The Burden of Being Alone with Our Secrets
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Everyone keeps secrets. Whether big or small, we keep secrets from friends, family members, coworkers, and even our romantic partners. We all do it, and in some way or another, we all suffer for it. Research shows that secrecy is associated with lower health and psychological well-being. But why? If we knew why secrets hurt us, perhaps we could take steps to reduce their harm.
For years, the answer to the question of how secrets harm their keepers seemed obvious: it was the strain and stress of hiding things from other people. Yet, recent research suggests that the harm of hiding information during conversations is short-lived. Although it feels uncomfortable to monitor and manage what you say in the moment, the moment passes. The goal of a secret is to conceal information when required, and people are fairly well-prepared for these moments.
But we are far less prepared for all the other moments of having a secret—those moments when we are not actively concealing it. More than a dozen studies have found that the more often we think about our secrets—during moments when we do not have to hide them—the more those secrets harm our well-being. Unfortunately, people think about their secrets a good deal, and the frequency with which people think about secrets is related to increased feelings of shame, inauthenticity, and social isolation.
The real harm of a secret is not that you have to hide it but that you have to live with it and think about it, usually on your own. But if thinking about our secrets typically makes us feel worse, then why do we do it? Perhaps this is where the harm of suppression comes in. Given that thinking about a secret is usually unpleasant, people may try to not think about it. And, ironically, our efforts to suppress these thoughts increase our tendency to ruminate on our secrets.
A famous psychology experiment asked participants to not think about a white bear, but as hard they tried, they could not stop thinking about this new and strange thought. Then, when this constraint was lifted and participants were allowed to think about white bears, they thought even more about bears than if they had never tried to suppress such thoughts. These studies suggested that the very process of trying to not think about something can ironically keep that very thing on our minds.
But perhaps this occurs only when people try to suppress something for the first time, as was the case in the white bear study. In everyday life, a battle with an invasive thought, such as a secret you are trying to keep, might occur over hours, days, and even weeks. So, what does thought suppression look like day-to-day?
My colleagues, Katharine Greenaway and E. J. Masicampo, and I conducted four studies to find out. Across four studies involving more than 1,000 participants, we found that, although people sometimes wanted to suppress thoughts about their secrets, at other times they actually wanted to think about them. Whether people wanted to engage with and think about their secrets or wanted to suppress them depended on how significant the secret was. People wanted to spend some time thinking about significant secrets; it was mostly the trivial secrets that people wanted to suppress.
Can people suppress thoughts of their secrets? It seems so. Our research found that wanting to suppress a secret was not associated with thinking about it more. This finding is consistent with research on unwanted memories. When you would rather not think about a particular memory, over time you eventually learn to recognize the things that trigger that memory. Then, when those triggers occur, you practice directing your attention elsewhere, minimizing the likelihood that the unwanted memory will come to mind.
But, if we can suppress our thoughts with practice, why do we think about our secrets so often? The answer turns out to be quite simple: we want to think about them.
If you are not talking with other people about some secret you have, the only venue to work through it is in your own mind. And the more significant the secret, the more there is to ponder and process. So, the problem is not that you are trying to suppress your thoughts—like trying to not think about a white bear—but rather isolation. We find that simply thinking about a secret evokes a feeling of social isolation, which puts the secret keeper in a bind. If the secret is so important that it should not be ignored, thinking about the secret is necessary—but also likely painful.
But it doesn’t have to be as painful as it often is. In follow-up studies, we found that part of the pain from thinking about a secret comes from focusing on the past, which can’t be changed. When people do not focus on the past, the harm of thinking about a secret is reduced. And when our participants really let go of the past, thinking about a secret was actually beneficial and associated with higher well-being.
After all, we do have some control over our thoughts. Sometimes, we choose to push our secrets out of mind, but we do this more with the small things. At other times, we choose to spend time thinking about our secrets when they come to mind, and we do this more for pressing matters and important concerns. The problem is that we often do not have healthy ways of thinking about our secrets.
This is what other people are there for and why it is good to talk about our secrets with others. New perspectives, insights, and helpful advice all come from other people. The best path forward is typically talking to someone about your secret, someone you can trust. But if you are not yet ready for that, looking forward to the future rather than backward toward the past will put you on the right path.
For Further Reading
Slepian, M. L., Greenaway, K. H., & Masicampo, E.J. (2020). Thinking through secrets: Rethinking the role of thought suppression in secrecy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219895017
McDonald, R. I, Salerno, J. M., Greenaway, K. H., & Slepian, M. L. (2020). Motivated secrecy: Politics, relationships, and regrets. Motivation Science, 6, 61-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/mot0000139
Slepian, M. L., Kirby, J. N., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2020). Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mind. Emotion, 20, 323-328. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000542
Slepian, M. L., Halevy, N., & Galinsky, A. D. (2019). The solitude of secrecy: Thinking about secrets evokes motivational conflict and feelings of fatigue. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1129-1151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218810770
Slepian, M. L. & Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2019). Confiding secrets and well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 472-484. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618765069
Liu, Z. & Slepian, M. L. (2018). Secrecy: Unshared realities. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 124-128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.03.006
Slepian, M.L., Chun, J.S., & Mason, M.F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 1-33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000085
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. He studies the psychological effects of secrecy, the development and formation of trust, and person perception.