Secrets May Be Harmful to Your Health


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There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. –Maya Angelou

Linda: Researchers Professors Slepian and Mason, along with Jinseok Chun, a Ph.D. student at Columbia Business School, in the article entitled “Keeping Secrets Is Harmful to Your Health,” report in their research that secrets can not only hurt or even destroy relationships, but negatively impact overall health. They asked 1,200 Americans online and 312 in person about their secrets. Participants admitted to keeping on average, 13 things to themselves. Examples of the types of secret they kept were thoughts of infidelity, sexual fantasies and betrayals of trust, including five about which they never told anyone. They found that most people have a secret, whether it is a relatively minor one like faking illness to get a day off work, or something bigger like having an extramarital affair or committing fraud.

While sometimes keeping a secret is not a bad thing to keep from causing pain or being socially excluded, there is a real downside to keeping secrets. While many people successfully conceal their secrets, brand new research reveals that there may be harmful personal effects just from thinking about secrets. These researchers state that it is common tendency for people to mentally revisit their past transgressions, which leads to a lower sense of well-being. Their unhappiness results from each time they think of the secret, which serves as a reminder that individuals are masking part of themselves, which leads them to feel inauthentic.

The researchers found that they spent twice as much time privately dwelling on their secrets than they did actively concealing them from others. When the researchers totaled up the time participants reflected on their secrets, they found that those who ruminated the most were the least healthy. Malia Masonco, author of the study, says, “Secrets exert a gravitational pull. It’s the cyclical revisiting of our mistakes that explains the harmful effects that secrets have on our well-being and relationship satisfaction. Along with a diminished sense of well-being and physical health consequences, keeping secrets can also shift a person’s focus from the task at hand to their secrets, which clearly can have a detrimental effect on task performance.”

The reason people keep them is because they fear that if they revealed some of the thoughts they have, desires, fantasies and actual things that they have done, that they will lose respect and admiration from others. In the 12-Step Program, where people struggling with addiction get help for their recovery they have slogan: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” The program encourages participants to come out of hiding about things they have done, so that the heavy shame of concealing those behaviors does not continue to drive them to self-medicate their pain with drugs and alcohol. You don’t have to be an alcoholic or drug addict to hide behavior in fear of being judged by others.

The fear that they could put their relationships at risk, or even lose the relationship entirely, keeps them quiet. And yet, concealing their thoughts, feelings and actions causes deterioration of their relationships. The more secrets that are withheld and the bigger the secrets are, the more preoccupied the secret keeper becomes. Vital energy that the relationship needs to thrive is diverted to the withheld information that is trapped inside them.

Secrets can be decades old hidden traumas from childhood or present day occurrences. No matter whether old secrets or new, there is great danger in getting into the habit of concealing things from others. The secrets can lead to lies and being dishonest with ourselves. One of the ways we can do this is by overlooking the toll it is taking on our own well-being and that of our relationships as we continue to conceal. Here are some strong examples of coming out of hiding with positive results. Over the years of working with couples, I have witnessed many instances of their coming out of hiding about their sexual fantasies with positive results. Their admission was met with curiosity and receptivity. Instead of being judged as perverted, their partner responded with a willingness to experiment and to weave the fantasy into their sexual play.

Another powerful example is an admission of attraction to another person was confessed, rather than the expected anger and anguish, I have witnessed numerous instances of the partner responding positively. “I knew it all along. I trust our commitment to each other is strong. You are only admiring her like a beautiful piece of art in the museum. I know you’re not a collector and that you are not making a purchase to take home. You only come home to me. We are both free to admire the beautiful art in the museum.”

With behaviors, the stakes are higher than thoughts, feelings, and desires. The risk is greater to confess infidelity, deceit or any other violations of trust. To run the assessment through the sieve of harmlessness is useful. The question is: “Is it more harmful to reveal the secret or is it more harmful to conceal the secret? Many people have never seen a relationship where there are no secrets and can’t even imagine that they could have one. But it is possible to co-create a contract where mistakes can be made, hurts and disappointments can occur, and learning and forgiveness can heal the damaged trust. If your goal is to have the greatest possible partnership, to have a minimum of information concealed will serve that goal. We do have the capacity to co-create relationships where there is privacy, but no secrets. Although it is not the norm, it is possible. Could your relationship be one that is characterized by no secrets at all? Is it something that you even aspire to accomplish? Be honest with yourself. That’s where a high integrity relationship begins.


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