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What keeping secrets does to you

We can keep a secret — but should we?

An illustration shows people hiding behind walls, peering around them furtively. Getty Images/iStockphoto

I have secrets. So do you. So does everyone else. This is one of the many things human beings do — we hide stuff from other people.

But why do we do this? Are we afraid of intimacy? Are we ashamed of our past? And perhaps more importantly, what does all that secrecy cost us?

These are questions a new book tries to answer. It’s called The Secret Life of Secrets and the author is Michael Slepian, a psychologist at Columbia University. He’s spent a decade studying secrets and has a lot to say about what they are and what motivates them.

I invited Slepian on Vox Conversations to talk about what distinguishes a secret from a lie, what kinds of secrets are most common, and why he thinks that, ultimately, we should find ways to let our secrets go.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Your book opens with you recounting how a 10-megaton secret was dropped into your lap that sort of exploded your life.

Michael Slepian

I was doing studies [on secrets] and I was presenting those studies, as I learned this major family secret. In fact, I was on interview at Columbia for the position I have now. I’m showing people this brand new research on secrecy, and that’s my entire day. And at the end of this day, I’m still with these folks, we’re having dinner, we get drinks afterward.

And then at some point around midnight, I get this call from my dad. And I’m like, “Why is he calling me at midnight?” And then he calls me a second time, and I’m like, “Oh no, something terrible has happened.” And I assume someone died or something tragic. I call him back. And he says, “Michael, I have to tell you something. I think you should sit down for this.”

And then he tells me that he’s not biologically able to have children. He’s telling me that he’s not my biological father.

And as you can imagine, that’s totally surprising and shocking. But the first thing I thought to myself was, “This is okay.” I thought, “I don’t choose my friends based off genetics. What does it matter if my parents aren’t genetically related to me?”

But it was the secret keeping that really shocked me.

It turned out that everyone in my family, apart from my younger brother and myself, knew this secret the whole time.

Sean Illing

A lot of academics who study whatever it is that they study, it can feel very abstract. And then suddenly, boom, you’re hit with this secret that is kind of at the core of your identity and your life.

Did that concretize anything for you in any particular way? Did it change how you thought about secrets in general, having collided with one that gigantic in your own life?

Michael Slepian

What was so relevant to what I was understanding about secrecy, the science [of it], was, I asked my parents, “What was it like to keep the secret?” And they told me it wasn’t something that was difficult to hold back in conversations because it’s really easy to not let that long, complicated story just spill out of your mouth.

Once in a while their mind would return to this. And they said that’s when it became a problem — that it wasn’t hiding it in conversation that was difficult. It was having to return to their decision over and over and start wondering, “Did we make the right decision?” And as we got older, they started becoming less sure.

And that matched exactly what I was finding in my research at the time, that the hard part of having a secret doesn’t seem [to be] those moments when we’re in conversation. That turns out to be the easy part. It’s having to live with the secret alone, and being unsure whether you’re doing the right thing.

Sean Illing

What are the most common secrets people keep? You have some interesting charts in the book about this, but I want the audience to have a sense of what you discovered here.

Michael Slepian

Some of the most common secrets include romantic desire, issues around money and finances, sex, which will come as no surprise. Family secrets are quite common, secret ambitions, being unhappy with something, whether it’s your social life, your physical appearance, your romantic life, issues around mental health, violating another person’s trust.

I could keep going.

Sean Illing

Can friendships, relationships, romantic relationships survive without secrets?

It seems to me that I’m not sure they could. Maybe that says something terrible about me. Do you think our relationships could remain intact if we were totally transparent about everything all the time?

Michael Slepian

I think it would lead to some bumpiness.

Sean Illing

That’s one way to put it.

Michael Slepian

I think we hold secrets back for the right reasons sometimes. White lies are one example.

Your friend asks you, how do they look? And you’re like just arriving at the party and it’s too late to change or to do anything about it. You say the nice thing. People will agree saying something kind and nice is better than being brutally honest. There’s no need to needlessly hurt someone’s feelings when there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Another example is sometimes it’s just too soon to reveal something, but like a week later, it’s better to reveal it then. And so, maybe it’s something you could only keep temporarily secret.

Maybe it’s you’re protecting [someone’s] feelings, [like] if someone just says something nasty about your partner. There’s not a lot of good reason to pass that on if it’s just going to make them feel bad, and that’s the only consequence.

Sean Illing

Okay, so obviously one of the big lies in the chart is infidelity.

In terms of the trade-offs, it’s hard for me to imagine a more weighty one, right? If you’re someone who has been unfaithful in your relationship, and let’s say you have a family, you have children, the cost of telling that truth or revealing that secret could be the destruction of your family and lifelong trauma for your children. But the price of keeping that secret might be psychologically catastrophic as well.

