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Why We Keep So Many Secrets

We all harbor secrets. Some are big and bad; some are small and trivial. Researchers have parsed which truths to tell and which not to.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission

The Things We Don’t Tell Others

From infidelity to addiction to financial woes, there are 36 shades of secrecy. By David Ludden, Ph.D.

It’s no secret that you’re keeping a secret right now. In fact, if you’re like most people, you can probably count about a dozen pieces of personal information that you’ve never shared with anyone and probably never will. It could be a one-night stand with a stranger, or perhaps you once committed a petty crime and got away with it.

There are 36 common secrets identified by researchers, and the average person keeps about 12 of them. Some secrets are harmful because they evoke shame, but others can be empowering. Insight into the reasons for keeping a secret can help you avoid ruminating about it.

Secrecy is intentionally withholding personal information from one or more persons. Keeping secrets can often be harmful in the long run, both physically and psychologically. However, according to psychologists Michael Slepian and Alex Koch, it’s not the withholding that hurts us; instead, it’s the ruminating that harms.

What Secrets Do People Keep?

A secret doesn’t have to be extreme. Many people keep their political and religious views under wraps, especially when they believe no one else will agree with them. Some people hide their finances, whether they have a lot more or a lot less than others think. Likewise, sexual orientation and behaviors in general can be a private matter.

Some secrets we keep don’t hurt us; they’re nobody else’s business anyway. But others weigh heavily on our minds, and these are the ones that harm us over time. To understand why, Slepian and Koch conducted a series of studies.

Their research revealed that the secrets people commonly keep can be grouped into basic categories. These range from infidelity to job dissatisfaction, from romantic desires to criminal behavior, and from having had a traumatic experience to pursuing an unusual hobby.

In the first study, the researchers asked participants to arrange the 36 common secrets into as many groups as they wished. By analyzing the groupings that people made, the researchers were able to identify three dimensions that describe each secret.

Immorality: Some secrets involve behavior that people, including the secret-holder, would consider to be immoral. Examples of hidden information that are high on the immoral dimension include harming another person, theft, or other illegal acts. Other secrets have no particular moral component to them, such as ambitions, a hobby, or feelings of discontent at work.

Connectedness: People generally keep the details of their intimate relationships secret. Examples of secrets high on the relational dimension are romantic desire, infidelity, and sexual behaviors in general. In contrast, other confidences, such as problems at school or work, as well as religious or political beliefs, have little to do with our relationships.

Insight: In work life, we often have to keep certain information confidential. We clearly understand why we keep these secrets. Conversely, we often have little insight into the reasons for our marital or health problems, so these are rated low on the insight dimension.

In further studies, Slepian and Koch discovered that we can predict which secrets will cause harm by considering how each ranks on the three dimensions. This is because each dimension is associated with a particular emotional experience.

Why Are Some Secrets So Harmful?

Concealing information can be psychologically damaging because the secret-holder has no opportunity to discuss the contents with other people. When we have problems, it helps to share them with others who can provide us with insight on how to deal with them. But when it comes to secrets that are high on the immorality dimension, we feel shame and are reluctant to share, often for good reason.

However, secrets high on the other two dimensions are less likely to lead to emotional harm. For instance, undisclosed information high on the connectedness dimension reassures us that we have valuable social or intimate
relationships. Thus, if you have a secret lover, thoughts of this intimate connection are certainly mood-boosting, even if you can’t share them with other people.

Likewise, confidential info high on the insight dimension evokes a sense of competence. For example, knowing that you have been entrusted with secret information at work reassures you that you are a capable and trustworthy person, an empowering insight.

Of course, a secret can be high on two or even all three dimensions at the same time. Details about an affair can be high on both immorality and connectedness. Thus, information-holders can feel both shame at cheating on their spouse and the thrill of being intimately connected with another human being at the same time.

