Most people harbor some personal, family or another individual’s secrets. These nuggets of information are kept hidden and well safeguarded for one’s protection or the preservation of others’ integrity and wellbeing. Though the choice to reveal them may be liberating, it may also be fraught with grave risks. How do you decide whether or not to reveal this hidden information?
The dictionary definition of a secret is, “Information set apart from the knowledge of others; known only to one or to a few; not made public.” Secrets contain data that is often hidden because of anticipated disapproval, shame, social ostracism, or negative consequences to the holder of the secret or to others.
Divulging secrets may involve embarrassing family history, crime history, illnesses, illegal or immoral conduct, or any data that in the view of the holder of the secret may be shaming, compromising, excluding or defaming. The intent in keeping the secret is to preserve the safety and integrity of oneself, others or the group.
Michael L. Slepian of Tufts University found that “The more burdensome the secret and the more thought is devoted to it, the more perception and action were influenced in a manner similar to carrying physical weight. Thus, as with physical burdens, secrets weigh people down.”
Tamara Afifi of UCSB and Kelie Steuber of the University of Iowa reported in “Keeping and Revealing Secrets” that people disclose secrets “because it is cathartic and makes them feel better “ and conceal secrets for fear of “being judged, looked down upon or having someone use the information against them.” They also abstain from revealing secrets if they fear that it will hurt others or jeopardize relationships.
These studies focused on keeping one’s information secret. Yet, when it comes to revealing another person’s information, whether it is accurate or not, more people act less judiciously about sharing that secret, which is not theirs to share. This type of discourse is actually gossip, which may serve the teller’s pride of “knowing” and may actually be harmful to the owner of the secret.
Even with positive information that is not secretive, one may be wise to allow the owner of the information to share it. For example, if parents are told of a successful endeavor of one of their children, they are wise to encourage that child to share it with his/her siblings. The person who earned the success is entitled to receive the enthusiastic congratulations directly from the listener. In times of hardship, the communication should be direct as well.
When weighing whether to reveal a secret,
- Consider the pros and cons of doing so. Is it illegal, immoral, unethical or hurtful to yourself or others? Can it be helpful?
- Understand that reducing your burden is only merited when others are unharmed and are likely to gain closure as well.
- Understand the difference between disclosing secrets and gossiping. Read
Is gossip beneficial or is it harmful? In RelationshipMatters.com