It was the beginning of the late 1980s. Don and Judy were finally ready to start a family. But, after a few attempts, they realised that they would have to adjust their plan. They would need a sperm donor. And, even before they found one, they had already decided. They were going to have two children, and they would never tell their children that their father was not biologically related to them. This was a secret they promised to each other that they would never tell.
For the past decade, I’ve studied the psychology of secrecy. I know the story of Don and Judy’s secret well because I’m their first child, and I learned about this secret the same day I gave an invited talk about my research on secrecy for a job interview. I was 26, and if you’re wondering what it’s like to learn such a major secret, I’ll tell you this: it was surprising. It was shocking to learn that I was not biologically related to my father nor his parents with whom I was very close. And it was even more shocking to learn that my brother was, in fact, my half-brother, conceived from a different donor. But I had not been the keeper of the secret for all those years. And, while the revelation for me was jolting, the greater impact and harm came to my parents themselves.
Secrets usually hurt their holders most. Keeping a secret is associated with lower life satisfaction, lower-quality relationships, and symptoms of poor psychological and physical health. Our secrets often hurt us, but not for the reasons you might think. While hiding a secret in conversation can feel uncomfortable, the hiding turns out to be the easy part. Simply thinking about a secret outside of a social interaction is associated with feelings of shame, isolation and inauthenticity. These experiences can leave us feeling helpless, at the mercy of our secrets, and unable to cope. And these harms can begin the very moment you decide to keep a secret.
My parents are a good example: the damage wrought by their secret started before my brother and I were born, a time when there wasn’t even anyone to conceal the secret from. The very existence of the secret caused them to worry: what if the children didn’t look like their father? What if they would need to know about their genetics one day? And, after we were born, the secret gnawed at them even more. It was extremely improbable that donor conception would ever come up in conversation when we were young, and so they never had to hide the secret in those early years. But still the secret could nag at them.
My parents told me that it wasn’t until I got older that they ever had to hold back the secret in conversation. In our teenage years, my brother and I would ponder which traits we had inherited from which parent, and we’d ask our parents to weigh in. They said that, even then, the secret was always easy to keep, but it did feel awkward to navigate around it, to hold back something so huge from us. It was after those conversations that my parents would sometimes wonder: should they reveal the secret? Were they making the right decision? The longer they carried the secret, the weightier it became in their minds.
Until recently, the story of secrecy was a short one: secrets hurt us because hiding is stressful.
When I asked participants to recall a secret that currently preoccupied them, they judged the hill to be steeper
A study conducted in the late 1990s asked women who had an eating disorder to conceal it from the interviewer. Without giving away the truth of their eating disorder, the women had to answer questions such as ‘Sometimes people have problems with self-control; is there any part of your life where you have self-control problems?’ and ‘Does anyone (eg, friends, roommates, family) ever tell you that you have unusual eating habits?’ The participants reported that they tried to push away thoughts of their eating disorder, but this was impossible to do while being asked questions like ‘Do you eat regular meals?’ The study purposefully made concealment difficult, and the researchers concluded that secrets hurt their keepers because concealment is difficult.
So, what about secrets that are easier to keep? Fifteen years later, another research team asked participants to answer questions about their ideal dating partner without revealing the gender of that person. This is technically easy to do, as all the participants had to do was say ‘my dating partner’ or ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. Even so, participants found the experience somewhat burdensome.
Yet the idea that our secrets hurt us mostly because hiding them is difficult and stressful turns out to be wrong. Our secrets do hurt us, but often for other reasons. And holding back a secret in conversation is just a small slice of the pain and stress caused by secrets.
At the same time as those research participants were carefully stepping over the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the dating partner study, I was asking another group of participants to simply think about their secrets, and then to do something somewhat strange. I showed them an image of a hill and asked them to estimate how steep the hill was. This was in 2011, two years before I would learn about the major secret my parents had been keeping from me.
In daily life, when people feel burdened, the surrounding world seems more challenging to interact with. It also turns out that when you show people a photograph of a grassy hill, face-on, so that the hill slopes upward and away from them, they aren’t very good at estimating that hill’s incline. And so, my image of the grassy hill was like a blank canvas on which my participants could paint their current experience. If they felt burdened for any reason, I predicted, this should make them perceive the hill as steeper. When I specifically asked participants to recall a secret that currently preoccupied them, they judged the hill to be steeper, compared with those who were asked to recall a secret that was not preoccupying.
My studies found that, when a secret preoccupied the mind, people felt a sense of burden. But my participants were not concealing the secret from an interaction partner. They were not even in a social interaction, and yet still their secrets burdened them. Why?
