Secrets are always interesting to me. It’s curious and intriguing to consider what we keep to ourselves versus what is shared with others. I was thrilled that a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts featured a researcher who studies secrets extensively.
When new episodes of Dan Harris’ “Ten Percent Happier” podcast appear on my phone, I eagerly check to see what the topic is. Because Dan wrote the book that helped lots of people start meditating about seven years or so ago, his podcast usually involves topics surrounding mindfulness, emotional balance, and Buddhism. My cynical brain sometimes rolls its eyes at how uncomplicated the concepts seem to the guests (as if my brain had eyes or something). But I gravitate toward his podcast because he’s far from crunchy. As he’s evolved in his practice of meditation and Buddhism, some of his language has changed, but his presentation always has a little side-eye thrown into it.
One of the more interesting interviews he did was with Michael Slepian, a professor at Columbia Business School, who conducts research on secrets. The title of the episode is called “The Price of Secrecy” and it was right up my alley. Just reading the title and summary threw me back into my undergraduate sociology program where I took a course on the sociology of lying. It may have actually been called something really dramatic like “Deception and Betrayal”.
Sometimes, secrets get conflated with lying and as humans, we have a knee-jerk reaction to lying. Bad, terrible, deplorable. All the condemnation about lying. In every circumstance. We also have lots of feelings about secrets.
But research presented Dr. Slepian reveals that there are 38 categories of secrets and that most of us are employing an average of 13 at any given point in our life. 97% of people have a secret in one category. So that makes almost everyone.
Issues that my clients come into the room with usually involve secrets. And if you pull back the curtain, secrets are not necessarily always lies, even though sometimes we have that reflexive reaction to them. Well, maybe more accurately, we have that reaction to other people’s secrets.
Naturally I was curious about what the 38 categories are so I did some googling. I haven’t found the information I was truly seeking without reading the actual research report which I’m not really sure I’m THAT interested in doing. Just the discussion of the fact that there are way more secrets we keep than we ever really considered before truly blew my mind. In fact, I’ll share with you a little secret. Hearing the researcher discuss some of the categories caused me to tally up how many secrets I may or may not be keeping. And the actual number I’ve come up with is something I will keep secret from you.
Keeping certain secrets can truly take a toll on us, but they can also sully the water between ourselves and intimate others in our lives. Listening to this episode also caused me to think about the meaning of secrets. Whether it’s infidelity, imposter syndrome, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political persuasions, the fact that we don’t care for Coldplay (sorry…maybe for people who know me, that’s not much of a secret), shame about being from a certain type of family or shame about our success, or lack thereof. I can go on and on.
Secrets aren’t always the “I did a terrible thing and I’m keeping it secret”. They are sometimes the “I feel this way and I’m going to keep it to myself.” Withholding from others overall has an effect on 1) the person keeping the secret and 2) the relationship between that person and the one you’re keeping the secret from.
I don’t necessarily have any earth-shattering revelations from this podcast to share with you other than a recommendation to go and listen to it! It’s thought-provoking and you might find yourself discussing it with others in your life. Click here to check it out.
In terms of speaking directly about the effect of keeping secrets, the person keeping the secret is carrying a burden. Dr. Slepian discussed research that secret-keeping mimicked the feeling of literally carrying something heavy on our body.
There is more and more research pointing to emotional things we deal with impacting our physical body. These types of ailments can include things like heart disease, arthritis, and some auto-immune disorders. To oversimplify a rather complicated issue, I’ll say that it does pay to keep our emotional house in order. Tending to our emotional and psychological needs could help us preserve good health.
Another piece worth broadly mentioning is that it’s no secret that keeping a secret from an intimate other can negatively impact that relationship as well. Sometimes, we think we are really good at not allowing whatever is on our mind to enter into our relationship with another person. (This doesn’t only pertain to those we are in romantic relationships with. Friendships and familial relationships also feel this impact.)
In the way that you can tell when someone is holding back, even if they’re not holding in a huge secret, others can tell that you are not being forthcoming either. It benefits relationships when we feel able to let down our guard, when it is safe to do so. And it allows your relationship with the other person to make room for greater depth and intimacy.
Enormous subjects like this require so much more attention and it was exciting to learn that Dr. Slepian is releasing a book about this topic in the next year. You might find that you would like to discuss how you might be holding back in your life and relationships. Therapy is a wonderful arena to examine not only the secrets we keep from others, but the secrets that we sometimes even keep from ourselves. If you’d like to see if therapy is an option for you, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to call me at 201-248-5552 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.