How to Keep a Secret Without Hurting Others

Knowing that secrecy mainly hurts information-holders because they ruminate about it, Slepian and Koch proposed that understanding the reason why the secret is being kept could help alleviate distress. To this end, they devised a simple framing exercise, which they tested on 300 participants. For each secret that they held, the subjects were asked to consider the following three statements, which are associated with the three dimensions:

  • There is no harm in having this secret. (Immorality)
  • This secret protects someone. I know. (Connectedness)
  • I have good understanding into this secret. (Insight)

Those who engaged in this exercise daily reported less rumination about their secret and generally a better mood over the following week. This result suggests that having clarity about the reason for keeping a secret can reduce the harm that comes from ruminating about it.
We all have personal information that we prefer not to share with other people. While we keep some details out of shame, others can empower us. As long as we clearly understand the reason for keeping a secret, we can keep ourselves from falling into the harmful spiral of thinking about it over and over again.

David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission

How I Learned To Move Beyond Secrecy And Shame

We don’t have to keep painful secrets to ourselves. By John-Manuel Andriote

You’re only as sick as your secrets. I learned this slogan during the years I spent in a group for people affected by a loved one’s alcoholism. I know a lot about secrets. I also know that most of the secrets I kept came from a feeling of shame, a belief that knowing my truth would diminish me in others’ eyes.

I first learned to keep secrets when I was a boy. Growing up with a father who became an alcoholic and sometimes got angry and violent, I participated in my family’s unspoken pact to keep Dad’s drunken outbursts private. The shame I felt was compounded as relatives who had been regular visitors to our house gradually stopped coming and when Dad’s name was listed in the newspaper police log after his latest arrest for DUI or a domestic disturbance. I never discussed my family’s home life with my friends because I felt so ashamed.

Fortunately in my late twenties my best friend, who was both a psychologist and a Catholic priest, gave me a copy of Janet Woitetz’s book Adult Children of Alcoholics. Reading it was a revelation. I had no idea that so many other families experienced the same kind of pain and shame that my family did. I also hadn’t a clue as to how my dad’s alcoholism had affected me—including teaching me to keep the pain of my own traumas to myself.

Participating in recovery groups for loved ones helped me to understand that trauma isn’t about something “wrong” with me, but about what was done to me. I learned that I needn’t feel ashamed that Dad was an alcoholic; his actions were his own responsibility. I also needn’t feel ashamed of having been affected by his alcoholism. My anxiety wasn’t a character defect, but the outcome of growing up with so much unpredictability.

I learned more about keeping secrets as soon as I was old enough to understand that the attraction I felt to other boys and men was not only “wrong,” but was actually condemned as a mental illness, a sin, and even a crime. Although I was raised Catholic, I joined an evangelical teen singing group, a chorale performing 1970s Christian pop-style music. The parents of three girls in the group became surrogate parents to me. They, more than anyone else, urged me to apply to college. My own mother and father had not gone to college. I wound up attending and graduating from the evangelical Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where homosexuality was grounds for expulsion and condemnation to hellfire.

Back then we didn’t yet have the term first-gen or supportive programs for students like me who were the first in their family to attend college. I had to learn how to be a college-educated man by observing and emulating others. I’m sad to say, I came to believe my working-class background was something I should keep secret if I wanted to be accepted by other educated people.

It took a four-day vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in August 1981, a couple of months before my 23rd birthday, to convince me to accept that being gay is an intrinsic and irrevocable part of who I am. In that charming old town at the tip of Cape Cod, I saw men dancing together at the Boatslip’s daily tea dance and holding hands as they strolled down the street. It was a revelation to me that a gay man could live with openness and integrity rather than secrecy and shame.

My rejection of society’s homophobia was precisely why I chose to focus my reporting on HIV-AIDS while in journalism school in 1985. I never believed the disease was “God’s judgment” or nature’s revenge, or any other lie meant to justify the cruelty and hatred too many displayed toward people with the illness. I knew and wrote about extraordinary acts of heroism and love that I witnessed among men and women living with AIDS and those who stepped up to care for and support them. Their stories would give me the inspiration and resolve I would need when my doctor called me on October 27, 2005, and said, “I have bad news on the HIV test.”

