Everyone, more or less, have kept secrets. Our secrets or those from someone close to us. In fact, not all the secrets are bad, some can be positive, like when we hide the preparations for a surprise party. However, we are not fully aware of the psychological weight of keeping a secret. In fact, John Churton Collins said: “How much consolation we would find if we counted our secrets”.
Whoever carries a secret undergoes a hard inner work, not only when he is in the company of others but also when he is alone. Keeping secrets is an exhausting activity from the psychological point of view that ends up taking its toll, both mentally and physically. Therefore, the next time you consider hiding something or someone asks you to keep a secret, you’d better think twice.
Keeping secrets is like carrying a weight, literally
An experiment developed at Tufts University analyzed the impact of secrets on our perception of reality. These psychologists discovered that when people are concerned about keeping secrets, they perceive that the hills are steeper, the distances longer and believe that physical tasks demand more effort. What does it mean?
In practice, keeping secrets becomes a burden, not only psychologically level but also physically. Therefore, we will face our day to day overwhelmed, as if carrying a burden on our shoulders, literally. That will make that tasks seem more exhausting and, at the end of the day, we will be more stressed, tense and overwhelmed.
These psychologists also appreciated that the longer we have to keep the secret, the more exhausting it will seem, the more difficult it will be to ignore it and the more it will affect our perception of reality. At this point you are likely to wonder why keeping secrets is so tiring.
Secrets become a concern that we cannot escape
The psychologists from Columbia University analyzed what happens in our minds when we keep a secret. They examined more than 13,000 secrets, assessing also the quality of interpersonal relationships, the level of well-being and the physical health of the people who kept those secrets.
Each participant was asked what kind of secret he was hiding and to whom. They also inquired into how often they thought about that secret and how happy they felt.
They discovered that people thought to their secrets an average of three times a day, and that these diminished their sense of well-being and happiness. In fact, the more they thought about their secret, the less happy they felt and the worse their health was.
The curious thing is that the stress related to secrets is not activated only when we are in front of someone to whom we want to hide that information, but it is a burden that we also drag when we are alone. The simple fact of knowing that we must hide something is enough for that concern to be activated in our mind.
These psychologists explain that, to keep secrets, we must consider the objective of hiding that information. The problem is that when we set ourselves certain objectives, our mind activates them automatically from time to time, to make sure we do not forget them and, above all, that we take advantage of the opportunities that come on our way and make it easier for us to reach those goals.
In other words: secrets attract our attention powerfully, making our mind gravitate around them because our brain has the habit of wandering through worries, unresolved problems and the goals we have set. Therefore, keeping secrets becomes a concern that traps us, not only in front of people but also when we are alone. When we want to hide something, we become prisoners of that secret.
In addition, when the secret is huge, makes us feel less authentic or we keep it for a long time, it increases the risk that we will develop anxious or depressive symptoms. In fact, continually thinking about the information that we must hide can become a source of unbearable stress. That inner tension is often what pushes us to reveal the secret. There comes a point where we prefer to face the consequences than keep dragging that weight.
Slepian, M. L. et. Al. (2017) The experience of secrecy. J Pers Soc Psychol; 113(1): 1-33. Slepian, M. L. et. Al. (2012) The physical burdens of secrecy. J Exp Psychol Gen; 141(4): 619-624.