ashamed, recognise the ways that you’ve grown.

A second strategy is to think of how keeping your secret might benefit others. What impact would revealing your secret have? Could someone get hurt? Think about the good your secret-keeping might bring. You may be protecting not just the people involved, but also their relationships.

Finally, it is important to recognise that you have your reasons. When the decisions surrounding your secret were not easy, take comfort in the fact that you have considered your options and did so with care. Understanding why you’re keeping a secret can bring great clarity. People with insight into their choices feel more capable of coping.

How to be savvy about secrets 

DO: Think about the benefits that keeping a secret brings. You may be protecting not just the people involved, but also their relationships.

DON’T: Hold on to a secret if it could be revealed by accident. 

DO: Confess a secret sooner rather than later if it’s going to upset someone. 

DON’T: Dwell on your secret. Studies find that the more people’s minds returned to their secrets, the more they reported that the secrets damaged their wellbeing. 

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Still, not every secret should be revealed. So, which should you confess?

Consider whether trust in you could be damaged if the other person found out. If it is possible that the secret could come out accidentally, then your best bet may be to have control over the revelation. And, for the secret that will be found out eventually, the question of confession should be when rather than if.

If keeping the secret will upset someone else ‒ ‘How could you keep this from me?’ ‒ then confessing sooner is better than later. Let the other person know you want a chat about something, and mention what topic you want to discuss. Even if you don’t talk about it right at that point, this will reduce the shock when it happens later.

But what if confessing the secret could damage a relationship? A classic example is confessing to an infidelity. Across more than 50,000 research participants, one in three people tell me that they have committed infidelity at some point in time. Of that number, about a third confess, about a third never tell a soul, and the remaining third keep it a secret from some people, but selectively share it with others.

Should you confess? This decision combines two questions: will the confession provide relief to you? And what effect will your confession have on the other person?

The most important thing to consider is would your partner want to know. In one study, I found that 77 per cent of people said they’d want their partner to confess to infidelity. But this also means that one in four people would not want to know. While confessing could make you feel better, it could make your partner feel a lot worse. Must you place the burden of this knowledge on your partner, too? If the infidelity was a regrettable mistake, this stone might be better left unturned.

Sometimes, secrets are meant to be kept.

 This is an edited extract from Michael Slepian’s book The Secret Life of Secrets published by Little, Brown, £20*

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