Keeping Secrets

Many neuroscientists believe that keeping secrets is hazardous to your health. In their view, it’s better to fess up, or just refuse to participate in other’s secret keeping. It has to do with the brain, keeping quiet stresses it. Humans are wired to tell the truth and when we don’t, when we hold onto a juicy tidbit, the brain isn’t performing its natural function.

But not all secrets are created equal. Some secrets don’t need to be shared with everyone, or anyone, and one can still maintain a healthy life, or happy brain, despite keeping a secret locked inside. So how does one distinguish which secrets, or truths, need to be revealed? One rule of thumb may be to ask yourself if keeping this secret allows you to behave in such a way that causes harm to yourself or others. This could include an addiction of some kind or infidelities, because the untold secret allows the detrimental behavior to continue.

In an article posted on Psychology Today, “Keeping Secrets Can Be Hazardous To Your Health,” from the book The Secret Life of Families,Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., talks about the power secrets can hold over families. “We live in a culture whose messages about secrecy are truly confounding. If cultural norms once made shameful secrets out of too many events in human life, we are now struggling with the reverse: the assumption that telling secrets — no matter how, when, or to whom — is morally superior to keeping them and that it is automatically healing. My own experience, however, has shown me that telling secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be remarkably painful — and destructive.”

The truth is (no pun intended) that it’s complicated. Secrets in relationships are common. Some couples may not tell all and still manage to maintain a fulfilling, and yes, even trusting relationship. But often, when well-kept secrets are revealed, they can do a great deal of damage and lead to mistrust and hurt.

Some commonly kept secrets in a relationship might include having an affair, keeping debts hidden, sexual secrets like lack of interest or impotence, past behavior such as commission of a crime or jail time, or an addiction that can vary from eating disorders to drug use. Vivian Diller, Ph.D., discusses these in her article “Relationship Secrets: When To Tell or Not to Tell” in Psychology Today with helpful insight on whether to tell or not.

So, if keeping a secret is bad for us, why do we do it? To start with, it’s part of being human. And, if we decide that disclosing a hidden truth would be more painful than holding on to it, we tend to choose keeping it to ourselves. It has been found that the simple yet effective act of writing out the pros and cons of doing so can relieve the stress of keeping a secret and improve our mental health.

Diller stresses that, “Intimacy and complete openness are not one and the same. A successful long-term relationship means being willing to share your vulnerabilities and strengths, but requires sensitivity to the consequences that sharing brings.”

It’s not always easy to keep a secret, but in comparison, it’s even harder to reveal it. Probably the best advice is to live your life in a manner so you don’t have secrets to keep. Easier said than done? Maybe not.