How can a secret hurt me?

woman whispering to man
Is the strain of keeping secrets -- your own and others' -- too much for the mind and body to bear?

If you have ever said "It's eating me up inside" or "If I don't tell someone, I'll explode," you've experienced some of the power of secrets. Merriam-Webster has not one, but five definitions for the word secret, and some of the closely related words include hidden, undercover, closemouthed and confidential.

Keeping and telling secrets must be a widespread and common practice if the word itself needs so many nuanced descriptions; maybe a surplus of ways to justify keeping secrets? Origins of the word "secret" date back to the 14th-century Latin word "secernere," which means "to separate, distinguish," and a secret can certainly do that; it can divide and break relationships, as well as set apart something mysterious and unknown. But can secrets hurt a person -- physically and emotionally?


A wave of Web sites, phone services and apps have sprung up throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries as forums and outlets to confess and spill secrets. Some Web sites publish anonymous declarations for the world to see, all with the approval of those confessing. These sites include some extremely personal and often graphic tell-alls, as well as just some mundane gut-spilling about guilty acts.

Television talk shows have been providing sensational dramas of real, ordinary and even many famous people telling all to audiences in the millions. Even the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned the use of an iPhone app that encourages individuals to prepare for the actual confession booth by first unloading their sins privately via text -- an endorsement intended to draw young people back to the real confessional [source: Beck]. No iPhone? No problem; the PenanceProject is available for Android devices. Even those with just a land line can pay a small service charge to confess to an answering machine.

Not only are there many ways to describe secrets, now you can share them person-to-person, in cyberspace and by phone -- but why? Is the strain of keeping secrets -- your own and others' -- too much for the mind and body to bear? Is it natural and necessary to let secrets out, to get them off our chests before they crush us?

Let's look at what happens to us mentally and physically when we find out someone's been hiding something from us and when we hide our own secrets from them. Will we actually explode if we keep a secret in? "I don't know if I should tell you this, but …"


Keeping secrets: The truth hurts?

Not all secrets are bad: surprise parties, romantic crushes and guilty pleasures (do you really need to share your love of Spanish soap operas with your rugby team?). They can be harmless and even healthy. Some researchers conclude that young children and adolescents learn a lot about their own identities by keeping some things to themselves; the difficult line to walk is whether kids should tell their parents everything [source: Donovan].

There is a long history of categorizing secrets into white lies, big lies and "if it doesn't hurt anyone" omissions or truth-sharing. In an age of "don't ask, don't tell" and "do these jeans make me look fat?" a little perspective helps: There are consequences -- large and small -- to keeping and telling secrets, whether among friends or through Facebook or YouTube.


Anita E. Kelly, a doctor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame has studied and written a lot about secrets. While she hasn't found a direct link between keeping secrets and being physically sick, she and researchers did find that those who withhold a lot or are "self-concealers" do show anxiety, depression, and overall body aches and pains. Those who confessed hidden secrets did get health benefits, but those who held them didn't necessarily get sick as a direct result. To sum up Kelly and her team: "Quite simply … secretive people also tend to be sick people … I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level" [source: Jaffe].

In the 1970s, James Pennebraker, a psychologist from the University of Texas, also found that "people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer," but what about secrets that aren't "traumatic?" [source: Jaffe].

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, also at the University of Texas, has found that secrets cause the brain to kind of fight with itself. One part of the brain wants to tell the secret and the other wants to keep it hidden. Writing down secrets has shown to relieve this stress on the brain by releasing stress hormones, while holding secrets in keeps the stress ever-present [source: Eagleman].

Stress is probably one of the biggest side effects of hiding secrets, and those in professions such as the Secret Service can attest to the drain of living two lives, one of them hidden. Children who are taught to keep family secrets, such as a parent's addiction, affair or acts of abuse, for instance, also carry the stress of a double life that can actually "freeze development" and leave them right where they were emotionally when asked to start withholding part of their lives [source: Imber-Black].

