How can a secret hurt me?

Telling secrets: The truth will set you free?
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.
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.

Related Articles

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)

More to Explore