Do you have any secrets? It’s surprising how many we each have – and how much thinking time they occupy. Michael Slepian and colleagues at Columbia University conducted a series of studies looking at the effects that secrecy have on us. They found that, on average, each of us is carrying 13 secrets at any one time.
They also asked participants about the impact that secrecy has on their well-being and on the quality of their relationships.
Somewhat to their surprise, the researchers found that concealing information when in the presence of another person doesn’t particularly affect wellbeing. Instead, the most damaging aspect of secrecy is the effect it has on concentration and mood generally, whether or not others are present.
The more often participants thought about their secrets, particularly those that made them feel guilty or ashamed, the worse they felt about themselves. Slepian’s studies also confirmed that people reported thinking about their secrets at least twice as often when alone as they did when withholding them in the presence of others. Thus the problem with secrets is not that it is hard to keep them to ourselves; rather, that holding on to them makes us feel bad.
A study conducted at Utrecht University found that those who kept secrets to themselves were more likely to report physical complaints, lowered mood and greater loneliness than those who shared their secrets with a best friend or a parent.
Yet another study found couples who kept their relationship secret from others had poorer physical and psychological health, and these individuals were less committed to their partner.
Holding on to our secrets appears to make us less happy, less healthy and lonelier, too. It’s best, therefore, to avoid secrecy and try to be honest and open whenever possible. I have written before about how to unburden yourself of a troublesome secret as benignly as possible.
But sometimes – in certain professions, for example – it’s necessary to keep secrets. If that’s the case for you, what can you do to minimise the impact on your health and wellbeing?
Learn calming distraction techniques such as mindfulness or meditation, and practice them daily.
Prioritise time for activities that create “flow” – those that challenge and engage you fully. Not only does this enhance your creative abilities, it means you have something more enjoyable to think about than what you must not disclose.
Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm.