How to Cope with Secrecy


By keeping something secret, people can protect their their reputation and their relationships with close others. Yet, when people choose to keep secrets, they run the risk of feeling isolated from other people, which can lead to negative well-being outcomes.1,2

On the one hand, keeping a secret could be isolating, hurting negative well-being.3-6 On the other hand, revealing a shameful secret could lead to social rejection. If people communicate the learned negative information to other people, one’s reputation could be tarnished. There is an inherent challenge to secrecy: Should you tell someone, and if so, whom should you tell?

Talking to another person about your secret can be very helpful, but only if the secret is revealed to the right person. Revealing a secret to the wrong person can do more harm than good, and so it is crucial to reveal a secret to the right person.7 Someone who will be non-judgmental, who can provide trustworthy advice, and who will be discreet makes for an ideal confidant.8 Such a person would not hold your secret against you, could help you think about how to move forward, and will keep your secret for you.

If you are unable to reveal your secret (such as for reasons of confidentiality), or do not feel you can identify someone with those qualities to reveal a secret to, there are other ways to cope. Writing about the secret in a private journal can help by providing you the chance obtain new insights into the personal event or detail.9 Many people also report that revealing a secret anonymously online (through one of several secrecy websites, apps or forums) can also provide some relief.10


This advice on how to cope with secrecy is from a forthcoming paper. For more information, visit our about page.

For any inquires, please contact Michael Slepian, email: michael.slepian@columbia.edu



References:

  1. Slepian, M. L., Chun, J.S., & Mason, M. F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  2. Slepian, M.L., Camp, N.P., & Masicampo, E.J. (2015). Exploring the secrecy burden: Secrets, preoccupation, and perceptual judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 31-42.
  3. Frijns T., Finkenauer C. (2009). Longitudinal associations between keeping a secret and psychosocial adjustment in adolescence. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 145–154.
  4. Kelly, A. E., & Yip, J. J. (2006). Is keeping a secret or being a secretive person linked to psychological symptoms? Journal of Personality, 74, 1349-1369
  5. Larson, D. G., Chastain, R. L., Hoyt, W. T., & Ayzenberg, R. (2015). Self-concealment: Integrative review and working model. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 34, 705–729.
  6. Vangelisti A. (1994). Family secrets: Forms, functions, and correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 113–135.
  7. Kelly, A. E., & McKillop, K. J. (1996). Consequences of revealing personal secrets. Psychological Bulletin, 120, 450-465.
  8. Slepian, M. L., & Kirby (in preparation). To whom do we reveal our secrets?
  9. Pennebaker, J. W. (1993). Putting stress into words: Health, linguistic, and therapeutic implications. Behavior Research and Therapy, 31, 539–548.
  10. Slepian, M. L., Masicampo, E. J., & Ambady, N. (2014). Relieving the burdens of secrecy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 293-300.