Almost everyone harbours a secret or two. Some, such as a surprise party you’re planning for a friend, is exciting and enjoyable.
Others, however, may make you feel ashamed or distressed because you believe that disclosure would be harmful and upsetting to important others, or cause other people to dislike you.
But is there a long-term cost to keeping distressing secrets?
Anita Kelly, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, has spent many years studying the effects. Her research shows that individuals who tend to harbour personal secrets are more likely than others to experience negative psychological symptoms such as anxiety, guilt and shame.
Ahmet Uysaland colleagues at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara asked subjects to keep a daily record of self-concealment and to rate their level of well-being. They found that concealing distressing personal information was associated with negative well-being.
Catrina Finkenauer and Bernard Rime at the University of Louvain in Belgium conducted a similar study and discovered that those who kept what they felt were important but unhappy secrets about themselves not only experienced lower levels of well-being but were also less healthy physically.
What happens if you decide to disclose your secret? Walid Afifi and John Caughlin at the University of California Santa Barbara followed 342 participants who were keeping a secret for two months. They found that those who offloaded their secret to someone who did not condemn them began to ruminate less and experience higher levels of self-esteem.
Robert Rodriguez and Anita Kelly asked 87 participants to imagine telling their secret either to an accepting or a critical individual. Those who imagined confessing to an accepting person reported lower rates of physical illness eight weeks later.
The evidence is clear. If you’re harbouring a burdensome secret, you’ll experience greater well-being if you talk it through with someone who doesn’t judge you. How do you find such a person?
First and foremost, choose someone who is ‘outside’ the secret, who won’t be hurt by your revelation. Choose someone you know will listen calmly and objectively, someone who can help you work through what, if anything, you need to do next. Good choices are your GP, a therapist or a counsellor.
If the secret is about someone else, you’ll want to find an effective way to distance yourself from the information. If the secret is something you did or said, an experienced professional can help you let it go. If the secret concerns a belief you hold about yourself now, they can help you test its validity and then redefine your self-concept so it’s more realistic and balanced. If it’s about an ongoing behaviour, they can suggest ways to change that behaviour so you can accept yourself more readily.
If you find the right person and talk through any burdensome secrets with them, you’ll experience great relief—and you’ll find it was well worth the courage and effort needed.