The Mental Toll of Keeping a Secret

Michael Slepian had just finished presenting the results of his research on secrets at Columbia University when he glanced at his phone and realized he’d missed two calls from his father.

The behavioral scientist was about to learn something his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had known for his entire life: that he had been conceived by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor.

In his new book, “The Secret Life of Secrets,” Dr. Slepian writes, “This … was being revealed to me at the end of one of the most important days of my professional life. I was not sitting down.”

He wondered, “Why was this secret kept from me?”

Dr. Slepian, who is now a professor of business and leadership at Columbia Business School, talked about the answer to that question in an interview and the broader implications of crossing your heart and promising not to breathe a word about something. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

I define secrecy as the intention to hold back some piece of information from one or more people. The information itself is the secret. Even if you haven’t recently had to hide it in a conversation, it’s still a secret if you intend to keep it from others.

There are all kinds of things we don’t discuss that are not secrets. For many people, it’s their sex lives. The details may not be anything they’re necessarily keeping secret; they just have this idea that this is not the sort of thing we talk about. But if I was asked a question related to it by someone close to me, I would answer the question. If you wouldn’t answer that question, if the intention is to hold the information back if it ever comes up, then it’s a secret.

The harm of a secret doesn’t seem to be from having to hide it in a social interaction, but having to live with it alone in your thoughts. The more a person’s mind wanders to their secret, the harder it is not having emotional support or advice. When we’re alone with something important, especially something harmful or bothersome, we tend not to develop the healthiest ways of thinking about it.

The secret you’re thinking about all the time is the one that’s hardest to keep.

There are three primary dimensions by which people think about their secrets. One is what we call “social connectedness” — secrets that involve other people. Another dimension is how moral the secret is. A third is how it’s related to our goals, which often means our profession. Each dimension has a unique harm.

If you choose the right person, you get to talk about your secret and it still remains a secret, so that’s an effective strategy. Only if someone responds very negatively does confiding a secret make things worse; so essentially if someone has a different set of morals or if you think they’d be scandalized by what you’re telling them, that’s not someone to confide in. The person more likely to keep your secret safe is someone who would think about it in a similar way as you when it comes to the morality of the issue.

People can feel glad someone felt comfortable enough to reveal something sensitive; it’s an act of intimacy that can bring us closer together. But if we’re both in the same group of friends, that can be difficult because the secret could be on our minds and we can’t talk to those other people about it. If someone distant to you reveals something big, it’s not necessarily going to be on your mind a lot.

With positive secrets, there’s usually a plan for when they will be revealed — and because they have an expiration date, those secrets can be exciting and energizing. So maybe I’m not allowed to talk about this phone call for the month of May, but once it becomes public knowledge, I’m allowed to talk about it in June. I think the question is, How can we steal the benefits from positive secrets and apply them to negative secrets?

A sociologist found that if you’re anti-abortion, you’re less likely to learn about people close to you who had abortions. People don’t want to reveal a secret to someone who will be scandalized, or who will find it so morally objectionable that they’re going to reveal it to a third party. But that means we’re not getting the same information from our social networks; it means you don’t understand how common a particular experience is.

Even young children know about the intimacy of sharing information. If you ask a child what makes someone a best friend, they might answer, “It’s someone you share secrets with.” This is because children are usually keeping childhood-sized secrets and they also get this positive social force from sharing those secrets with their friends and learning their friends’ secrets. When things start to look different is when they start hitting their teenage years and now all of a sudden they’re concerned about social approval, and they can get into more trouble. That’s when secrecy starts to look more like an adult’s, where people are more concerned about the consequences of revealing information.

One of the hard parts of having a secret is, even if you want to reveal it, when is the right moment to do so? I think this is what my parents were experiencing by the time I was an adult. There’s no perfect moment to reveal a secret like that. Sometimes you’re going to have to make that moment happen, and it requires being a little bit brave.

Learning that I wasn’t biologically related to my father was shocking, but it also made me think about what it was like for my parents to keep that secret. Years later, when I was writing this book, I asked them what it was like. Their experience aligned with what I was learning about in my own research: that even a secret that never comes up in conversation can be really burdensome. Hiding secrets is the easy part. The hard part is everything else. The hard part is having to think about this thing and not share it with others.

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