I’m not asking you to tell people what they should do or what they shouldn’t do, but maybe I’m asking you what that decision calculus should look like.

Michael Slepian

The thing to consider first is, what is the reason you want to tell the person? Is it that you just can’t think about this thing in your head anymore, and you want to get it off your chest and just get it out in the open and not have to deal with it as a secret anymore?

If that’s the reason you want to reveal the secret, if it’s just to make yourself feel better, the risk, of course, is that it makes you feel better, now it’s off your chest, but it could make your partner feel a whole lot worse.

And so the question is, when is that the right thing to do?

Other things to think about are, is this a one-time issue? If this is a one-time issue and it’s not going to come up again, there are folks who would advise you to say, yeah, don’t reveal it because this is not some larger problem.

If it’s a repeat problem, if this is something that’s continuously happening, I would say it’s a much bigger deal to be holding this issue back.

And the final consideration is, would your partner want to know this? And that’s a hard question to know the answer to. But I can tell you about a study where I asked a couple of hundred people about this situation.

Imagine your partner, one time, totally regrettable mistake. They were out of town. They were drunk. They would never do this again. Would you want to know?

And about 75 percent of people said yes, which really surprised me, actually.

Sean Illing

I was surprised by that too. And you know what? The more I thought about it, the less surprising it was.

But I really do wonder if the difference between theory and practice is really significant here. A lot of people think they would want to know that, but if they really learned it and there was no going back, that it blew up their life, I wonder how many people in retrospect would say, “You know what? Maybe it was better, maybe ignorance was bliss in this case.”

I don’t know, but boy, that’s a big number. I thought it would be closer to half.

Michael Slepian

Yeah, so did I, and so maybe I should have run this study again where after people give their answer, I just ask a follow-up, which is, “Are you sure?”

But besides sort of wondering whether we’ve got the percentage correct or not, another way of thinking about this is, one in four people said very decisively that they wouldn’t want to know. I mean, that sounds like a big number to me, too.

And so, the best thing you can do when you’re grappling with these complexities, with this decision that is such a significant decision with such huge ramifications, there is no reason you should be figuring this out on your own. It’s way too complicated to figure out on your own.

So the best thing you can do is find someone that you know can keep this secret safe, that you trust, and see what they think and start considering these different options and scenarios.

Sean Illing

We’ve been talking a lot about the person or the people maybe affected by your secret or involved in your secret. But I’m interested in what it’s doing to the secret holder.

And in the book you talk about shame and isolation and feelings of phoniness or inauthenticity.

What would you say is the primary or the hidden cost of keeping secrets for the person keeping the secret?

Michael Slepian

So we see shame, isolation, uncertainty, inauthenticity.

Of all of those, the one that seems to be the most harmful is shame. And the reason for that is shame is this global negative evaluation of yourself. And if you feel worthless, powerless, small, it’s really hard to change that. It’s really hard to just not feel ashamed and just to sort of ignore that.

But there is a way forward if that’s something that is holding you back, which is that if shame is a negative evaluation of the self, if you can just redirect that negative evaluation to the behavior in question, that’s what we call guilt. And so rather than thinking of yourself as a bad person, you can say, “I did something bad.”

And what’s so helpful about reframing it in that manner is: You don’t have to do that thing again next time. You can act differently next time. People change, you can learn from your past, you can draw a lesson, you can do something going forward differently.

And that shifts the negative evaluation from your whole self to something you did in the past.

Sean Illing

I love your emphasis on the time secrets steal from us. Like the time we spend thinking about our secrets, worrying about our secrets, revisiting them in our mind.

That leads to insecurity and that wastes an enormous amount of precious attention and presence in your life. It’s almost never worth that. Maybe sometimes it is, but I feel justified in saying it’s almost never really, truly worth it.

Michael Slepian

An easy way out of the negative cycles of thinking is just bringing another person in. It’s so easy to get caught up in rumination and rehashing the past. And just getting another perspective into it. Just having someone else in that conversation can help you out of this negative thought loop for sure.

Sean Illing

I did take some comfort in the fact that you found that secrets tend to impact all of us in very similar ways, right? No matter where we’re from, whether the South or the North or America or somewhere else.

Which if nothing else says, this is just a human thing, it’s a universal human thing.

Michael Slepian

Yeah, we see that the secrets that people keep, the kinds of secrets that people keep and how they affect us leading to experiences of shame, guilt, isolation, inauthenticity. These are experiences that I’ve seen all across the world. We surveyed people all over the world and see if they keep the same kind of secrets and they affect us in similar ways.

And so if you’re struggling with a secret, that’s something to remember. We all keep the same secrets. We all have the same experiences with them.

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