After 20 years of helping to tell the HIV stories of others, I had to figure out how to tell my own. I decided that my role models would be the “first-gen” gay men who in 1983 insisted they be referred to as “people with AIDS” rather than “AIDS victims.” They refused to be defined by a medical diagnosis, demanding that their humanity should be what defines them. Like them, I chose to reject secrecy and defang the stigma of HIV-AIDS by coming out publicly as HIV-positive—in a first-person essay for The Washington Post and an interview on National Public Radio.

Two years after my diagnosis, feeling ready for a big change in my life, I chose to leave Washington, D.C., where I had built my career, and return to eastern Connecticut and the blue-collar hometown I had fled when I left for college three decades earlier. And the most unexpected thing happened: I came to understand that I was still the same man, still openly gay and HIV-positive, and that my working-class upbringing and the difficulties of my younger years had actually helped me to become extremely resilient and authentic. Back where I started, but transformed, I finally understood there was nothing more I felt a need to be ashamed of.

No more secrets.

John-Manuel Andriote is a health journalist and the author of Stonewall Strong and Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. He has written for The Washington Post, among other publications.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission

Our Sexual Skeletons

Men hide different things for different reasons. By Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D.

When people describe the traits they want in a romantic partner, honesty is usually near the top of the list. However, even though we want partners who will always tell us the truth, many of us hide things, especially about our sex lives.

A study published in the journal Sexuality and Culture sought to find out what we hide. Researchers surveyed 195 college students about their sexual secrets. Participants completed a questionnaire about the number and type of sexual secrets they were holding, their reasons for hiding the information, and their previous experiences disclosing those details. More than one-third of participants, 36 percent, said that they held at least one sexual secret in their current, or most recent, romantic relationship. However, more than half—55 percent—said they had revealed a sex secret to a partner at some point in the past. Participants reported having secrets about a wide range of things; however, the types of secrets people held differed based on their gender.

The most common things women hide from partners:
History of sexual victimization
Emotionally cheating on a partner
Interest in BDSM
Pornography use
Enjoyment of sex toys

The most common things men hide include:
Pornography use
Had a threesome
Emotionally cheating on a partner (Physical cheating not surveyed)

Men’s and women’s reasons for keeping such information secret also differed. Specifically, women were more likely to report keeping secrets because they felt their partners would not understand; by contrast, men were more likely to keep secrets because they thought their partner would disapprove of their behavior. Given that men and women tended to hold back different kinds of details, it makes sense that their motivations for hiding information would differ.

Other reasons for keeping sex secrets included fearing that their partner would divulge the information to others, shame, and worry that disclosing it would end the relationship.

When secrets were revealed, it was most often in a face-to-face discussion, followed by phone or text message. Some participants reported that their secrets had been disclosed by others, including friends, family members, and exes, or the information had surfaced on social media or was accidentally discovered by a partner going through their belongings.

Most people reported positive experiences after a disclosure, with many saying that their partner appreciated their honesty and felt relieved. Although less common, some reported partner disapproval, feelings of regret, and/or experiencing a breakup as a result.

Only U.S. college students were studied, however, which limits the findings. It is possible, and likely, that the kinds of sexual secrets people hold and their reasons for doing so may change with age. They may also vary across cultures.

This research suggests that it is not uncommon for people to keep sexual secrets in their relationships and that there are myriad reasons for holding certain information back. Yet, people reported more positive than negative experiences after sharing. Maybe there is benefit and value in being honest about the past.

Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, is the author of Tell Me What You Want.

A Question of Confidants

Whom you should, and should not, tell. By Wendy Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.

Confiding secrets can be cathartic and liberating and may reduce emotional distress; it affords one an opportunity to talk through painful problems or traumatic memories. But whom do you tell? Because secrets, by nature, are personal, and sometimes painful, having confidence in your confidant is key. However, seeking an audience that is both receptive and reliable, as well as attentive and trustworthy, is easier said than done.

