Do You Really Want to Know a Secret?

Secrets are seductive, irresistible, provocative, and exciting. Secrecy involves the intentional concealment of information from others. Deception in the form of having secrets is deeply ingrained in human communication. [1] We could say that once a secret is unveiled it is no longer a secret but becomes, instead, a revelation. 

Some secrets involve anticipatory excitement and the expectation of being revealed, such as in the case of a surprise party, the sex of an unborn child, or a marriage proposal. Secrets that we expect to keep undisclosed usually involve situations that may result in negative judgment from others, such as those having to do with a perceived moral transgression. Infidelity tends to be prominent in that domain. Yet secrets may also involve situations where a stressful event or unusual circumstance, such as a serious illness, may lead the person involved to hide information from others. 

Secrets that may result in negative perceptions are held in place by shame and guilt. Shame motivates us to hide, but, at the same time, another aspect of the shame emotion that many people do not consider is that it urges us to restore broken bonds. [2] Given this mixed motivation, secrets may become ambivalently held, where the wish to hide coexists with an urgency to seek relief and connect with others by revealing information. A study exploring how emotions surrounding secrecy shape its experience found that secrets evoking shame, more so than guilt, are likely to intrude upon one’s thinking in irrelevant moments. [3] It is no wonder, then, that the impact of keeping secrets has been associated with mental stress and diminished physical health.[4] [5] Carrying a secret alone and without support can lead to rumination and is associated with decreased well-being, whereas the relief of revealing a secret, even anonymously, and receiving understanding, affirmation, forgiveness, or support by others is unburdening. [6] [7] 

Although some people can effectively keep their own and others’ secrets to themselves, there are times when holders of a secret may feel compelled to expose the content of what they are carrying. Secrets create a tension that seeks relief through participation. Young children, as well as adults, will often reveal a secret to another person as though disclosure and shared concealment solidify a bond between them while mitigating the effects of secrecy. Unfortunately, such bonds are often broken when revelations are disclosed to others. 

Sharing a secret may negatively impact the person who receives the information, even though they may feel special or honored to be trusted. The transmission of secret information often has intense emotion as a travel companion. Along with the information, the emotions transmitted may also be taken on by the recipient of the revealed secret. Thus, a commitment to conceal information can be burdensome, evoke feelings of isolation, and conflict with needs for affiliation with others. [8] Having someone confide in you can have relational benefits, but it can also be a burden if one’s mind wanders toward revisiting the secret and attempts to problem-solve. [9] The emotional burden of concealing information for another person may have consequences mildly similar to those experienced by the owner of the secret. Perhaps before we tell a secret we should be mindful of its potential effects on the recipient. 

(For information about my books please visit my website: marylamia.com)

References

[1] Farber, B.A., Blanchard, M., Love, M. (2019). The nature, prevalence, and functions of lying and secret keeping: Why do we do these things? In B. A. Faber, M. Blanchard, and M. Love, Secrets and lies in psychotherapy (pp. 31-54). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[2] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and pride: Affects, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

 [3] Slepian, M. L., Halevy, N., and Galinsky, A.D. (2019). The solitude of secrecy: Thinking about secrets evokes goal conflict and feelings of fatigue. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1129-1151.

 [4] Lane, D. J., and Wegner, D. M. (1995). The cognitive consequences of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 237–253.


[5] Cole, S. W., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Visscher, B.R. (1996). Elevated physical health risk among gay men who conceal their homosexual identityHealth Psychology, 15, 243– 251. 

[6] Slepian, M. L., Camp, N. P., Masicampo, E. J. (2015). Exploring the secrecy burden: Secrets, preoccupation, and perceptual judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 144, 31-42.

[7] Zhang, Z. and Dailey, R. M. (2018). Wanna hear a secret?: The burden of secret concealment in personal relationships from the confidant’s perspective. Journal of Relationships Research, 9.

[8] Slepian, M. L., Greenaway, K. H. (2018). The benefits and burdens of keeping others’ secrets. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 220-232. 

[9] Slepian, M. L., Kirby, J. N., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2019). Shame, Guilt, and Secrets on the Mind. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000542 

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Concealing information for another person may become an emotional burden.
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Secrets may become ambivalently held, where the wish to hide coexists with an urgency to seek relief and connect with others by revealing information.
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