When people ask me, “Can you keep a secret,” I say, “No, please don’t tell me. I’m likely to slip and tell someone.”
My dislike for keeping other people’s secrets was recently supported by a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers asked participants if they were keeping any of 38 common categories of secrets. The study then looked at the effects of holding secrets and how keeping secrets can detrimentally affect your health.
The average person is holding 13 secrets right now. Most reflect the actions we took or thoughts we have that we don’t want others to know such as telling lies or having extra-relational thoughts (thinking something romantic or sexual about someone other than your partner).
Holding a secret someone entrusted you to keep is near the top of the list. The greater the fear you will violate their trust, the more impact the secret has on your mental state. Most of us end up telling at least one other person the secret we were supposed to keep, which might then burden the other person to keep the secret confidential.
This doesn’t just happen when someone confides in you about their behavior or desires. Here are other scenarios where you are expected not to tell others about something you know:
Managers can’t tell employees about upcoming actions that will affect their lives.
Friends won’t tell friends when someone else has said something bad about them.
A sub-group of a larger department, team, family unit, or cohort is planning an action that could negatively affect the other members of the group.
You know about a surprise party, gift, or award that you can’t tell your friend about.
You know the secret you were asked to keep will hurt someone else you care about.
It’s not the attempt to conceal something while in a conversation that causes the most stress. It’s the fretting about the secret before your conversation or worrying about what is the right thing to do with the information you are holding that could cause feelings of depression and anxiety.
Thinking about your secrets can affect your health!
When at rest, your mind tends to wander to unresolved situations in the past or assumptions of what bad things might happen in the future. Because your brain’s primary purpose is to protect you, it tends to lean toward negative thoughts when you let it roam on its own. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner’s theory of thought suppression says that when we try not to think about something, we often just end up thinking about it more. Professor Michael Slepian, the lead author of the secrets study, said the greatest stressor is “…all the times a secret will just come into our thoughts, and intrude upon our thinking.”
To keep your mind from dwelling on a secret you must hold, you must first acknowledge your mind has drifted to either the secret or your guilt for not being authentic and open with others. Like all mindfulness practices, you need to check in with your brain and catch your thoughts before you fall down the rabbit hole. Once you tune into what is occupying your mind, try one of these techniques:
Write the secret down in a personal journal. Include what you might do once the secret is out. Journaling can help you explore and relieve your emotions. Writing down your thoughts can also help you to objectively look at the reason you need to keep the secret which may also release some discomfort.
Tell someone who is not involved with the secret the story you are telling about the secret you are holding. When you feel clearer about the damage you think the secret will cause, you can better find ways of dealing directly with the possible consequence.
Change your focus to something more productive.
Change your feelings with music or play so you don’t get mired in your anxiety over the secret
Go back to the person who told you the secret to get more clarity about what must be concealed and what can be shared to help relieve some of the burden.
There are even online forums where you can share a secret just to get it off your chest. Letting go of the secret with strangers is better than tightly holding it in your mind.
Be conscious of your secrets and why you are holding them. Don’t let them consume your mental and physical energy. When you can, refuse to take on other people’s secrets so you can better manage your secret-holding brain.
Slepian ML, Chun, JS, Mason, MF. (2017) The Experience of Secrecy, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. July, 113(1):1-33
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