Who Do You Trust with Your Deepest, Darkest Secrets?

In all secrets there is a kind of guilt, however beautiful or joyful they may be, or for what good end they may be set to serve. Secrecy means evasion, and evasion means a problem to the moral mind.

—Gilbert Parker

Coming out of the closet.

We all have secrets, we all tell lies. Keeping sensitive information hidden or disguised is a basic skill in the human toolkit. We distort self-perception to serve narcissistic needs, making ourselves look better than we are, and we see ourselves in a more negative light than we deserve. The reality of who we are is not only covered up, it is also fundamentally blurry as many of the “truths” we live by are subject to interpretation and social consensus, culturally-shaped and constrained.

Secrets are powerful. Others can use information against us, varying shades of extortion. We can hide shameful secrets for years, things which were never our fault, out of fear of reprobation and judgment from others. We can keep secrets about others to protect them as well, out of complicity and social propriety, keeping the peace even when we know revealing the truth is the right thing to do. Secrets get organized around shame and embarrassment, management of reputation, and remain accepted within our social groups. We know the truth may set us free, but the truth can also kick us pretty hard in the teeth, in a world of misunderstanding and retaliation. This essentially dichotomy is ever more relevant nowadays, as secrets about abuse and harassment are bursting out of the closet at a dizzying cadence, transforming the fabric of social reality.

But while keeping secrets serves many functions, keeping things in can be corrosive. Keeping secrets can make us unhappy, living in fear of exposure and censure. Secrets can worm away at us for years, shaping our total identities around what must be unknown. The most terrible secrets can be suppressed so totally that we dissociate, becoming a partial version of who we truly might be. Secrets that terrible appear to threaten our very being, the choice to speak or not to speak tearing away at us, even outside of consciousness. Secret humiliations hold great power to silence us, at great peril. Less disturbing secrets wield power as well, and the sense of shame around secrets can be misleading, exaggerated, and sharing secrets can turn out to be not as bad as we imagined, and ultimately a step on the path to healing. We see this power of telling secrets in our personal experiences talking with friends and family member, institutionalized in religious confessionals and rituals, and as part of psychotherapy.

Who can we trust?

Confiding secrets with a trusted other serves as a compromise to dissolve the stark choice between either keeping secrets to ourselves or voicing them to the whole world. But in whom do we confide? In order to investigate this question, Slepian and Kirby designed a series of five studies to look at how secret tellers and secret receivers decide with whom to share difficult secrets. In their work, the correlated key personality traits related to the big five personality factors of openness, agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness to get a deeper understanding of when people feel safest sharing sensitive information. In order to get a more nuanced perspective on secret-sharing, they looked at additional factors underlying the standard big five model, breaking agreeableness down into compassion and politeness and extroversion into enthusiasm and assertiveness.

In the first study, researchers surveyed 200 participants with an average age of 35 years old and asked them to think about the characteristics of who they would want to tell a secret they were currently keeping. Participants completed a scale of 40 items looking at compassion, politeness, enthusiasm and assertiveness. In descending order, participants imagined that they would tell secrets to someone compassionate, polite, enthusiastic, and assertive—though what people imagine they will do turns out to be different from what we actually do, as the following studies show.

In the second study, a similar group of participants were asked to describe themselves using the same 40 item instrument gauging compassion, politeness, enthusiasm and assertiveness. They reported information on how many and what kinds of secrets people had confided in them over the years, with 14 categories of secrets about infidelity, sexual orientation, abortion history, sexual assault experiences, engaging in physical abuse, having had a mental illness, having a sexually transmitted disease, having cheated in professional, academic or money matters, having lost a lot of money, having issues with alcohol or drug abuse, having committed a crime, and about religious beliefs. Researchers found that participants had been told an average of 7.65 secrets, and that compassion and assertiveness were the strongest predictors of being entrusted with difficult information. Furthermore, contrary to what people imagined in study one, politeness and enthusiasm predicted sharing of fewer secrets.

In the third study, researchers used the same protocol as the second study with 500 participants. They extended the personality measures to include all of the standard big five traits, in order to look at individually-oriented personality traits in addition to the four interpersonal traits used in the prior studies. As with study 2, they found that compassion and assertiveness were the most significant interpersonal factors. Furthermore, they found that people tend to confide more in people who are neurotic, struggling with their own emotions and conflicts, and in those who are generally more open and intelligent. They found that people were less likely to confide in those who are irritable, and less likely to confide in those who are very conscientious. In the fourth study, they repeated study 3 but also asked about the size of social networks, and found that people with larger social networks, all other factors being equal, had more secrets confided in them.

In the fifth and final study, researchers asked 500 participants to think about a time they had confided an actual secret, and to rate the qualities of the person in whom they confided. They used this study design in order to go beyond the self-rating approach used in the prior studies to look at actual interpersonal secret-sharing situations. They found that people had shared on average 4.63 secrets with a good friend, and again that people tended to confide in those with greater compassion and assertiveness, and were less likely to share secrets with more polite, enthusiastic friends.

I hear the secrets that  you keep.

Overall, there is a clear pattern that when people decide to confide secrets in others, we choose people who tend to be more compassionate and assertive, but not those who are more polite and enthusiastic. Beyond being merely agreeable and extroverted, people who are compassionate and assertive may be expected to respond with kindness and a desire to provide relief for suffering, with a clear sense of confidence and agency which is likely to engender a sense of trust and safety.

On the other hand, people who are polite and enthusiastic do not appear to be good confidants. While these characteristics are generally socially desirable, the traits of someone who gets along well with others and is fun to be around, from the point of view of sharing secrets politeness may backfire. Politeness may create a barrier to vulnerability from fear of breaking social norms and causing discomfort for someone who tends to value being “appropriate”, and enthusiasm may breed hesitation to open up with someone fun-loving and energetic, but is not serious-enough for deeper discussions.

For those who wish to become good confidants, cultivating compassion and assertiveness creates an atmosphere of trust and safety, allowing others to open up and share more freely. For those holding on to secrets, be aware of whom seems most available and reliable for sharing, but make sure they are truly trustworthy. When secrets are told in confidence, a space is created in which we can think about them differently, without completely releasing sensitive information into the world. Once a secret is completely out of the bag, however, the information takes on a life of its own—sometimes with unpredictable results.

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