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Your Secret: Four Steps to Sensible Revealing

What to consider in a decision to reveal or conceal a secret

If you're like most of the people I've asked in my research over the years, you are keeping a major secret from at least one other person. Even most of the therapy patients in one study were keeping a secret from their therapist [1]. These Four Steps to Sensible Revealing can help you reach a decision about whether to tell the person [2]. Sometimes you may need to go through all the Steps to decide, and sometimes you can decide after the first one.

Step 1: Determine if the information is private or secret

Before it even makes sense to think about whether to reveal something, we need to figure out if it's secret or just private information. Thus we need to ask ourselves, Does my boyfriend (or spouse, best friend, coworker, etc.) really expect me to reveal this kind of information? Here is a very delicate example: Let's say you had an abortion when you were in college (about 1 in 5 adult American women has had one [3]). Does your new lover really expect to know this? Most men probably don't; but if he's deeply religious or a doctor, he might. If he doesn't expect to know it, then it's merely private and you can keep it to yourself. However, if he does expect to know this - say he flat-out asks you if you've had one - and you deliberately hide it from him, then you're keeping a secret. Proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: Figure out whether you'd be telling it to a good confidant

This step involves deciding if the other person is up to the task of responding well to your secret. This means that he or she needs to be discreet, nonjudgmental, and non-rejecting as a confidant before you would consider telling him or her. Finding a discreet confidant, or one that won't tell anyone your secret, is not as easy as you might think. In fact, psychologists have found that confidants tell roughly two other people about the emotional events that they have been told. And the more emotional the event, the more likely they are to tell [4].

A nonjudgmental and non-rejecting confidant also is difficult to find because people often are motivated to reduce their own discomfort when they hear a troubling secret [5]. They do this instead of offering the understanding and acceptance that we need. So, for instance, a young woman whose boyfriend revealed that he was once molested might at first say to him (to reassure herself), "But you're okay with it now, right?" Then later she might become more judgmental and wonder out loud whether the molestation has messed him up sexually and emotionally. She may even become rejecting and withdraw from the relationship because of her inability to handle the secret.

How can you know if your lover will be discreet, nonjudgmental, and non-rejecting before you tell him or her your secret? One thing that you can do, and probably do already, is think about the times when others (or you yourself) have revealed personal information to him or her [6]. Did the person react in a supportive fashion? Did he or she blab to others? You also can reflect on his or her opinions on topics related to the secret and use this information to guess what the reaction will be.

Let's say that after all this consideration, you decide that your lover does indeed expect access to your secret (Step 1), is not likely to reject you, and is discreet and nonjudgmental (Step 2). Then you can go ahead and reveal your secret - if indeed he or she is a good confidant, then the revealing should bring you two even closer. However, if you decide that your lover is not a good confidant for your secret, then proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Think about whether he or she is likely to discover the secret

A general guide for determing this is to consider how many people know about the secret, how discreet those people are, and whether they have any contact with your partner. If lots of indiscreet friends know your secret, then you might consider confessing right away. This way you can put your own spin on things. However, let's say you live in a new town and think your partner will not learn of your secret. You still need to consider whether it bothers you to keep it from him or her before deciding whether to tell. Proceed to Step 4.

Step 4: Determine whether your secret is troubling you.

If you're keenly aware of the secret and feel that it's creating an emotional barrier between you and your partner, then you may need to find a way to tell him or her. Revealing may be necessary even though he or she doesn't seem to be a good confidant. See my next post for some ideas on reducing the risks associated with telling a poor confidant.

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1. Kelly, A. E. (1998). Clients' secret keeping in outpatient therapy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 45, 50-57.

2. Kelly, A. E. (2002). The psychology of secrets. New York: Plenum.

3. Major, B., & Gramzow, R. H. (1999). Abortion as stigma: Cognitive and emotional implications of concealment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 735-745.

4. Christophe, V., & Rime, B. (1997). Exposure to the social sharing of emotion: Emotional impact, listener responses and secondary social sharing. European Journal of Social Psychology, 27, 37-54.4.

5. Cialdini, R. B., Schaller, M., Houlihan, D., Arps, K. Fultz, J., & Beaman, A. L. (1987). Empathy-based helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly based? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 749-758.

6. Kelly, A. E., & McKillop, K. J. (1996). Consequences of revealing personal secrets. Psychological Bulletin, 120, 450-465.


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