The Sinister Side of Secrets


Have you ever had a secret that you felt you couldn’t share with one or more of your loved ones? -maybe not even with the person you’re closest with?  

I have, and I bet you have too.

In fact, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the average person is keeping 13 secrets at any given time - five of which they’ve never told anyone else.   

We keep secrets for a multitude of reasons:

  • because we fear that sharing the truth will hurt someone (i.e., a violation of trust, etc.),

  • because we’re scared that our friend(s) or loved one(s) will think less of us or view us differently upon learning our secret (maybe we even fear losing them as a result of it),

  • because we’re ashamed,

  • because we fear judgment,

  • because we’re apprehensive about the reaction we’ll receive,

  • and so on.

In a nutshell? When it comes down to it, we tend to keep secrets because we’re afraid. Secrecy is a behavior that’s primarily driven by fear.

And unfortunately, when we’re afraid, we lose our ability to think rationally and objectively. So we fail to consider all of the potential consequences posed by the secrets we keep. Instead, we obey our fears and hide the truth from the people we care about.

With that as the premise, here’s a handful of reasons why our secrets may prove harmful - to ourselves or to others:  

(1) If you’re keeping a secret, you likely aren’t being honest with or true to yourself.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” – George Orwell

When we feel conflict or shame about something, we tend to avoid it. We instinctively don’t want to face or confront whatever it is that makes us feel those negative emotions.

This can sometimes arise as an issue, for example, when we’ve experienced trauma or abuse in the past and don’t want to think about it, let it define us, or dwell in that negative space. Just recalling that trauma can make us feel vulnerable again.

So instead we bury our secret, and it becomes a part of ourselves that we hide from others. We dissociate from the past event or from our own past actions. We separate ourselves and our identity from whatever it is that’s caused us to feel conflicted or ashamed. And we recede into denial and try to delude ourselves into believing it never happened or isn’t true.

But engaging in this sort of behavior does us a disservice. It makes us feel dishonest, false, insincere, and out of alignment. And sooner or later, the truth will come back to haunt us. Because we’re denying or hiding from a part of our past that we need to face, confront, and deal with in order to recover and heal.

(2) Keeping a secret means taking a risk & playing with fire.

Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all.” – Sophocles

With the majority of secrets, it’s just a matter of time before the truth eventually comes to light. There’s always that lurking possibility that your secret could be discovered or revealed. And the reality of that risk can be stressful to endure.

It’s important to keep in mind that if the people you care about ultimately learn the truth and don’t hear it from you, the outcome will likely be worse than if you’d been upfront in sharing it with them. The feelings of betrayal and the level of damage dealt to their trust in you may prove catastrophic. They’ll be less likely to forgive you than if you’d done the more difficult thing earlier on and chosen to confide in them.

Keeping a secret from someone you love is risky. So at least acknowledge the possibility that they’ll discover the truth and be prepared to accept whatever consequences result.

(3) There’s an opportunity cost to secrecy that we rarely consider: the potential benefits of forthrightness.

The man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep.” – Edgar Watson Howe

Oftentimes, we’re so focused on the negative ramifications of divulging a given secret that we’re blind to the possible positive consequences of sharing the truth with others.

We frequently try to conceal the truth from someone we care about (kids, for example) because we think we’re protecting them by doing so. My own mom has been guilty of this.

In the past, she’s chosen to hide some of her health struggles from me and my siblings, despite the fact that we were all adults capable of processing and handling the truth. While we could understand her not wanting to share all of the details with us or maybe even hiding some of her fears, upon learning the truth, we wished she’d been honest with us and not kept us in the dark.

By choosing to be secretive about her health struggles, my mom effectively blocked off one or more potential avenues of connection with her kids. She thwarted important conversations we could’ve had with her.

She missed out on an opportunity to show us how to handle some of the tough situations that will inevitably present themselves over the course of our lives. She overlooked the chance to set a positive example for us by being vulnerable and showing us that it’s okay to be vulnerable with those you love. Had she shared the truth with us, we could’ve been with her throughout that difficult time and possibly connected with her more deeply as a result.

All of this is to say that there may be unforeseen benefits to opening up to the people you care about. Be sure to consider any potential benefits of sharing your secret with your loved ones before deciding to shut them out.

(4) Secrecy = isolation.

Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” – Paul Tournier

Secrets prevent others from knowing our full story, our truth. Sharing our secrets allows for the possibility of connection (whereas keeping secrets inhibits connection).

While there’s always a risk that the truth will push someone we care about away or even hurt them, the act of sharing also opens a door and presents an opportunity for connection where it never previously existed - a chance that will never unfold if the truth remains hidden.

By letting someone you care about in on your secret - by allowing them to discover your struggle and your reason for wanting to hide it (whether shame, fear, etc.) - you’ll enable them to better understand and empathize with you, and you’ll grant them the opportunity to know you more fully. So consider letting them in.

(5) If you’re keeping secrets, you probably aren’t taking ownership of your own shit.

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” – William James

We’ve all made mistakes and done things we aren’t proud of. And sometimes our fuckups have been massive in scale. Recognize that your mistakes don’t define you though; it’s how you choose to move forward from your mistakes that matters.

Try being authentic. Try being vulnerable and imperfect. Surrender to being human.

And if you frankly just aren’t proud of who you are or how you’ve acted, then maybe work to make some changes. But being the person you want to be doesn’t mean hiding or denying who you were or what’s happened in the past. It means accepting yourself fully - including everything that’s made you who you are.

Essentially, you need to own your shit - all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of it may be unsavory. Some of it may not align with who you feel you are. But own every last piece of it. Because denying it will serve no one.

The choice of whether or not to venture down the path of secrecy is one that we each have to make for ourselves. But when making that call or determining whether or not to share one or more of our secrets, we should at least be aware of the above considerations and consciously decide if we’re ready to accept them as possible consequences of our secrecy.