I’ve been asked to keep a lot of friends’ secrets lately. Secrets about friends’ health, secrets about friends’ relationships, their careers, and their children. Even secrets about an acquaintance’s business plans.
And I haven’t kept a single one of them.
I wanted to. And I tried. And, truth be told, I feel pretty bad about spilling the beans. But keeping a secret makes me feel like a pressure cooker. It heats up and builds in me until I feel like I’m going to explode.
Inevitably, I tell the secret to my husband, or the safest person I can find, with the firm instruction that they not repeat it to anyone.
Before you cast that first stone at me, I encourage you to pause and reflect on your own secret-keeping behaviour. Chances are, you’re no more discreet that I am.
It turns out, humans may not be cut out for keeping secrets. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by researchers at Columbia Business School, found that most people end up blurting a secret to at least one other person.
And it’s not that we are just disloyal, blabbermouths who don’t know the meaning of friendship. Breaking someone’s trust may in fact be self-preservation.
The Columbia Business School researchers conducted 10 separate studies into secrets and found that keeping secrets makes us feel inauthentic, which is bad for our mental health.
Keeping negative information from romantic partners in particular, and the associated feelings of being inauthentic, is linked to lower satisfaction with life and wellbeing.
“By holding back a secret from one’s partner, one may feel that one is holding back part of themselves or not upholding the standards and values of the relationship (eg disclosure, trust, honesty),” write the study authors.
Keeping secrets is so stressful that Marcia Reynolds, an executive coach who holds a PhD in psychology, flat out refuses to do it. When people ask her to keep a secret she says no.
“Keeping a secret is far more stressful for the keepers of the secret than the person who told the secret,” says Reynolds.
And it’s not just the act of keeping mum that’s stressful. It’s also ruminating over the ramifications of what would happen if you let the cat out of the bag that can be even more harmful to our wellbeing.
“It’s not the attempt to conceal something while in a conversation that causes the most stress,” says Reynolds. “It’s the fretting about the secret before your conversation or worrying about what is the right thing to do with the information you are holding that could cause feelings of depression and anxiety.”
That’s not to say Reynolds lets slip about her clients. She makes a distinction between keeping secrets and confidentiality in professional contexts.
“I have to keep my clients’ information confidential but I don't see that as a secret. I see that as professional integrity,” she says.
Professional confidentially doesn’t tend to carry the same emotional burden because it is often more external or, even when it does, it’s just part of the job so you have to do it.
Where does this leave us if we have a secret that we feel we must confide in someone? How do we choose the right person to share our secret with?
Reynolds suggests choosing someone who is removed from the situation.
“If you've got to tell somebody, don't tell somebody that's the best friends with the person you're telling a secret about, or someone who works closely with that person all day long,” says Reynolds.
Second, consider the impact of your secret on the person you want to tell. Sharing information that you want to make secret may make you feel better, but is it necessary or reasonable to shift that burden on to someone else?
And if you really don’t want the information leaking out, then whatever you do, don’t post it online – even in forums that are supposedly private. Your secret is only a screenshot and an email forward away from being shared with the world.
And to all my friends reading this, well, um, sorry.
Kasey Edwards is the author of The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.