Here’s a secret I’ve kept for more than a decade: In sixth grade, a nurse came in to school to check our spines and told me I was showing signs of scoliosis. She also told me to tell my parents, presumably so they could take me to a doctor for a follow-up exam. But my middle-school self was worried that my parents would take me out of ballet class if they found out, and so I didn’t tell them or anyone else.
Maybe not the best choice, in hindsight, but it wasn’t a decision that wound up hurting anyone. As far as I know, my spine has been fine (and besides, if there really was a problem, ballet likely helped it). Still, while I rarely think about other moments from middle school, I think about that one frequently — not because the information is scandalous or even particularly consequential, but because it’s still a secret. And while everyone has them, plenty of research has warned us about the negative effects of keeping something to yourself: Secrecy has been associated with anxiety, depression, and poor physical health. As benign as my secret is, could it nevertheless have been hurting me all these years?
Michael Slepian, a management professor at Columbia Business School who studies the psychology of secret-keeping, says that a lot of what we know about secrets comes from studies on active concealment in social interactions — in other words, consciously working to keep something hidden from whomever it is you’re talking to. “Scholars have largely assumed that secrets have their effects because interpersonal withholding is taxing,” he explains.
But Slepian wasn’t convinced that this approach captured the full experience of secret keeping. In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he and his colleagues surveyed 1,000 people about the nature and extent of their secrets: what kinds they kept, whom — if anyone — they had told, and how often they thought about them. The average respondent was keeping 13 secrets, five of which they had never told anyone before. The most common secret that people had told at least a few other people about was that they’d told a lie; the most common secret that they kept entirely to themselves was that they’d had “extra-relational” thoughts, or romantic thoughts about someone other than their current partner.
But the researchers also found that keeping a secret may not require the sort of potentially damaging mental gymnastics that previous studies presumed. People can become quite accustomed to hiding their secret in various interactions; eventually, to many, keeping it hidden becomes second nature. Your secret may not even cross your mind in social situations. In fact, people think about their secrets on their own far more frequently than they actively hide them from others.
What’s more, Slepian found no connection between active secret concealment and poor health or well-being. His previous work has shown that the bigger the secret, the greater the potential harm to its keeper — so in this study, he looked more closely at what, specifically, was driving the connection between secret keeping and lower well-being. Digging into his survey respondents’ answers, he found that the content of the secret — specifically, how negative the keeper perceived it to be — didn’t actually seem to matter. What did matter was how often someone thought about their secret: The more they did, the worse off they generally were.
That was especially true if the secret’s contents, or the secrecy itself, affected how people felt about themselves. Slepian says for many people, it’s the feeling of inauthenticity that can be most damaging. The more they believed they were “holding back the real me,” the lower their sense of well-being.
A good way to lessen a secret’s impact on your health, then, might be controlled release: If you can admit your secret to a few people, it may help you feel more authentic. “If you can talk to someone about it, you’ll be in better shape,” Slepian said. “It’s best to confess to someone who can offer you valuable insight or help,” such as a therapist, counselor, church official, or other trusted confidant. “Even revealing a secret anonymously online can be beneficial.”
Indeed, there’s no shortage of outlets to release your secrets online. Post Secret is one example; people have been writing their secrets on postcards and sending them in since the site launched in 2005. Or you can admit your deepest, darkest of secrets on this Reddit forum. (It’s fair to be concerned about online commenters, though — if you’re looking to offload a secret, it’s important to find a space or a person you’re comfortable with or you may face additional anxiety.)
Whether or not you feel the need to share your secret, the important thing to remember is this: As long as you’re not actively endangering anyone, don’t feel bad for keeping it. If it’s dragging you down, telling someone may help you to quit ruminating on it; if you’re feeling okay about it, though, there isn’t really a reason to worry that you’re harming yourself in the long run. Maybe telling the world my spine secret will help me think about it less, or maybe it won’t change anything. Everyone has secrets. It doesn’t make you inauthentic to have them. It makes you human.