When sharing information, casual acquaintances are probably not your first choice. And long gone is the stranger on a train, someone we never expected to see again. Nowadays, you meet people in Uber pools, and you connect via LinkedIn.

Consider the people you know. If you can envision one or more candidates, then you have an excellent support system. Then again, you may have such a delicate secret that no one comes to mind.

The Personality Traits Of the Trusted

In previous research, most variation with respect to interpersonal behavior and experience was reflected in what are described as two higher-level domains: extraversion and agreeableness. Research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the question of what types of people we are most likely to confide in. The study focused on the traits of compassion, politeness, enthusiasm, and assertiveness. The researchers asked participants about secrets others had confided in them. The categories included:

Being sexual assaulted
Having an STD
Sexual orientation
Engaging in physical abuse
Dealing with mental illness
Having a drinking problem
Drug abuse
Other addictions
Losing a large sum of money
Cheating at work or finances
Committing a crime
Religious beliefs

The traits that positively predicted how many secrets the study participants were told were compassion and assertiveness. The traits that negatively predicted how many secrets they were told were enthusiasm and politeness; participants’ traits matched with what others had confided in them.

Breaking down these personality traits, both compassion and politeness are related to agreeableness, but the traits have different definitions. Compassion is described as “empathy and desire to help,” and politeness as “concern with social norms and social rules.”

Both assertiveness and enthusiasm are related to extraversion, but these traits are also defined differently. Assertiveness is described as “having the agency and drive to help,” whereas enthusiasm is “positive sociality.” Many people might be reluctant to share information with an extroverted friend, the proverbial life of the party, and be more comfortable with someone more serious, less gregarious.

People usually feel most comfortable confiding in compassionate, assertive individuals, but only you can evaluate your support system. If you decide to share, make sure you exercise caution, with discretion and discernment.

How To Share A Secret By Jennifer Guttman, Psy.D.

If you are considering sharing a secret with close others, these tips could make the disclosure easier:

Be straightforward. Know what you need before having the conversation and ask for it. Do you need your confidant to listen or advise? Reveal enough information to make the situation clear without overburdening them.

Do not answer questions for which you don’t have the answers. For example, if someone is very sick, it would be difficult to answer their question: “Am I going to die?”

Pick a time and place that feels comfortable for you. Don’t be impulsive when revealing the secret.

Be mindful of the circumstances. Sometimes, waiting too long can backfire. For example, if a child or adolescent learns about a family secret from a non-family member or by accident, they will get the message that the family didn’t think they were mature enough or strong enough to cope with the information. This not only undermines their sense of family trust, but also their self-confidence.

Think about having a third-party present. If the information is something that might create distress between you and the other party (infidelity, bankruptcy), consider the pros and cons of having another person present. A couples counselor would be a good option.

Jennifer Guttman, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of A Path to Sustainable Life Satisfaction.

What Can You Share, Or Not, in A Relationship? By PT Staff

Some Secrets You Can Keep
➤ Don’t share anything you promised not to reveal.
➤Your complete sexual history (details about past partners).
➤ Don’t compare lovers.
➤ Not all fantasies need sharing.

Some Secrets You Should Share

  • You have a medical or mental health condition.
  • You have financial problems (such as debt).
  • Your spending habits are out of the ordinary.
  • You have an arrest record.
  • You’re not able or don’t want to have kids.
  • You were previously married or engaged.

Don’t Share If:

  • The secret is not yours to tell.
  • You’re just repeating gossip.
  • Telling puts another at risk. It will disrupt your relationship (you kissed someone 30 years ago).

Do Share If:

  • Keeping the secret is a burden.
  • Not telling puts another at risk (as with a suicide attempt).
  • Judgment or shame are the only things holding you back.
  • The information will not disrupt your relationships
  • (you ate your brother’s Halloween candy 30 years ago).

Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D., is the author of the book Red Flags.

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