Keeping a secret often becomes less about protecting people and more about becoming overly preoccupied with the "thing" or maintaining the double, secret life. It takes over as an "unhealthy obsession" for our own secrets and those we keep for others [source: Jaffe]. It can be a lot of work to maintain and live that way.

But the truth hurts too, doesn't it? Before letting it all out, consider that some people may have their fingers in their ears screaming "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!" We'll look at the potential damage and proven benefits of telling secrets, next.


Telling secrets: The truth will set you free?

young couple arguing
Revealing a secret you've kept from your spouse -- as healing and freeing as it might be for you -- can seem like an exploding bombshell to them.

In a modern culture of people publicly confessing everywhere, sharing the most embarrassing and shameful acts, is it time to just bare it all so we feel better? Though that seems to be the message, it's not the complete answer. Timing and method have a lot to do with whether the truth is just a way to unburden ourselves or to come clean in a healthy way with a loved one. The old saying "What you don't know won't hurt you" isn't true much of the time, but the way you share something hidden can hurt both yourself and others. But it can also make you feel better.

One of the most telling sets of results for letting go of secrets came through Pennebaker's studies and ongoing work with writing. Using blood tests, EEGs for measuring brain waves and counseling, Pennebaker's research showed that no matter how secrets were confessed, whether writing them down privately and then destroying the paper, or by sharing them out loud with another person, for example, there were "tangible health benefits, both physical and mental," including decreased worry and better sleep, improved relationships, an "unclogged" brain, and even improved T-cell counts in the immune system [source: Jaffe]. What these studies didn't focus on, however, is the result of truth-telling on other people.


At least one researcher, Anita Kelly, did create a diagram for helping people assess when -- and if it's best -- to tell a secret and who to share it with, and for the most part, sharing a secret requires a great deal of self-concern and concern for others. If someone has entrusted you with a secret -- or has thrust one on you by sharing details you didn't really want to know about a friend or family member -- there is a fine line between being a confidante who can help and simply gossiping. And though not scientific, most of us know that not all people are good at keeping secrets, so don't tell your most personal secrets to someone you can't trust.

If sharing something about yourself with an intimate partner, spouse or family member, timing and the way you disclose the information can be crucial. Sometimes a secret can fall into a person's life like a bomb, disrupting and tearing apart securities and everything they knew to be true. Catching someone off guard in the middle of a big life change such as a wedding, funeral or other milestone can have a lasting impact [source: Imber-Black].

Sharing a secret, as healing and freeing as it can be, impacts others most of the time, and it may even open the door to seeing yourself in light of a truth that had been buried in the back of your mind -- even changing your self-perception. Findings by psychologists and scientists alike seem to conclude that letting secrets out has benefits, but it also has costs. If the secret is a wonderful surprise, of course, let it out with abandon. But those deeper, graver secrets should come with a post-secret follow-up plan for getting past the truths.

Links to more secret topics follow.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Arnold, Linda. "Live Life Fully: Are Your Secrets Making You Sick?" June 18, 2011. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Beck, Father Edward L. "Confession App: Catholic Church Sanctions New iPhone App." Feb. 8, 2011. (Sept. 8, 2011)
  • Donovan, Elizabeth. "Pssst...Why Is My Teen Keeping Secrets from Me?" July 31, 2011. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Eagleman, David, interview. "Incognito: What's Hiding in the Unconscious Mind." May 31, 2011 (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Imber-Black, Evan. "The Power of Secrets." July 1, 1998. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Jaffe, Eric. "The Science Behind Secrets." July 2006. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary. "Secret." 2011. (Sept. 9, 2011)
  • Pennebaker, James. "Writing to Heal." Oct. 9, 2008. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Saltz, Gail. "Anatomy of a Secret Life, First Chapter." April 16, 2006. (Sept. 6, 2011)
  • Taylor, Peter and Knight, Richard. "What Is It Like to Keep Top State Secrets." Aug. 30, 2011. (Sept. 8, 2011)