Psychological Effects of Keeping Secrets

Are secrets toxic to our health? Research says yes.

Or is it no?

Apparently, the answer is maybe. How – and if – a secret affects our health depends on what that secret is and who we’re keeping it from.

One theory on this issue is that people who keep secrets due to shame or embarrassment start to feel like impostors in their own lives. They lose their sense of self. Over time, the stress of keeping up the pretense negatively affects their mental and physical health.

This theory caught my interest, because this is what happens to Samantha in my novel Secrets. Eventually, she begins to unravel from the stress of her secret.

But is it always emotionally unhealthy to keep a secret? And, if so, does that mean sharing your secret with someone is good for you?

In 1984, James Pennebaker began a series of studies on the psychological and physical effects of revealing personal secrets. In one such study, 50 college students were divided into three groups. One group shared their secrets in writing, along with their feelings about those secrets. Another wrote only their secret, while the third wrote about a specified topic unrelated to secrets. Over the following six months, those students who revealed their secrets along with the emotional impact visited the health center significantly less often than those students who either did not reveal a secret or who revealed only the secret without sharing the emotional impact.

Does this mean sharing your secrets is good for you?

Pennebaker believed so. His studies led to a variety of research papers showing evidence that sharing your secret, even if you simply write it down but never show the paper to anyone, correlates with physical and psychological health benefits. People hiding traumatic secrets were more likely to have hypertension, flu, or even cancer. On the contrary, those who wrote about their secrets experienced boosts in their immune systems.

The interesting thing here is that these cited studies involved only writing a secret down. No one publicly shared their secret or even confided in a friend or family member. For me, there’s a gaping chasm between writing something embarrassing or humiliating about yourself on a piece of paper, and saying it aloud to a person you care about. And it’s a big leap to surmise that, because writing a secret down makes people feel better, then revealing your secrets is always good for your health.

In the 1990s, Anita Kelly, a professor at the University of Florida, decided to look more closely at this issue of both revealing and concealing secrets. While research clearly shows benefits in revealing secrets, she also found that secrets can be kept without negative health impacts.

Quite the conundrum.

Through her research, Kelly found that, in some cases, revealing a secret can make things worse. She believed psychologists were not paying enough attention to the situations in which the secrets were told. Their only focus was whether or not secrets were revealed, but not how. According to Kelly, “The essence of the problem with revealing personal information is that revealers may come to see themselves in undesirable ways if others know their stigmatizing secrets.”

In 2005, John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published a paper in Personal Relationships, suggesting that people, in general, are not good at predicting how they will feel after revealing a secret, or how another person will respond. He states, “People are so accustomed to saying an open relationship is a good one, that if they have secrets it can make them feel that something’s wrong.”

All this research seems to only further confuse matters. To help make sense of it all, Anita Kelly has focused her recent research on the role of confidants in the process of disclosing secrets. This is what she has come up with: If the secret does not cause mental or physical stress, that secret should be kept in order to provide a sense of personal boundary and to avoid unnecessary social conflict. If keeping a particular secret is causing anguish, the person needs to decide whether he or she has a trustworthy friend with whom to share the secret and feelings about that secret. In situations where a trustworthy friend or family member is not available, the person with the secret should write it all down, either on paper then disposed of or in an ongoing journal.

“The world changes when you tell someone who knows all your friends,” said Kelly, who experienced this change firsthand 15 years earlier, when she told a colleague something “very personal and embarrassing,” as she called it, and later found her secret was floating among her colleagues. She said, “You have to think, what are the implications with my reputation? It’s more complicated once you have to reveal to someone.”

There you have it. Share your secret. Or don’t. Or write it down, but remember to burn or shred the paper afterward.

Secrets are as unique as the people keeping them. In the end, we each have to decide what is best for ourselves. A little mystery is good, providing it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else.


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