Stressful Secrets

Most of us have secrets: things about ourselves we’d rather not reveal to even our closest allies.  Social science research tells us that the vast majority of us are holding at least a dozen secrets at any given time. Some secrets are rather benign such as bad behavior at a high school or college party while others could be devastating to our career or standing in the community if they are made public (think: illicit sex tapes and criminal behaviors).   Most psychologists concur that the more damaging the secret is perceived, the more stressful it is to keep it hidden.

The Cover-Up

Not only does the secret cause stress for the person who owns the secret, but keeping others’ secrets can also cause stress.  I learned this first-hand a number of years ago when a friend revealed she was disappearing for a few weeks to undergo cosmetic surgery.  You would think this is no big deal in this day and age but she confided that I was the only one who knew her plans and asked me not to share this secret. 

Over the course of those two weeks no fewer than a half dozen people asked me about my friend.  They noticed she had “disappeared” and expressed worry.  I found myself in the position of having to lie on her behalf; no, I didn’t know where she was but I imagine she’s fine.  After a while, I refined my lie, stating that I thought she left town to visit relatives.

Cortex Confusion

What I remember about this incident was how stressed I felt.  I dreaded running into mutual friends. I was preoccupied by the secret I was holding.  Once my friend returned, I felt incredibly relieved.  I’ve since learned that there is a neurological reason for such distress.  Our brains don’t want us to keep secrets; we are hard-wired for truth-telling.  Neuroscientists believe it’s better for our health to confess our secrets and to refuse to keep others’ secrets. The cortex becomes stressed by the emotional burden of deception.

Being in the counseling business, one would think I was accustomed to keeping secrets.  When I was a high school counselor, students would sometimes ask if I would keep their stories in confidence.  I had an out; I was bound by the ethical and legal guidelines of my career. I would let them know that if they told me stories about harming themselves or others, I could not keep their stories in confidence, nor would I keep secret any stories they told about others harming themselves or harming anyone else. 

No Collusion

Sometimes students would share relational issues they were having with friends or with teachers.  I would remind them that unless they were willing to talk about those issues with the other person, nothing could be resolved. I offered to assist but not to collude.

These same guidelines can apply to anyone who is troubled by others’ secrets. When someone asks if they can confide in you, you don’t have to acquiesce. You can say, I’m not willing to agree to keep your secret.

Come Clean

True, most of us have secrets we’d rather not share.  In the vast majority of cases, however, these secrets are non-consequential: when revealed no one really cares.  If, like me, you’d like to reduce some stress, unloading a few of those secrets could be the just the ticket to a healthier lifestyle.  Every one of those secrets is taking up space on your psychic plate.

Journaling about your secrets can give light to your paranoid fantasy: what do you think would happen if others knew about your secret?  Confessing your secret to someone who wouldn’t be affected in any way is another way to ease your way into coming clean.  The longer the secret festers, the more it grows.

Politicians are notorious for secrets, many of which they claim to have forgotten.  Bill Clinton lied about having oral sex with a White House intern.  The late Barbara Bush nailed it when she said that men forget where they parked but never about oral sex.  

A lesson here for us all: confess your secrets before we hear about them on the evening news.