We All Have Secrets, But Keeping Them to Yourself Can Be Bad For Your Health
Here's how to spill the beans—and why you should.
Illustration: Tallulah Fontaine
How to Tell Someone a Big Secret
Thirty years ago, Allison McColeman hid a big secret from her family: a husband. McColeman, now a 55-year-old Toronto mom, feared the marriage would cause too much friction with her parents. She knew her stepfather didn’t like her partner, and the lovebirds had also only been dating for less than a year, which she knew would worry her mother. Plus, deep down she knew the marriage was a bad idea.
“I was embarrassed to tell them what I’d done,” she says. So McColeman pretended the man who swept her off her feet was simply her boyfriend. Only her closest friends knew the truth: McColeman had married the charming Irishman in a small wedding at City Hall, in part to sponsor his bid for Canadian citizenship. She expected they’d have a “real” wedding if the relationship worked out.
Instead, the couple split after a year. It took another five years for McColeman to come clean to her mom (her stepfather had since died). Though her ex rarely came up in their conversation, McColeman couldn’t stop thinking about her secret. It was like there was an elephant in the room that only she saw. “I felt like I’d been lying to her all that time,” she says. “Afterward, I just felt lighter.”
We all have personal secrets—even if they’re not always as juicy as a hidden marriage. While not everybody needs to know everything about you, the benefits of sharing secrets can often be greater than whatever damage you’re imagining you will incur from doing so. Here’s how to tell someone a big secret.
Ask: Is It Harmful?
The idea that secrets can be a psychic weight is what first intrigued psychologist Michael Slepian, an associate professor at Columbia University and author of The Secret Life of Secrets. His research shows that 97 per cent of people have a secret, and the average person is keeping 13 at any given time. Keeping secrets has been linked with less-satisfying relationships, higher rates of anxiety and depression and a generally diminished sense of well-being. Slepian’s research revealed 38 categories of common secrets spanning everything from big ones (infidelity, addiction) to relatively minor ones (embarrassing habits, hidden possessions).
All types of secrets have the potential to harm your mental health, but that harm doesn’t actually come from the stress of concealment. Slepian says the biggest clue to how damaging a secret is to you is how often you involuntarily think about it—like you’re picking at a scab. It’s more likely, says Slepian, that your mind will get stuck thinking about a secret that speaks to your intrinsic sense of self (a hidden marriage) than a more workaday secret (like the fact that I have a stash of chocolate that I hide from my family). “The hard part about having a secret is not that we have to hide it,” he says, “but that we have to live with it alone in our thoughts.”
Distinguish Shame From Guilt
Chances are good that the secrets that will weigh on you the most are the ones that make you feel bad about yourself. Part of the reason McColeman didn’t tell her family about her ill-fated nuptials is that some part of her felt that her boyfriend was using her, and she was ashamed she got sucked in. Many of us can relate to shame keeping us mum. (My husband still likes to remind me about when I “forgot” to tell him that I was visiting a psychic because I knew he would think it was silly and a waste of money.)
Slepian says that what’s more harmful about shame—and what distinguishes it from guilt—is that when you feel ashamed you think I’m a bad person, but when you feel guilt you think I’ve done a bad thing. The latter is actually much healthier, he says, and telling your secret can help get you past the shame and to a place where you might reflect on your behaviour. And if you decide you acted wrongly, he adds, you can then figure out how to act differently next time. “You can learn from your mistakes.” (Here’s expert advice on how to let go of regrets.)
The most obvious thing you can do to lessen the weight of keeping a secret, says Slepian, is to share it with someone. Telling it to another person—be it a friend, a therapist or even an online acquaintance—can reduce the number of times your mind will obsessively go back to it, sort of like opening an emotional pressure valve. But Slepian points out it’s not simply the act of confessing that helps get your mind out of the record groove—it’s the conversation that follows.
“Confessing something on the Internet anonymously can feel really great for about 10 seconds,” he says. “But having a conversation with someone you trust works because people can bring a unique perspective, emotional support or advice.” Even being heard by one person can help you think about your secret differently and move forward.
But Confide in the Right Person
Slepian says that people share 26 per cent of the secrets they’re told, which seems like a pretty big gamble to take if you have a secret you really want kept (mostly) under wraps. The key, he says, is to choose someone who has a similar set of morals and values as you. “People are more likely to pass on a secret if they’re morally outraged by the behaviour,” he says. “So don’t confide in someone who’s going to be scandalized by your admission.”
You may not want to share, for example, that you’ve developed a crush on a colleague (even though you’re already in a relationship) with the friend who thinks that even looking at another person is tantamount to cheating. It’s probably better to save that particular tidbit for the pal who knows a bit of innocent daydreaming when she sees it and can reassure you that you’re not a monster who’s destined to break up your family. (Read up on the surprising science behind friendship.)
Deep down, past all the worry and shame, McColeman knew that her mom could handle the secret. “She was surprised, but she wasn’t angry,” she says. Mostly, she was happy McColeman was okay, divorced and had a clean slate. “And I felt much better because I got it off my chest.”
Now that you know how to tell someone a big secret, try these tips for living a happier life.