The Danger of Keeping Secrets

Almost of all of us have things that we choose to keep entirely hidden from those around us. Sometimes we hide things for fear of being judged. Sometimes we keep the things we cherish most to ourselves. Or, we may keep secrets to protect those we care about. Despite our intentions—whether they’re good or bad—secrets often cause more harm than good. So, what makes us willing to keep things hidden when they often hurt us more than they help us?

Think about things that you keep hidden about yourself. Often, we have many small quirks we prefer to keep to ourselves rather than share with everyone around us. Maybe it’s a secret “guilty pleasure,” like reality television or bad pop music, or maybe we have hide our plans to avoid hurting the feelings of someone who wasn’t invited. Or, we may even hide something we fear we’ll be judged for, such as being LGBTQ+ in a society that is not accepting of that community. In many circumstances, we justify keeping secrets because we believe it will cause less pain. We hope to protect the feelings of others and to protect ourselves from becoming too vulnerable.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the average person is keeping 13 secrets right now—primarily about romantic desires, lies, and sexual behavior. Again, these secrets are often kept to protect the feelings of another person—in these cases a romantic partner. Of course, secrets are often things one thinks will end a relationship if they were exposed. But, the very act of keeping a secret could be a contributing factor.

Keeping a secret is a solitary act. If it truly is a secret, no one else knows the things we intend to hide from others. Still, it often becomes a stressful task. When hiding something, our minds can be consumed by the paranoia of thinking that everyone knows your secret already.

In another study performed by Michael Slepian, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, researchers found that the act of keeping a secret can be physically demanding, noting that participants appeared as though the secret they carried was a physical burden. This struggle could be the very factor that contributes to the exposure of a secret. When battling with this burden, we tend to not act like our normal selves. This in turn leads others to become suspicious of our new behavior.

Often, we are hyper-aware of how we are acting when we are hiding something. We constantly overanalyze our actions to ensure they seem as normal as possible. But trying not to think about our secrets only leads us to be further consumed by it. Slepian notes that keeping a secret is a goal that “you can never fully accomplish.” The near-constant anxiety and paranoia is a large part of what makes keeping a secret so burdensome.

The famous Bible verse from John 8:32 writes that “the truth will set you free.” For the person who kept the secret, that burden is lifted from them when he or she reveals it. They no longer have to be consumed with worries of others finding out the truth. Of course, the immediate reaction to the truth can cause more pain than feelings of freedom: in keeping a secret about infidelity in a relationship, it can seem like a burden for the partner who discovers the secret. But, with time, it’s always better to know the truth about the people and circumstances around us as it allows us to make more informed decisions and to protect ourselves.

No matter how many times we hear about how much better it is to tell the truth and be upfront with others, we continue to keep secrets. In some ways, keeping secrets can act as a defense mechanism: We protect ourselves from becoming exposed to judgement about things that we already feel guilty about and ashamed of. In the same way, the act of hiding secrets is an act of repression: By not allowing others to know these things, we eliminate any possibility of having to talk about it with others. And so, we convince ourselves that we will not have to think about it either. When we decide to keep something a secret, psychologist Cathy Eck explains that we “made a decision to accept the discomfort of hiding the secret over the possible pain of judgement.”

Not everyone has a massive secret they are hiding from the world, but we are all selective with what parts of ourselves we choose to show certain people. What we keep hidden may say more about us than what we choose to show. This is perhaps most apparent when you meet someone for the first time. We are more conscious of how others person perceive us based on first impressions. This vulnerability leads us to want to hide the things we worry others might not like. In doing this, we discredit our own personality. We conceal things that make us different in attempt to come across as more likeable to the other person. We assimilate ourselves to who we think they would prefer us to be, even though we are often unaware that we do so. It is only when we begin to develop a deeper relationship with the person and trust them not to judge us that we allow them to see more of ourselves.

As the psychology studies proved, keeping secrets is a burden. We often think that by shielding parts of ourselves from judgement, we are doing a good thing for ourselves, yet, in doing so, we also close the door on the chance to be appreciated for who we really are. Of course, lies often hide the actions we know would hurt others. But if we can’t accept our own flaws and mistakes, there’s no way that anyone else will be able to either.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor