Are your secrets costing you more than you know? - Hindustan Times
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Are your secrets costing you more than you know?

Oct 22, 2022 02:13 PM IST

New research shows that each of us, at any time, is carrying about five secrets that we have told no one. Take a look at the science of why sharing secrets helps, and the price you could be paying for holding them in.

Hiding a secret is the easy part. It’s carrying it around alone that is the real burden, and it’s a burden that is universal. So how are your secrets hurting you, and what can you do about it?

 (HT Illustration: Malay Karmakar) PREMIUM
(HT Illustration: Malay Karmakar)

The average person has about five secrets that they have shared with no one, a 2017 study by researchers at Columbia University found. According to a new book by Michael Slepian, one of the lead researchers on that study, most secrets involve one of 38 experiences (these include lies, emotional infidelity, family details, finances, sexual behaviour, hobbies, poor work performance and “social discontent”).

Slepian, whose book is called The Secret Life of Secrets (Penguin Random House; 2022), is a behavioural scientist and professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School. In the book, he draws on studies that he co-conducted over 10 years, involving over 50,000 respondents across 26 countries.

Slepian became even more intrigued by why people keep the secrets they do and what the keeping costs them when a major secret was revealed in his family, two years into his career.

He writes of being at work at Columbia a decade ago when he glanced at his phone and saw two missed calls from his father. He was about to learn that he and his younger brother had been conceived by artificial insemination, using sperm from two anonymous donors. It was not the information that shocked him, he says, as much as the fact that it was kept from him and his brother for so long.

This made him wonder what it was like for his parents to keep this secret. When he spoke to them, he found that their experiences matched the findings from his research: even a secret that is never really brought up in conversation is burdensome.

Part of the burden comes from a sense of fear or guilt associated with the concealed information; part of it comes from an element of shame (either from feeling complicit, duplicitous, inauthentic, or — as in his parents’ case — the feeling of being wrong in not sharing the secret to begin with). “In general, we would all be better off with fewer secrets,” Slepian writes.

Opening up

There are a lot of things we don’t talk about that aren’t secrets. Sex is one of those things, for many people. But where the decision to not talk about sexual habits comes from a sense of privacy, a secret is something one decides to keep hidden, out of shame, guilt or fear.

Secrets are therefore isolating. This insight has led Slepian and his colleagues, over time, to see secrecy as less an activity than a state of being. “We don’t keep secrets; we have them,” he says.

In 2020, Slepian, James Kirby, a clinical psychologist with University of Queensland, and Elise Kalokerinos, then at Queensland and now at University of Melbourne, conducted a study on the negative emotions associated with secrecy.

In discussions with 1,000 people about their most closely held secrets, they found that people dwelled more on secrets that made them feel ashamed than on those that made them feel guilty.

While shame and guilt are both negative emotions, there’s an important distinction, Slepian says. Guilt is more adaptive. It can lead one to make amends, alter one’s behaviour.

Shame is a judgement on oneself as a person. It is usually accompanied by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. As the secrets associated with shame were revisited over and over, they contributed to the build-up of associated negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, loneliness and low self-esteem, the study found.

In an extension of that study, the researchers explored what it would take to reduce the sense of shame around certain secrets. The answer came full circle to the fact of everyone holding secrets, in more or less the same few categories.

Talking to another person was found to make all the difference, Slepian says. Sharing the secret had all the obvious benefits (easing the burden, alleviating the shame, identifying a supportive ally). But, in an interesting addition, sharing the secret was also found to reduce how often the person’s mind wandered back to it, breaking the loop that reinforced negative feelings.

Children seem to understand this intuitively, Slepian adds. “When asked what a secret is,” he says, “children (defined in the book as pre-schoolers to pre-teens) will define a secret as something that you can tell your friends and they won’t make fun of you.”

Interestingly, a 2006 study found that disclosing stressful secrets in ways that circumvent possible social rejection (such as writing or speaking into a tape recorder) are also linked to better mental health outcomes and subjective well-being. So if you think you’re past the stage of telling a friend, you could try picking up a pen.

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