Secret-keeping is an inevitable part of human interaction. In the same way that a human being learns to walk during his early childhood, he learns over time that it is better to keep specific thoughts to himself or to share them with only a few selected people. These secrets can be harmless, such as a surprise party for a friend’s birthday, or the recipe for Grandma’s cheesecake! Scientists see those as “minor secrets” whose impact on our lives or well-being is of little importance.

Major secrets, on the other hand, would have serious consequences if they were to come to light. Therefore, sometimes, it is better to remain silent. But, sometimes you feel you have to talk too, especially if you feel it weighs too much on you. But how do you know when you should reveal a secret?

There is no short answer. Secrecy includes several components that need to be taken into consideration. We generally can live with a secret as long as we’re still able to function in our daily lives, having the freedom to talk about other topics, if the secret doesn’t invade our thoughts, and if it doesn’t put you or someone else in danger. Otherwise, finding a confidant or an expert to talk to  is crucial.

In this article, we will go through some of the most common reasons when you should not keep a secret. Also, we will look into some questions that will help you to decide if you should reveal yours as well as some tips to do so.

Reasons For When You Should Not Keep A Secret

1. It weighs too much on you physically and mentally

Keeping secrets can have negative consequences on our mental and physical health.

For psychologist Anita Kelly of Notre Dame University in the United States, the effect of a secret is largely determined by the energy that the person must spend to keep it.

For example, Secretly smoking cigarettes at work does not put some people at great risk, but would make others lose their jobs. The cognitive effort to keep it in front of oneself increases.

The resulting pressure in the form of stress seems to have an impact on the functioning of the entire body. So much so that, according to many studies, “big” secrets cause serious physical and mental health problems.

Remember that not everything that weighs you down is yours to carry.

To know more about the effects of keeping secrets on your mental and physical health, please read our detailed article here.

2. If it involves someone doing something wrong

if you learn that someone is doing something wrong, or something that could hurt people, then it is your responsibility to speak up.

For example, if your friend is using drugs or stealing from others, then keeping it secret is not the best thing to do for him. Telling someone who could help him dodge this behavior (a parent, counselor, other friends, etc.) is the responsible thing to do in this case.

Other examples include suicidal thoughts, mention of self-harm, and abuse of any kind.

3. It’s messing up your social life

Not being able to be sincere and honest is a real source of discomfort. It makes people feel they lack authenticity and are rather dissatisfied with their lives. Also, it can make social interaction very complicated, especially with those affected by the content of the secret.

That’s why uncovering secrets (to people you trust) is a good way to recover a more real and confident self.

In fact, studies show that opening up to someone increases people’s level of happiness. We then feel supported and more able to “manage” the secret itself. So we start thinking about its content in a different way; we see it from a totally different angle and are able to deal with it.

4. When it’s not an issue for anyone

Often, the secret we keep is not as important to anyone, but we didn’t want to reveal it because we were asked to. Once we know someone’s secret, we feel that we are responsible for protecting it.

However, when our lives are constrained by secrecy, especially when it comes to lying, it is advisable to ask the person who confides in you if you can stop hiding the secret for him/her.

In fact, people generally tend to overestimate the importance of what they consider to be secret information. As a research team at the University of Colorado has shown, we tend to consider secret information to be more accurate and of higher value than that which is freely available.

In their study, the psychologists presented two government documents (that were made public later on) to volunteers — one from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the other from the United States Security Council.

The first document, they were told, had remained secret for many years. The second, on the other hand, had always been public.

As a result, participants considered the first document to be much more correct, thoughtful, and innovative than the second.

In another experiment, participants stated that decisions based on confidential documents were better than those based on public data.

Is the secret you keep really important? If it’s not the case and it’s yours, stop worrying. If it’s someone else’s, you should talk to them about it; it might not be important to them either.

5. You feel stuck because of the secret

The theory of self-determination states that in order to feel fulfilled, every human being must satisfy three needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In other words, they must feel that:

  • They are acting on their own initiative
  • They can best carry out their tasks
  • They belong to a community

And the problem is that some secrets would seriously undermine these basic needs.

Ahmet Uysal, a psychologist at the University of Houston, conducted a study in 2010 in which participants were asked to record their level of satisfaction with these three basic needs on a notebook for 16 days.

It turned out that people who disclosed little about their feelings and thoughts also complained about being socially excluded and less autonomous. In short, those three basic needs were not being met.

Because of a fear to confide in themselves, subjects would introduce a distance between themselves and others. Also, the limits they impose on their words and actions would change their image in the eyes of those around them, reducing their sense of self-worth and their sense of autonomy.

Therefore, secrecy could trap you with its weight. And the only outlet might be to reveal the secret or confide in someone you trust.

Should You Share Personal Information That You Consider Secret?

