The Real Reason You Can't Keep Secrets

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
Pretend for a second that you just found out that your best friend's partner has plans to propose. Oh my gawd! You might be feeling happy for your friend, or honoured that their partner wanted to share the news with you. Or you might be bursting with excitement like Kristen Wiig's character, Sue, from the "Birthday Party Surprise" SNL sketch. Even though you know you're not supposed to tell anyone about this, holding onto such a big secret can be excruciating.
Why is it that some people can't deal when they know a secret? A 2017 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the way we think about secrets in general is much more nuanced than just trying to withhold some piece of information from another person.
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Once you have a secret, and intend to keep it, then you tend to think about it all the time, says Michael Slepian, PhD, the study author and assistant professor in the management division of Columbia Business School. "People far more frequently are thinking about their secrets than they are hiding their secret," Dr. Slepian says. "So you might be stressing about a secret in all the moments when you're not face-to-face with the friend you're supposed to be keeping it from.
The survey tracked how often participants got sick and how healthy they considered themselves to be, and found that the more often people thought about secrets they were keeping, the worse they reported their health and wellbeing. So, it's not that some people are "better" than others at keeping secrets, but rather they're better at handling the sometimes intrusive and negative thoughts about having to keep something secret. "The main ingredient for wellbeing [to suffer] was how much people were having those secrets come to mind," Dr. Slepian says.
If you're someone who tends to ruminate about everything, that might make it harder for you to keep something to yourself. "Narcissism is a classic personality trait that's associated with ruminating upon mistakes, and being constantly worried," he says. "That's one thing that makes people think about their secrets more."
Regardless of personality type, though, secrets are no fun. "If you're holding information back from other people around you, you feel inauthentic for doing so," Dr. Slepian says. The combination of feeling like a phony and thinking about your secret will then further hurt your wellbeing, he says. The content of your secret will also influence how it feels for you to keep it.
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"An overwhelming majority of secrets are negative, and things we don't want people to find out about," he says. Then a small portion of secrets are positive, like knowing about a friend's engagement or having an ambitious personal goal. The more people think about secrets in general, the more inauthentic they feel, which is what impacts wellbeing.
If having a secret will ultimately result in something positive (like a party or an engagement), then there might be some positive benefits. But at the moment, it's tough to say exactly whether that would outweigh the burden of having a secret, Dr. Slepian says. According to an ongoing survey that he and his colleagues created, the secrets that men and women in their 20s tend to keep involve lies, sexual behaviour, finances, and social discontent. And when people in this survey knew secrets about a marriage proposal, for example, they tended to share that information with someone else.
So, what can you do if you have a secret, but you're more of an SNL Sue than a pretty little liar? Well, some research shows that writing about what you can't discuss IRL may make you feel a little relief. Or if you absolutely have to get it off your chest, maybe pick someone trustworthy, who you know will not spill the secret — like your cat.
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