In this podcast (episode #432) and blog, I talk to professor and a leading expert on the psychology of secrets Michael Slapian about what it means to keep a secret, how keeping secrets affects our mental health, how to manage the mental conflict keeping a secret brings, and so much more!
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. A recipient of the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological Science, he is the leading expert on the psychology of secrets. Slepian has authored more than fifty articles on secrecy, truth, and deception. His research has been covered by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NPR, and more.
As Michael points out, keeping a secret is way more common than we perhaps think. On average, it is estimated that we keep about 13 secrets at a time. Keeping secrets is something everyone has experience with—we all do it!
It is important to understand that secrets are not just about being “sneaky” or keeping the truth from other people. They are an intrinsic part of what it means to be human and to live in a community. Just think of the time that you kept a surprise secret from someone you loved, or even the very idea of a “surprise party”. Secrets, both big and small, are part of life.
Based on his research, which Michael discusses in detail in his incredible book The Secret Life of Secrets, he has found that people tend to keep secrets about 38 common themes, including relationships, desires, family issues, ambitions, and so on. When we recognize that people keep multiple secrets, we can go beyond seeing secrets as either good or bad, and look at them in the context of someone’s life: which of the secrets hurt a person, and why. This allows us to see what secrecy actually looks like in the real world and understand the psychology behind secret-keeping better so that we can help people manage their mental health.
This is important because, even though we all keep secrets, the act of keeping a secret can be hard mentally. As Michael notes in The Secret Life of Secrets, “whether we are motivated to protect our reputation, a relationship, a loved one’s feelings, or some personal or professional goal, one thing is clear: Holding back some part of our inner world is often lonely and isolating”.
In his research, Michael has found that the burden of a secret comes more from the feelings of isolation it creates than the actual work of keeping the secret. In fact, the average secret is not difficult to hide in a conversation—the true burden comes from feeling alone with the knowledge of the secret. A secret becomes harmful the more we think of it outside of a conversation, and how this affects how we think of ourselves and how we respond to other people.
Thankfully, in The Secret Life of Secrets, Michael also provides several great science-based strategies that make secrets easier to live with. First, it is important to understand that there is no one way or quick formula to see if a secret is harmful. Ordering our secrets from least to most harmful requires thinking about three different aspects of a secret, or what Michael calls “dimensions”, and how it impacts our wellbeing:
- How immoral the secret is: is the secret about something we consider morally wrong? The more immoral a secret is the more we tend to feel ashamed of it, which will impact our wellbeing.
- How much the secret involves other people and our relationship with them, such as affairs.
- How much the secret has to do with our goals and aspirations, such as secrets about work or money.
When we understand this, we can see that the typical secret does not hurt us on all three dimensions. When we understand the way the secret does not hurt us, then we can start seeing our path forward, and the burden of keeping the secret becomes less impactful on our mental health.
Confiding in a person we trust can also help ease the burden of keeping a secret. It allows us to receive third-party support, so we don’t feel so alone or isolated, and can provide emotional and practical help. Even if someone responds in a lukewarm way, confiding a secret helps ease the burden, makes us feel less alone and opens up a way for us to get help.
It is also important to understand the distinction between keeping any one secret and making secret-keeping a habit. Someone who habitually keeps secrets as a way to avoid dealing with their problems is using this as an unhealthy coping mechanism, which will impact their mental health and wellbeing over time.
If you are battling with secrets, the key thing to ask yourself is:
- How much am I thinking about the secret?
- Is the secret affecting my mental health? How?
- Do I keep secrets often? Is this a coping mechanism for a deeper issue I need to work on?
If you cannot stop thinking about a secret and it is affecting your functioning and how you are showing up, or if you regularly keep secrets and find that doing so is stressing you out, this is a warning signal that it may be a good time to confide in someone you trust and/or seek help. Journaling to find a new perspective may also help, but this can be challenging to do on your own—seeking help is a great way to gain perspective and not feel so isolated.
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3:02 Michael’s groundbreaking work on secrecy
8:20 Everyone has secrets!
9:50 The different kinds of secrets people keep
11:18, 15:16 How keeping secrets can affect our mental health
15:46 How a secret can affect our relationships
17:40 The cross-cultural nature of secrets
18:25 Why it can be hard to keep a secret
19:50 How to figure out which secrets are harmful to us
24:50 Confessing & confiding secrets
28:13 Secrets & managing our mental wellbeing
32:40 How culture affects secret-keeping
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