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Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. A recipient of the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological[…]

We all have secrets. The average person has as many as 13 secrets at any given time. 

Usually, we hold secrets to protect something, such as our reputation or someone we care about. But this doesn’t always protect what we hope to protect.

Additionally, secrets can lead to loneliness and shame, which are particularly toxic to our health and wellbeing.

MICHAEL SLEPIAN: Secrets are all around us. You're probably keeping a secret right now. When we keep a secret, we're often trying to protect something. Maybe we're trying to protect ourselves and our reputation, or what other people think of us, or maybe we're trying to protect someone we care about. But when we hold back from other people, it's not always protecting the thing that we're hoping to protect, and it often brings harm to our personal health and wellbeing. That can feel really isolating, and it can feel like it's something you should be ashamed of. And feelings of shame are one of the most toxic emotions that we can have for our health. When we feel ashamed, we feel like we're a bad person and that there's nothing we can do to change that. But also, that secret is gonna be on your mind quite frequently, and your mind is gonna return to that secret time and time again. We're living with those secrets alone in our thoughts, and when we choose to be alone with something, we often don't develop the healthiest way of thinking about that thing. Once you better understand how your secrets are hurting you, you can have a better sense of how you can cope with them. 

My name is Michael Slepian. I'm a professor at Columbia, and I study the psychology of secrecy. My book is called "The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner World Shape Well-Being, Relationships, and Who We Are." Not all secrets are bad, sometimes secrets are good and sometimes we feel good about the secrets we're keeping: surprise parties, announcing a pregnancy, proposing marriage to someone, or maybe it's a sense of status that comes from having a workplace secret. What makes something a secret is when you intend to hold back this particular information from one or more people- and we can distinguish secrecy from privacy. Privacy is not a specific intent to hold information back, but it's just needing to be comfortable enough in the moment to reveal something sensitive. And our secrets can range from totally trivial to troubling. 

When I first started this research, one of the most important questions to understand is what do people keep secret? We didn't even have a good understanding of that. And so I asked a couple thousand people, 'What's the secret you're currently keeping?' And we found 38 different categories, and we know that these 38 categories of secrets are really comprehensive because when I ask someone open-ended, 'What is the secret you're currently keeping?' 92% of the time, it fits one of the 38 categories from the list- and 97% of people say they have at least one of the secrets from the list right now. And the average person has 13 of those secrets at any given moment in time. The top five most common secrets are about: lies we've told, romantic desire, our finances and money, sexual behavior, and what I call 'extra-relational thoughts,' where you're in a romantic relationship with someone and you're having some romantic thought about another person. Other common secrets are: family secrets, secret ambitions, secret beliefs, secret discontents, whether at work, social life, romantic life, or our physical appearance. I forgot what my last item was. Oh yeah, cheating. A secret can harm you, unfortunately so many ways, in that even if you're not hiding the secret in a given moment, it still could be burdensome to you. It could still be harming your well-being and that's because people frequently feel ashamed of their secrets, isolated with their secrets, inauthentic for keeping those secrets. And when the secret deals with something that is an ongoing struggle or something we're trying to figure out, when we're alone with something, we tend to not figure it out. We're more likely to ruminate on that thing- and rumination is not just repetitive thinking, it's repetitive negative thinking. So it's all too easy to find the worst way to think about a secret when we're alone with it. 

Psychologist John Cacioppo said something once to the effect of, "Loneliness is so harmful to your health that it's equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day." And it just goes to show you that social relationships are such a huge part of life and feeling satisfied with that life. And when we choose to keep a secret in a very small way or sometimes big way, we're choosing loneliness. We're choosing to be alone with something. But we don't have to be. It's all too easy to forget about the other side of secrecy which is that sharing a secret with another person is a profound act of intimacy. If it takes courage to reveal something to someone, they'll recognize that. When you make yourself vulnerable or when you place your trust in another person, this is the stuff of intimate relationships, and revealing these kinds of things is how we become known. 

Mutual disclosure with others is one of the strongest predictors of relationship strength. It can feel really good to reveal a secret to someone. It can feel really good to have that weight lifted from your shoulders, but it turns out, that's not what is helpful about revealing a secret. It's not that moment of catharsis. It's what happens after that, because the average person responds in a helpful way. The prototypical experience people have with confiding a secret is a helpful one. And that might be in part because we've chosen our confidants carefully, but it's also because there's so much that other people can offer that are really hard to find on our own. Someone can validate your experience or express sympathy and say, "That must be so hard, or I'm here for you," or give guidance or advice or emotional support. These are things that are so hard to find on our own, but are really easy for someone to provide to us. And so often, that's what makes revealing a secret beneficial. If you ask a young child to tell you what a secret is, they might tell you that it's something you would only share with your best friend. They understand secrets are meant to be shared. This is how we get close to people. This is how we become known. This is how we get help. And when you choose to keep a secret, you are forgoing all those benefits. You don't have to share it with the person you're keeping it from, but talking about it with someone else often is so profoundly helpful. It deepens that relationship, and gets you the help that you need.