When Should You Share a Secret?
Research reveals the best way to share and not share private information.
Posted July 3, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Many people have experienced the relief of getting something off their chest by sharing personal information. Relieving the stress of concealing painful, emotionally distressing information by sharing it with a trusted confidant can be cathartic, freeing, and liberating.
Obviously, however, much depends on the subject matter of the secret you share—including your (often justifiable) reluctance to share it.
All Secrets are Not Created Equal
Some people prefer to keep private facts private. Others tweet, post, and blog about the details of their personal lives for the world to see. The extent to which private facts cause personal distress depends on the type of information at issue, as well as how someone feels about the details they are concealing.
In many cases, one person´s embarrassment is another person´s badge of honor. People have drastically different views about their personal circumstances. Some individuals go to great lengths to conceal their status as a cancer survivor, while others proudly display bracelets and ribbons celebrating their survivor status, run in 5k road races to raise money for cancer research, and even post selfies from the hospital after chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Crime victims present another example. As a prosecutor, I have met sexual assault, molestation, and human-trafficking victims who suffered in silence most of their lives, carrying the pain and shame without ever wanting to disclose their trauma, while other victims become outspoken advocates, speaking out about their ordeal as the voice for so many others who are not ready or willing to openly discuss their own history.
But regardless of the source of hidden pain, shame, or distress, research reveals the value of sharing. Whomever you decide to tell, however, when it comes to “sharing,” there is a significant difference between disclosing, and confiding.
Sharing Secrets and Well-Being
Michael Slepian and Edythe Moulton-Tetlock (2019) researched how confiding secrets to others impacts well being.[i] After examining more than 800 participants carrying a combined total of more than 10,000 secrets, they found that apparently, confiding a secret is likely to produce increased well-being through effective coping.
They begin their research by contrasting general self-disclosure within relationships, which builds intimacy, and confiding a secret, which is usually a request for both confidentiality and help in dealing with the secret. They also distinguish confiding secrets from venting of negative emotions, which is usually done for the purpose of catharsis.
Secrets and Mind Wandering
In discussing secrets, Slepian and Moulton-Tetlock discuss the process of mind-wandering, referring to the fact that people tend to think about their secrets even when seemingly irrelevant to their current context.
They note that previous research demonstrated that repetitive mind wandering to a secret predicts lower well-being than concealment of the secret. In their own research, they found that confiding a secret resulted in less mind-wandering to the secret. They also found that confiding led to social support, and thus predicted increased ability to cope and enhanced well being.
This is great news for people who would rather confide than hide troubling facts that are weighing on their mind. What kind of facts? The 10,000 secrets Slepian and Moulton-Tetlock studied included everything from abortion to addiction, drug use to social discontentment, infidelity to illegality. Apparently, people hide many things, from personal failures to lapses in judgment and everything in between.
So how do people decide how and when to share such sensitive information? It depends on how they believe they are sharing it, and to whom.
Disclosing Versus Confiding
Slepian and Moulton-Tetlock drew a distinction between disclosing secrets and confiding secrets. Because secrets are usually kept for fear of rejection, disclosure might create concern that the secret might be shared and the information might spread, causing social stigmatization. Disclosure, consequently, is associated with increased mind wandering. Confiding a secret, in contrast, paired with a request for help, can increase a sense of social support and increased coping, and lead to less frequent mind wandering.
Secrets Spark Social Support
Slepian and Moulton-Tetlock explain that both experimental and correlational studies show that when people share a secret, they perceive social support, and are better able to cope with the secret. In addition, due to the perception of more effective coping, confiding a secret is linked with thinking less about it. They also found that confiding a secret is predictive of increased well-being through a process of altering how and how often people think about whatever secret they are keeping.
So apparently, confiding secrets can potentially alleviate emotional distress, reduce repetitive mind-wandering, and boost coping ability. This appears to be true across the board with a wide range of different types of secrets. When it comes to sharing, however, the key is being able to identify the right people to confide in. Smart sharing of sensitive information can certainly increase our well being, but it also involves choosing our confidants with confidence.
[i]Slepian, Michael L, and Edythe Moulton-Tetlock. "Confiding Secrets and Well-Being." Social Psychological and Personality Science 10, no. 4 (2019): 472-84.