Secrets and Obsessions

I have a secret.

We all keep secrets, even from – or especially from – the people we love. Maybe you chose not to tell your husband that his best friend hit on you while drunk at a party. Or you don’t want anyone in your family to know what you really did on spring break. In our minds, we’re not hurting anyone with our secrets. Maybe we feel we’re protecting the people we love. What we don’t like to acknowledge is that choosing to keep secrets is almost always about protecting ourselves.

One of the main reasons people keep secrets is to avoid judgment. According to some experts, people fear humiliation and judgment more than they fear death, suffering, and even the dreaded public speaking (my own personal obstacle).

But keeping secrets is hard work. The thing we don’t want to say aloud is often the thing we think about most. The very act of trying to suppress a thought makes us think about it more. How do we stop from obsessing about our secret?

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. ~ George Orwell

One way our subconscious handles secrets is it buries them under layers of other thoughts. Perhaps we tell ourselves a new story, then tell that new story to our friends. The more we tell this new story, the more we fill in the details. These details pile up on top of our secret, burying it deep so that we no longer think of it at all.

This is what Samantha did in my novel Secrets. She has a profound secret that she keeps hidden. The layers she built on top became like insulation, so even she couldn’t reach what was underneath.

But even our deepest secrets can’t be erased. When all the layers unravel, as they usually do, the secret can easily become an obsession we can’t stop thinking about.

In 1987, Daniel Wegner tackled this very topic in what is known as the White Bear Study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this study, the subjects were put alone in a room with a tape recorder, and were asked to record everything that came to mind during a five-minute span. Before being placed in the rooms, Wegner split the group. He told half of the subjects to think of anything other than a white bear, and the other half to try to think of a white bear. While in the room, any time a subject thought of a white bear, he or she had to ring a bell inside that room.

The result, you might have guessed, was that those asked to suppress the thought were also those who rang the bell most often. Beyond this, Wegner found what he called the ‘rebound effect’. When a person was told he/she could now express the thought of the white bear, it occurred with greater frequency than with those who never had to suppress the thought at all. It was like all the energy of suppressing the thought came pouring out, and now that thought was all the person could think or talk about.

Another interesting discovery Wegner made was something he called ‘negative cuing’. A person trying to forget a specific thought will look around for something to displace it. For instance, if you’re trying to forget the white bear, maybe you’ll focus on the bowl of candy or the ceiling fan. Or you might mentally recite the alphabet or a poem or some other repetitive thought. Before long, your mind will create a bond between the thought you’re trying to forget and whatever you’re trying to replace it with. If you’ve used the bowl of candy to forget the white bear, soon each time you see a bowl of candy you will be reminded of the white bear.

Wegner says something I find profound about this phenomenon: “We don’t realize that in keeping it secret, we’ve created an obsession in a jar.”

This led Wegner to a later experiment, published in the same journal in 1994. He put four people who’d never met around a table, split them in two male-female teams, and had them play cards. Beforehand, one team was instructed to secretly play ‘footsie’. At the end of this experiment, the two footsie players felt such intense attraction toward one another that the researchers, for ethical reasons, made them leave separately. Of this, Wegner said, “”We can end up being in a relationship we don’t want, or interested in things that aren’t at all important, because we had to keep them quiet, and it ends up growing.”

This fascinates me. The simple act of keeping an activity secret led to a strong and instant connection between strangers. I wonder how many bonds are formed almost solely on the necessity of keeping a secret. Coworkers keeping a secret from a boss and criminals keeping a secret from the rest of society could and probably do form unique bonds. And what about affairs? Sure, there was an initial attraction that led to the affair in the first place. But how much of that continued attraction is due to the secrecy? This could explain why, in many cases, when one finally leaves the spouse to openly commit to the person he/she is having an affair with, that formerly passionate relationship quickly falls apart.

Secrets have their place. But they can also be devastating. Samantha learns this in her journey. Her secrets unravel. Is she happier once they’re out in the open and she’s free of the obsession she’s created in her own mind? You’ll have to take the journey with her and find out.


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