It hurts to keep secrets. Secrecy is associated with lower well-being, worse health, and less satisfying relationships. Research has linked secrecy to increased anxiety, depression, symptoms of poor health, and even the more rapid progression of disease. There is a seemingly obvious explanation for these harms: Hiding secrets is hard work. You have to watch what you say. If asked about something related to the secret, you must be careful not to slip up. This could require evasion or even deception. Constant vigilance and concealment can be exhausting.
New research, however, suggests that the harm of secrets doesn’t really come from the hiding after all. The real problem with keeping a secret is not that you have to hide it, but that you have to live with it, and think about it.
The concept of secrecy might evoke an image of two people in conversation, with one person actively concealing from the other. Yet, such concealment is actually uncommon. It is far more common to ruminate on our secrets. It is our tendency to mind-wander to our secrets that seems most harmful to well-being. Simply thinking about a secret can make us feel inauthentic. Having a secret return to mind, time and time again, can be tiring. When we think of a secret, it can make us feel isolated and alone.
To better understand the harms of secrecy, my colleagues and I first set out to understand what secrets people keep, and how often they keep them. We found that 97 percent of people have at least one secret at any given moment, and people have, on average, 13 secrets. A survey of more than 5,000 people found that common secrets include preferences, desires, issues surrounding relationships and sex, cheating, infidelity and violations of others’ trust.
Across several studies, we asked participants to estimate how frequently they concealed their secret during conversations with others, and also how frequently they thought about the secret outside of social interactions. We found that the more frequently people simply thought about their secrets, the lower their well-being. The frequency of active concealment when interacting with others, however, had no relationship to well-being.
Following up this research, a new paper reveals why thinking about secrets is so harmful. Turning the question around, we examined the consequences of confiding secrets. We found that when a person confides a secret to a third party, it does not reduce how often they have to conceal the secret from others who are still kept in the dark. Rather, it reduces how often their mind wanders toward the secret in irrelevant moments.
The act of confiding a secret can feel cathartic and relieving. But mere catharsis is not enough. When confiding a secret, what is actually helpful is the conversation that follows. People report that when sharing a secret with another person, they often receive emotional support, useful guidance, and helpful advice. These forms of support make people feel more confident and capable in coping with the secret. When people find a healthier way of thinking about their secret, they ruminate less on it, and have improved well-being. Our studies suggest that what is important is talking to another person about a secret. A single conversation can lead to a healthier outlook and mind.
This new science of secrecy brings both good and bad news. The bad news is that even when we are not hiding our secrets, they are still very much with us, and can still hurt us. The good news is that even when we choose to still keep something secret, talking to another person can make the world of difference. Secrets don’t have to hurt as much as they do.