To find some answers, I developed a list of 38 common categories of secrets. This list came from asking 1,000 people to describe a secret they were currently keeping. With a team of research assistants (my research collaborators and generous friends), we projected as many of these secrets as we could possibly fit on a very large TV screen, and we arranged and rearranged the secrets until we arrived at a set of categories that we could all agree on. Then I asked another 1,000 participants about their secrets, and the 38 categories fit the new data. The list includes secrets about beliefs, family, finances, ambitions, habits, hobbies, discontents (romantic, social, professional, physical), drug use, mental health struggles, violations of trust, cheating, work, relationships, romance, sex, and more. When I show this list to people, they say, on average, that they have 13 secrets from the list.
The hard part of having a secret is that we have to live with it alone
List in hand, I conceived a series of studies. I asked participants to go through the list, and to indicate which secrets they were currently keeping. For each secret that participants had from the list, I asked how many times in the past month had they concealed the secret in conversation, and how many times had they spontaneously thought about the secret outside those conversations. On average, a secret was concealed from others two times in the preceding month, but was thought about outside those conversations four times, so twice as often.
I found that people visited secrets more often in their thoughts than they concealed them from others. This was the case for my parents, too. They told me that they rarely had to hide their secret, but that there were times when they thought about it often, and the secret would weigh on them.
In a follow-up study, I asked participants how much each of their secrets hurt their wellbeing. I found that the more that participants simply thought about their secrets, the more those secrets hurt their wellbeing. However, having to frequently hold back a secret in conversation was not harmful. I find that even secrets that participants never have to hide in conversation can make them unhappy and less satisfied with life.
Why is it that thinking about secrets hurts wellbeing, but not holding back in conversation? Perhaps you can recall an especially awkward moment when someone asked you a question related to your secret, and you had to dance around the truth in order not to reveal it. I’ve been there too but, when it comes to the universe of secrets, this turns out to be a relatively rare experience.
Thanks to the fast-moving nature of conversation, concealment moments are brief, few and far between. The average secret does not come up very often in conversation. And whenever a secret becomes relevant to a conversation, our secrecy intention prepares us for these moments. And so we are quite effective at keeping our secrets hidden. But our secrets exist before those conversations and afterwards too, and this is where the harms seep in.
Without something specific to attend to (a conversation, a work task, a movie) – and sometimes even while you are supposed to be paying attention to something else – your mind can roam away from the here and now. When left free to wander, your mind can cover expansive terrains, but it also tends to visit the same places again and again. When you have a problem not yet solved, you can be sure that your mind will check in on this problem from time to time. How else could you work on it?
If you keep a secret entirely to yourself, then you are leaving yourself only one avenue to work through the secret, and that is in your own thinking. And, unfortunately, a mind unchecked by others’ reactions is more likely to develop unhealthy ways of thinking. The hard part of having a secret is not that we have to hide it in conversation, but that we have to live with it alone.
One of the best ways to reduce the harm of a secret is to talk to someone about it. You don’t have to reveal the secret to the person you are keeping it from, but I find in my research that discussing a secret with a trusted other can make the world of difference. Someone who will be kind, empathic and nonjudgmental will serve you well here. But if you are not yet ready to talk to someone, there are other paths that you can take on your own.
Once you understand how your secrets make you feel, you can channel your emotions toward more helpful places.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I collected responses from 200 participants living throughout the United States. The participants were shown the list of 38 common categories of secrets, and they indicated which they were currently keeping. Some of the most common secrets participants kept involved sexual experiences, violations of trust, discontent (with one’s social life, romantic relationship, physical appearance, profession), and drug use.
We measured how each of their secrets made them feel. Experiences of shame and guilt were among the most common. And so, in a follow-up study, we asked how much the secret makes them feel worthless, small, helpless, and powerless: all experiences associated with shame. We also asked how much each of their secrets makes them feel remorse, regret, and tension over something they have done: all experiences associated with guilt. While both shame and guilt make us feel bad, shame arises when people think ‘I’m a bad person,’ whereas guilt arises when people think ‘I did a bad thing.’
Even though shame and guilt often arrive on the scene together, they don’t leave at the same time
Secrets that participants felt especially ashamed about included self-harm, trauma, and mental health struggles, whereas secrets that participants felt especially guilty about included telling a lie, theft (any kind of taking without asking), and cheating on their partner.
It didn’t matter what the secret was about, but rather how ashamed or guilty the participants felt. The secrets that participants felt most ashamed about were the ones their minds most returned to, and neither shame nor guilt was associated with how often participants had to hold back the secret in conversation.
You would be forgiven for using the words ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ interchangeably because, quite often, when we feel one, we feel the other. When we judge ourselves to be in the wrong, we can feel deficient and small – shame – and we can feel regret and remorse – guilt. For example, the secrets that evoked the most shame also evoked the most guilt: hurting someone (emotionally or physically) and committing infidelity.
Even though shame and guilt often arrive on the scene together, they don’t leave at the same time. Shame can stick around for longer. The secrets that caused the most shame were the ones that most often lingered in participants’ minds.
