Is it good to keep secrets?

It might seem like an honour to be trusted with someone else’s confidences, but keeping secrets can also weigh us down.

At any one time we keep around 17 secrets that people have confided in us, according to research by Dr Katie Greenaway from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

But her studies also revealed that carefully guarding the secrets of others can take a toll.

“Secrecy really pervades all aspects of our lives. It’s a big part of our work and personal lives,” says Dr Greenaway.

What is a secret?

Secrets can be broadly described as:

  • Big secrets that are more personal or likely to directly affect you, or someone close to you, such as a family secret.
  • Little secrets that have little consequence if kept or told.
  • Positive secrets like surprising upcoming events, proposals and pregnancies.
  • Embarrassing secrets, where you fear social judgment if they were to be found out.
  • Gossipy secrets that are usually rumour based, and may not be accurate.

The upside of keeping secrets

“There are upsides to secrecy. If someone confides secrets in us, it signals trust and intimacy and we end up feeling quite positively towards that person,” says Dr Greenaway.

“Telling people intimate information is an intimacy building exercise.

“We make ourselves vulnerable and can increase social bonds.

“So people tell secrets to create a sense of social closeness, or sometimes they tell us secrets because they need to get information off their chest.

“Unburdening ourselves to others can be psychologically healthy.”

And the downside of secrets

But while being trusted with someone’s secret can build bonds and make us feel valued, keeping that secret can become a burden that plays on our mind.

“We take it on as though it was as our own secret and as if we were keeping that information about ourselves,” says Dr Greenaway.

“We feel burdened, the secret returns to our mind, we fixate on it and ruminate about it.”

The research found people entrusted with secrets felt less happy, had less relationship satisfaction, felt weighed down and found tasks took more effort to complete.

Keeping the secret from people in our network can also be stressful.

Top tips to deal with secrets

  • If you’re told a secret, focus on the positives – someone trusts you enough to tell you that information.
  • Figure out, with that person’s permission and input, the best steps forward in dealing with that information.
  • If you are going to confide a secret, think about it from the other person’s perspective.
  • Check they are ready and able to hear some information and to keep it confidential.

Written by Sarah Marinos