Keeping secrets can make you sick

Michael Slepian, author of “The Secret Life of Secrets,” says people who keep more secrets report worse health, less enjoyment of life, and weaker relationships. 1 credit

Feeling weak? This may be because your secrets are weighing you down.

“Our secrets can hurt us. But the hard part about having them is not that we have to keep them, but that we have to live with them in our thoughts,” says Michael Slepian, AG14, author of the new book. The Secret Life of Secrets” and associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School.

Slepian has done hundreds of research on secrets in the last 10 years. After asking 50,000 people to reveal what they were hiding, he discovered that people could suffer physical and emotional harm when they kept secrets. People who keep more secrets report worse health, less enjoyment of life, and weaker relationships than people with fewer skeletons in their closets.

According to Slepian, most people believe they are moral and good, and when they act against this image, they hide their wrongs from others. “We are more than happy to share our inner goodness with others. That is how we are loved,” writes Slepian. “The more you decide your secret is immoral, the more embarrassing it will be, a particularly painful punishment that people inflict on themselves. Secrets can make people feel lonely and isolate themselves from others.”

The most common secrets relate to lying, sexual behavior, desires, and family. One in three people surveyed by Slepian confessed to infidelity, even though they didn’t necessarily have a current relationship. One-third of that number said they would always keep their evil a secret. Another third said they shared it with a third party. The rest confessed to their partners.

Slepian is often asked whether it is best to tell his partner such thoughtlessness. “If it was a one-time thing, you’re in a better position than if you were unfaithful many times,” she says. “The question is, do you think your partner would want to know what happened?”

To find the answer, she surveyed people in serious relationships and asked if they would want to know the truth if their partner had been unfaithful only once and were sure that it would never happen again. Three quarters asked for full disclosure.

Slepian’s advice? “If there are any secrets that affect your well-being, I recommend that you at least talk to someone you trust.”

Slepian says that some people’s secrets make them feel guilty and believe they are wrongfully avoiding punishment. As a result, they punish themselves for penance, often depriving themselves of pleasure.

People with this condition may take on somewhat unpleasant tasks, such as intense housecleaning or physical exercise, she says. “This may make them feel good, but the problem is that as long as their secret is kept secret, they will feel like they continue to evade justice, and therefore the cycle of self-punishment will never end.”

Others meditate on their secrets, having persistently negative repetitive thoughts about them. “Like shadows, our secrets can follow us wherever we go. Part of the problem is that we travel alone with them,” writes Slepian.

Their research has found that most people want to share their hidden grief with someone who is compassionate. They also want the listener to give advice and force them to do what needs to be done.

“It’s really easy to find useless ways to think about something for yourself, but it’s also easy to find a useful way to think about something when you’re chatting with someone else,” Slepian says. “They have a different perspective. They usually welcome your sensitivity because it offers a chance to deepen the intimacy of the relationship.”

Often times, opening up works well, as people tend to choose their confidants carefully, Slepian says. But choose someone who will not be scandalous. According to their research, someone who is morally outraged is more likely to gossip as a way of punishing a secret-keeper.

It’s also important to distinguish between secrets that are harmful and those that aren’t, Slepian says. If you’re carrying a secret that doesn’t hurt anyone, she suggests reminding yourself that it’s in the past and the past cannot be changed. Consider allowing yourself to forgive yourself and move on with your life. “Instead of being ashamed of your past self, be aware of the improvements you’ve made and the ways you’ve grown,” she says.

Slepian believes his mentor at Tufts, the late Nalini Ambady, played a pivotal role in his research. “He was always helpful when it came to designing work. He taught me creative ways to look at questions,” he says. Ambady was an associate professor of psychology at Tufts, who continued to advise Slepian after he joined Stanford’s faculty.

Slepian knows from personal experience the good that can come when people reveal deep secrets. For 26 years, her parents hid information from her and her younger brother that they got pregnant through donor insemination.

His parents had planned never to tell their son. When Slepian asked his parents what traits they thought he had inherited when he was a teenager, he got vague answers. Meanwhile, his grandparents, aunts and uncles knew the truth.

Finally, his mother and father reconsidered their decision.

“Once I learned what it was like to keep this secret, it changed my understanding of privacy. But I didn’t start asking any more questions about it until I wrote my book. When we discuss our secrets with others, we gain insights and learn about ourselves,” says Slepian. “We may not want our secrets known, but we want ourselves to be known.”

Provided by Tufts University

Quotation: Keeping secrets can make you sick (2022, December 13), Retrieved December 13, 2022 from

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