The Secret of Your Success

New research reveals that concealing success may undermine your relationships.

Posted Aug 31, 2020

G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Source: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

It’s vulnerable to be open.  What if the person you're opening up to isn’t responsive in the way you had hoped?  What if they’re judgmental or rejecting?  And as for what you choose to share, that can assume a range of forms. It could be a deep feeling or need that you don’t talk about, a time when you stumbled, a personal flaw, or something you feel guilty or ashamed of.  And then, there’s another way in which you can be vulnerable that receives far less attention: Your successes.

At first glance, it may not seem like sharing personal triumphs and progress is all that risky or vulnerable.  If anything, it can look like a safe bet, something that holds the potential to elevate one’s place in another’s eyes.

Yet, it can be risky to voice one’s accomplishments.  Who knows if the person on the receiving end will react in a favorable way?  What if they respond with resentment?  At the same time, a wide body of research also highlights how openness and self-disclosure are linked with more connected relationships.  What is a person to do?  Is it preferable to share life’s victories or keep them cloaked in privacy?  Thankfully, Drs. Roberts, Levine, and Sezer explored this question and shared the results in a paper that came out this month.  

But let’s clarify a couple of points before we get into the heart of the research.  First, when we talk about “hiding success,” what do we mean?  The researchers described it as “intentionally withholding positive information about oneself or one’s accomplishments.”  Second, this is an incredibly common thing to do; 82 percent of the folks in their research admitted to it.  And as the investigators pointed out, a person’s reasons for keeping their accomplishments a secret generally come from a noble place. Specifically, people voiced a desire to steer clear of boasting, and to prevent the person they told from feeling distressed or jealous.  Others were concerned about feeling embarrassed in opening up about their good fortune.  With reasons like this, it can really make silence seem, objectively, like the right thing to do.  And I understand that. I’ve kept mum about an achievement before, and I’m knowledgeable about how good self-disclosure is for relationships.  If I can succumb to the feeling that it’s better to conceal than to reveal, anyone can.

Across a series of experiments, the researchers examined the impact of hiding success versus being open about it.  And overall, they found that, although concealing a personal achievement may seem like the best course, this decision has its drawbacks.  First, when someone withholds their good fortune, people tend to respond by feeling offended, less connected, and more suspicious.  Second, even if a person hides their achievement and people never learn about it from anyone else, they still feel less connected to that person while they're concealing their good news.  Third, folks assume that the person cloaking their success comes across as patronizing, treating them as though they wouldn’t be able to deal with it.  Fourth, it’s even more problematic to keep success a secret when answering a straightforward question (e.g., “Did you get the award?”) compared with one that’s more ambiguous (“What’s been going on?”). Either way, people will feel vexed if they learn about it later.  Fifth, hiding an achievement is detrimental regardless of how emotionally intimate a relationship is, although it may be especially hurtful for closer bonds.  Sixth, although people tend to feel jealous when they learn about someone’s accomplishment, that emotion arises no matter who they hear it from.  And finally, the researchers found that jealousy occurs alongside feeling connected to a person and joyful for their achievement. A person can be both excited for someone and yearn for something similar for themselves.   

If you’ve reached a personal milestone and you don’t want to be alone with it, consider giving yourself permission to open up.  Although there’s never a guarantee that the person you’re talking to will be responsive and supportive, there’s a good chance that you have more to gain by sharing it than covering it up.   

References

Collins, N.L., & Miller, L.C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475. 

Roberts, A. R., Levine, E. E., & Sezer, O. (2020, August 17). Hiding Success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000322