Keeping secrets can make you sick

Keeping secrets can make you sick

People who keep more secrets report poorer health, less enjoyment of life and weaker relationships, says Michael Slepian, author of “The Secret Life of Secrets.” Credit: Shutterstock

Feeling discouraged? It may be because your secrets are weighing you down.

“Our secrets can hurt us. But the hard part about having them isn’t that we have to hide them, it’s that we have to live with them in our thoughts,” says Michael Slepian, AG14, the author of the new book “The Secret Life of Secrets.” ” and Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.

Over the past 10 years, Slepian has conducted hundreds of studies on secrets. After asking 50,000 people to open up about what they hide, he discovered that when people keep secrets, they can suffer physical and emotional harm. People who keep more secrets report poorer health, less enjoyment of life, and weaker relationships than people who have fewer skeletons in their closets.

Most people believe they are moral and good, according to Slepian, and when they behave at odds with that image, they hide their wrongdoing from others. “We are more than happy to share the good in ourselves with others. That’s how we like them,” Slepian writes. “The more immoral you judge your secret to be, the more shame it will cause, a particularly painful punishment people inflict on themselves. Secrets can make people feel isolated and isolated from others.”

The most common secrets are about lying, sexual behavior, desires and family. One in three people surveyed by Slepian admitted to being unfaithful, though not necessarily in a current relationship. A third of that number said they would always keep their wrongdoing hidden. Another third said that she shared it with a third party. The rest he confessed to his partner.

Slepian is often asked if telling a partner about such an indiscretion is the best approach. “If it was a one-time thing, you’re in a better position than if you’ve been unfaithful multiple times,” she says. “The question is, do you think your partner would want to know what happened?”

To find the answer, he surveyed people in committed relationships and asked them if they would want to know the truth if their partner cheated on them just once and if they were sure it wouldn’t happen again. Three quarters wanted full disclosure.

Slepian’s advice? “If some kind of secret is affecting your well-being, I advise you to at least discuss it with someone you trust.”

Some people’s secrets make them feel guilty and believe they have unfairly escaped punishment, says Slepian. As a result, they punish themselves to atone, often denying themselves the pleasure.

People in this situation can take on somewhat unpleasant tasks like doing heavy house cleaning or exercising, he says. “That might make them feel good, but the problem is that as long as their secret stays a secret, they’ll feel like they’re still escaping justice, so the self-punishment cycle never ends.”

Others ponder their secrets, caught up in persistently negative and repetitive thoughts about them. “Like shadows, our secrets can follow us wherever we go. Part of the problem is that we travel alone with them,” Slepian writes.

His studies have found that most people want to share their hidden pain with someone who is compassionate. They also want the listener to offer advice and encourage them to do what needs to be done.

“It’s really easy to find useless ways to think about something on your own, but it’s also easy to find a useful way to think about it when you’re having a conversation with someone else,” says Slepian. “They have a different perspective. They will usually welcome your vulnerability because it offers the opportunity to deepen the intimacy of the relationship.”

Most of the time, opening up works well because people tend to choose their confidants carefully, says Slepian. But choose someone who won’t be shocked. According to his studies, someone who is morally outraged is more likely to gossip as a way to punish the keeper of the secret.

It’s also important to distinguish between secrets that are harmful and those that aren’t, says Slepian. If he’s carrying a secret that isn’t hurting anyone, he recommends reminding yourself that it happened in the past and that the past can’t be changed. Consider giving yourself permission to forgive yourself and move on with your life. “Instead of being ashamed of your past, acknowledge the improvements you’ve made and the ways you’ve grown,” he says.

Slepian credits his adviser at Tufts, the late Nalini Ambady, for playing a pivotal role in his research. “She was always helpful when it came to designing studies. She taught me creative ways to look at questions,” she says. Ambady was an associate professor of psychology at Tufts and continued to advise Slepian after he joined the Stanford faculty.

Slepian knows of personal experience about the good that can come when people reveal deep secrets. For 26 years, his parents hid from him and his younger brother the knowledge that they were conceived through donor insemination.

Their parents had planned never to tell their children. As a teenager, Slepian got vague answers when he asked his parents which of his traits they thought he inherited. Meanwhile, his grandparents and aunts and uncles knew the truth.

Eventually, her mother and father reconsidered their decision.

“When I knew what it was to keep this secret, changed my understanding of the secret. But it wasn’t until I wrote my book that I began to wonder more about it. We gain information about our secrets when we discuss them with others, and we also learn about ourselves,” says Slepian. “We may not want our secrets to be known, but we want them to be known to ourselves.”

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Tufts University

Citation: Keeping Secrets Can Make You Sick (2022, Dec 13) Retrieved Dec 16, 2022 from

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