But why? When we choose to keep a secret, we avoid whatever punishment would come from the information being known. Except, often, we don’t let ourselves off that easy. People, in general, tend to have a sharp sense of justice, and want to live in a world where those who do bad things get punished for it. And so, when we feel we have escaped punishment, we often feel that we still deserve punishment.
To study this phenomenon, I randomly assigned participants in committed relationships to think about a misdeed they were keeping secret from their partner or to think about a misdeed they had confessed to their partner. Thinking about the secret misdeed made people feel like they still deserved to be punished and this even made them more interested in receiving punishment. Compared with thinking about a confessed misdeed, thinking about a secret misdeed led my research participants to want to deny themselves pleasures. For example, thinking about a secret led participants to feel less comfortable in being the recipient of others’ kind gestures. And the participants who felt they still deserved to be punished were even interested in physical and emotional pain (in the forms of intense exercise, drowning oneself in one’s work, and even spending time isolated from others). In short, one reason to let thoughts of a shameful, upsetting secret take centre stage is because it hurts, and we feel we deserve it.
Based on these findings, my colleagues and I predicted that, relative to the shameful secret, a guilty secret would be easier to cope with. And that turned out to be right. The secrets people felt they could most capably cope with involved secret hobbies, preferences and romantic desire. The secrets people felt they could least capably cope with involved struggles with mental health and trauma.
When we feel ashamed of something, we often try to avoid the problem altogether, but when we feel guilty, we become motivated to do something about it. And so, when people feel guilty, they often want to make amends and learn lessons for the future. When we characterise our behaviour as wrong, we recognise that we can act differently next time, and so we feel capable of doing better.
So how can you move from shame to guilt? In a recent series of experiments, my colleagues and I tried to see if we could help people view their secrets in healthier, less shameful ways. Again, we asked people to examine the 38 categories of secrets, and to report which ones they were currently keeping. We then divided each participant’s set of secrets into two piles.
For half of their secrets, we asked participants which of these three options fit their secret best: 1) I feel ashamed; 2) I feel like a bad person; or 3) I feel helpless. You’ll likely recognise this language because it is all shame-oriented. And the problem with this buffet of bad feelings is that they are all especially unhelpful when it comes to coping. Feeling ashamed might make you want to crawl into a hole and to give up entirely. But such responses don’t address the problems or work toward solving them. When we led our participants to think about their secret through these three shades of shame, it didn’t matter which option participants chose. Simply thinking about their secrets in this manner led them to feel less capable of coping with the secret.
You might wish that the thing you feel bad about never happened, but that wish will get you nowhere
For the other half of their secrets, we showed participants three different options, asking which fit their secret best: 1) I feel bad about something I’ve done; 2) I feel sorry about something I’ve done; or 3) I feel tension about something I’ve done. In this condition, we were hitting participants with a psychological sledgehammer, asking them to read ‘something I’ve done’ three times. Now the feelings on offer, while all negative, related to a previous action. When we led our participants to focus on their prior actions, we pushed them toward guilt. Again, it didn’t matter which option participants chose. Simply thinking about a secret in this healthier manner led them to feel more capable of coping with the secret.
This effect is simple but powerful.
Rather than focus on how bad a secret makes you feel about yourself, think more specifically about the behaviour in question (this is the simple part). You might wish that the thing you feel bad about never happened, but that wish will get you nowhere. Instead, focus on what you can do differently next time, and what you can do moving forward into the future.
And then, like magic, feeling that you are capable of coping well translates to… (drum roll) coping well. When we believe that we can control our emotions, we become more assertive in our efforts to do so – and more effective at staying calm and in control.
Changing how you think about a secret (or any other stressor) for the better will lead you to more actively problem-solve, and this may even include reaching out to others for help. When people feel more in control of their emotions, they report higher wellbeing.
Likewise, my studies find that when you feel capable of coping with your secret, the secret hurts you less, day to day. Often, when we rehash the details of the secret, we are focusing on the past. And I find that when we fixate on the past, thinking about secrets tends to be harmful. In contrast, present- or future-focused thinking about secrets can actually help you chart a better life course. If a secret of yours comes to mind, think about what the secret means for your present, and trace out the different paths you can take into the future.
And that’s where shifting from shame to guilt comes in. My studies show that when people feel guilty rather than ashamed, they become more interested in learning from the past and moving forward from it.
Feeling guilty is a good thing. When people feel guilty, they become motivated to do something about it. You can’t change the past, no matter how much you wish it were so. But you can move in the right direction today, and continue to do so tomorrow.
My parents still regret that they didn’t tell me and my brother sooner about the secret of our donor conceptions. Even though the secret is now out, my parents can still feel bad about it. Fortunately, they don’t. I’ve long assured them that I don’t hold the secrecy against them, and that learning that I’m not biologically related to my dad and his family actually made my relationships with them feel more meaningful, not less; our relationships are not based on a sense of genetic obligation, but rather a deeper sense of family, closeness and love.
While you can’t change the content of your secret, you can change how you feel about it, and that’s the goal.