Updated: Oct 15, 2022
You’ve heard the phrase “honesty is the best policy”, right? Well, that may be even more important regarding keeping secrets– either others or our own.
Most people have secrets, and they can range from little ones to huge ones. An embarrassing thing you did as a child, a friend’s affair, a white lie you told once that simply spiraled.
Of course, not every secret is huge or damaging. Some secrets we keep for privacy reasons like religion or sexual orientation. In fact, psychologists Michael Slepian and Alex Koch conducted a series of studies to try and group secrets together to see which ones had a bigger impact on the psyche and why.
Using past studies that had 36 basic categories, they attempted to narrow it down further and came up with three.
Immorality. Involve acts that people (including the secret-holder) would deem immoral. On the high end: harming others, theft, or other illegal acts. On the other end: secrets that have no moral “reason” behind them (i.e.: job dissatisfaction, ambitions, etc.)
Connectedness. The details of people’s intimate lives. High end: infidelity, affairs, other sexual behaviors in general. On the low: problems at work, school, or religious identity. Essentially, how we are connected to those around us.
Insight. We understand why we are keeping this secret. Things like workplace confidentiality.
“In further studies, Slepian and Koch discovered that they could predict which secrets will cause harm by considering how each rank on the three dimensions. This is because each of the dimensions has a particular emotional experience that is associated with it.”
The hazard in keeping secrets comes from ones we get stuck thinking about, not the ones we view as people not needing to know in the first place. For example, if your friend tells you they’ve had an affair– you’re bound to think about it. And keep thinking about it. And you see that friend and their spouse, and you think about it more and the brain is put in a very tough place.
“...holding on to them puts the brain in an awkward, compromised position. The cingulate cortex, essential to our emotional responses, is wired to tell the truth. This "logical lobe" signals other regions of the brain to share information so it can move on to more important functions, like learning. But when you keep a secret locked inside, you don't allow the cingulate to perform its natural functions. Instead, the cortex becomes stressed.” [X]
Our minds go down a dark rabbit hole imagining all the outcomes if you were ever to accidentally (or on purpose) blurt this secret out. All those worst-case scenarios float around in our brain and can make it difficult to focus on anything else.
Not to mention, the bigger (or riskier) the secret, the more it weighs on us.
It can also leave us feeling guilty and inauthentic... and it takes a toll on our bodies.
Sleep can be disturbed since you’re up thinking about it, leading to mood swings, memory issues, and appetite changes. Stress is one of the biggest ailments to our bodies, and there’s nothing more stressful than holding onto a secret you can’t stop thinking about.
It isn’t just the mental strain it puts on us, either. Keeping secrets can call forth a host of physical ailments as well. Not to mention, mental health plays largely into the rest of our body health but especially gut health. Some other physical side effects can be:
Rapid disease progression
Increased blood sugar levels
Difficulties with quitting substances
Change in heart rate
Digestive system issues
Insomnia and restlessness
Even though holding onto secrets can damage our health, it is also in our human nature to do so. It may be impossible to stop keeping secrets altogether, but you can be more careful about which ones you choose to hang onto.
Harmless secrets, like a surprise party or a pregnancy announcement or a great gift, don’t really have that psychological weight like more risky secrets do, so hanging onto them isn’t as damaging. Some of them can even be exciting! Those are the ones to keep around.
But if someone is getting ready to tell you a serious secret, ask yourself if you’re in the right place to take that weight on. You can always decline to be told if you’re worried! Setting boundaries is healthy and important. You might also realize that the secret you’ve been holding onto isn’t really that big of a deal, especially when it comes to things in our pasts as we get older. Sometimes the people we end up sharing it with react in a pleasant way that eases our minds and alleviates the burden we’ve been holding onto. Z Form is just the right tool to help unburden yourself.
Writing out the pros and cons of keeping a secret that has been taking an emotional toll on you is another good way to see if it’s still worthwhile.
Our mental health is extremely important and taking the time to ensure it stays healthy is even more so.