The Challenges and Costs of Keeping Secrets

Most people harbor at least a few personal secrets that they are reluctant to share with others. Though the secrecy is intended to protect the individual of feared social alienation, harboring these uneasy emotions requires great energy and may come at a hefty cost to the secret-keeper.

In “Cost of Keeping It Hidden” Clayton R. Critcher of the University of California, Berkeley and Melissa J. Ferguson of Cornell University found that “Concealing information required ongoing self-monitoring to avoid revealing secretive information or adding false content to hide the secret.” The researchers discovered that employing these protective measures “leads to deficits in intellectual acuity, interpersonal restraint, physical stamina, and executive function.”

People are more likely to keep personal information secret when they regard it with shame or embarrassment and expect that others may view them less favorably if they were to become informed of their secrets. Examples of embarrassing personal and rarely divulged secrets may include unflattering family history, academic or job failures, social exclusion, acrimonious relationships with former friends or lovers, or having a history of socially unacceptable conduct. Yet, revealing a secret is very freeing and facilitates a greater connection between the secret owner and the listener.

Once one frees himself/herself of self-imposed shame, the method of divulging his/her secrets still becomes a psychologically challenging undertaking. Researchers Tamara D. Afifi and Keli Steuber of the Department of Communication at the University of Iowa found that there are six types of strategies people use in revealing secrets: “ (a) Preparation and Rehearsal, includes creating a script about how to tell the secret. (b) Directness, involves telling the person the secret face to face. (c) Third party revelations, telling someone else, who the person knows will probably tell the secret to the target person. (d) Employing Incremental Disclosures, telling portions of the secret or revealing bits and pieces of the secret to gauge a person’s reaction. (e) Entrapment, leaving evidence of the secret for the other person to find, or revealing the secret in the heat of an argument. (f) Indirect Mediums – using the telephone, email, text message, or mail to reveal their secret.”

The stress one experiences in unburdening himself/herself of the previously harbored, shame-induced information is often emotionally draining. There is great relief in this unburdening but it evokes anxiety about the listener’s reaction. It is kind and considerate to lighten the secret divulger’s discomfort by normalizing the experience. Saying that you have also done, felt or experienced a similar situation helps the secret revealer feel reassured and accepted by you. If you cannot personally attest to having shared a matching experience you may offer a similar situation of your own imperfection to reassure the speaker that you understand and empathize with his/her discomfort.

Reduce your secret keeping:

  • Realize that harboring a secret interferes with your physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Accept that unburdening your secrets or helping another do so helps both of you regain your worthiness, health and wellbeing.









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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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