Tittle-tattle, muck rake, blabbermouth, busybody, gossip. Most of the words we use to describe people who can’t keep secrets are pretty judgemental.
Being able to keep schtum is a personal and social trait we value highly. Someone who doesn’t gossip is seen to have control, decorum and discretion, but keeping secrets isn’t so good for us mental-health-wise. In fact, harbouring them can cause long-term psychological and emotional damage.
A new book, The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Relationships, Well-Being, and Who We Are, claims that ‘saying nothing to no one’ is not actually all it’s cracked up to be.
Over years of research, psychologist and author Michael Slepian, studied and catalogued the secrets kept by 50,000 respondents.
By his reckoning, most secrets in the world revolve around 38 set experiences. These include keeping secrets about sexual behaviour, personal ambitions, sexual orientation, habit and addiction, or emotional infidelity.
He says in tight-knit communities, where people are looking for social approval and acceptance, secrets are more prevalent. He also found there was a long-term erosive impact on the mental health of those who kept significant secrets for extended periods of time.
Most people tend to believe we are most aware of a secret when in a social situation. A recurrent fear is we won’t be able to contain ourselves and will blurt something out over a dinner table or in a pub. But in actuality, that happens very rarely.
“Most people would define… secrecy as the action of concealing something in conversation,” says Slepian. “That definition held back our understanding of secrets for a very long time because secrets do not only exist in those moments. If that was the only time our secrets were on our mind, keeping secrets would be easy because most secrets aren’t difficult to conceal in conversation.”
Secrets ruminate around our heads like a carousel and can develop into negative thought spirals and catastrophic thinking. We envision the worst-case scenario and try to think about how we would respond in that hypothetical situation.
This can be damaging because neuroimaging studies have shown that imagining a sensation activates the same neural pathways associated with experiencing it. So keeping a secret is not the hard part: the hard bit is living with one.
“When we have a secret just in our head, when we choose to be alone with something, we often don’t develop healthy ways of thinking about it. And so that can lead to harmful rumination that doesn’t really get you anywhere,” says Slepian.
He adds that the secrets we are “entirely alone” with are the ones that cause the greatest damage.
“People feel especially isolated with a secret that’s entirely kept to themselves, but also ashamed of the secret,” he says. These feelings of shame can fester as we often don’t know how to process them. “We’re really good at finding the worst way of thinking about something,” he says.
Sharing secrets is vital to reduce the pressure cooker inside your head, but who’s the best person to turn to? The key, Slepian says, is to find someone non-judgemental, caring and empathetic. It’s also important to choose someone with a similar set of morals as you. You don’t want to scandalise someone.
“If someone finds what you told them to be morally wrong or morally objectionable, they’re more likely to tell a third party about that secret essentially as a form of punishment,” he says. “So you want to find someone who will think about the issue in a similar way.”
It’s also important to speak to someone who is detached from the people involved. “If confiding a secret in someone tangles them into the problem, that’s not the best situation because now they have to carry the secret on your behalf.”
Rather than viewing the telling of secrets as a negative, Slepian believes we should put a positive spin on it.
“Sharing is how you could show someone you trust them,” he says. “Making yourself vulnerable to someone, that’s a very intimate act… we often forget that secrets are this powerful thing… this profound act of intimacy.”
The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Well-Being, Relationships, and Who We Are is out now.