Revealing a secret and getting rid of its burden is a relief. But the information we keep to ourselves can sometimes be just personal information that we don’t want people to know.

Secrets can touch on many subjects on our lives (See our article about what type of secrets do people keep), so first we must review the secret by identifying situations where it may be harmless or even beneficial!

This is suggested by the work of psychologist Anita Kelly. In 2006, in collaboration with her colleague Jonathan Yip, she compared two groups of individuals (86 in total):

  • Some are quite secretive; they reveal nothing about their personal lives.
  • Others were openly sharing information about their lives, while keeping some private information for themselves.

Nine months later, when assessing the well-being of these two groups, the scientists found that those who kept some private information to themselves but were open to others were much better off than those who did not reveal anything about them.

In fact, people who have kept only some private information secret showed less anxiety, depression, and physical pain. Sometimes they were even better off than most people. Read more here about the difference between secrecy and privacy.

Should You Keep Secrets In A Relationship?

While it is true that you do not have to tell every detail of your life, honesty between couples is crucial for a healthy and lasting relationship.

You still have a right to privacy, but when it comes to important issues that concern both of you, it is best to share information with your significant other.

Many people keep secrets because they think that their partners can’t bear being told about it, or that it will totally destroy the relationship (e.g. “if she knows I betrayed her trust, I won’t get it back.”).

A recent survey of more than 2,000 couples conducted by Slater & Gordon showed that 20% of participants are keeping a major secret in their marriage. A quarter of them said they were afraid it would end the marriage.

It is up to each couple to define what they can keep to themselves, and what should be shared. This should work on a principle of reciprocity.

Sharing hidden personnal information can be even beneficial to the relationship. As an example, sharing childhood experiences or difficulties encountered in previous romantic relationships lead to a better understanding of each other.

Should you keep a secret to protect someone?

Often, people hide information from someone because they think they are acting in that person’s best interest. However, this desire to protect can sometimes backfire.

Consider for example parents who do not tell their child that he or she has been adopted for fear of any potential psychological damage as a result. In this case, these parents are playing a dangerous game; discovering later, when the child grows up, that he’s been adopted could be more devastating; it might threaten his whole construct of identity.

Dr. Rachel O’Neill, an Ohio-licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace therapist, says that keeping secrets to protect someone is sometimes misguided.

However, if divulging information to someone can put them in serious danger (e. g. suicide, self-harm), it is best to consult a professional first. Revealing the secret may not be the best decision in this case.

Should you reveal a family secret?

Family secrets can be grouped in three categories:

  • Individual secrets: those are secrets that are kept by one person from the rest of the family. For example: a husband is hiding his gambling addiction, or a young woman hiding the constant physical violence caused by her parents from the rest of the family.

  • Shared family secrets: This is information that is kept secret within a family, but forbidden to outsiders — for example, an abortion that a family member went through, or a family member alcoholism. 

  • Internal family secrets: This is when at least two people are keeping a secret from one or many other family members. As an example, parents hiding their financial problems from their children.

Shame is a powerful motive in keeping family secrets, and breaking out of silence requires a good dose of courage. Fear that the disclosure of certain information may upset family balance also motivates family members to conceal information.

Maintaining shared family secrets allows some family members to forge bonds with each other. However, in the case of internal family secrets, for example, the person being kept out of the loop knows that something is amiss, which can have a devastating effect on their sense of identity and security.

The other thing about family secrets is that chances are they won’t last forever. Therefore it is crucial to be able to choose when they are disclosed. We have all heard stories about secrets being revealed on a deathbed, and the devastating repercussions this leaves for other family members.

Evan Imber-Black, the director of Program Development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City, said: “In my experience, people have thought about all of the risks [of revealing family secrets], but have seldom thought about the benefits of greater openness.” She believes that honesty is the best policy.

However, it is important to be aware that not all family problems will disappear instantly as soon as you reveal a piece of information; telling the truth is only the first step in a long process of reparation.

After the revelation, we might have to face the anger of some, or deal with the distress of others. It is a whole network of complexities that has been shaken, an entire family equilibrium that must be rebalanced.

Questions To Ask Yourself To Help You Decide Whether Or Not To Tell A Secret

What?

What is the secret? How much value do you place on it? Does it make you ashamed, guilty, or are you afraid to reveal it? Or, on the contrary, are you proud to keep it?

Some people even consider that their secrets make them special and unique; it defines who they are. Do you think you’ll lose something if you reveal it? It is up to you to answer.

Who?

Who is affected by the content of the secret? is it mainly you, or are other people also concerned?

If someone else is being hurt by the information you’re concealing, then disclosing that information is generally the sensible thing to do.

Also, If it’s your secret, you have more room to decide whether or not to reveal it. But, on the contrary, if it is information shared with you, you should ask yourself whether its disclosure would be in the best interest of all the people concerned by this information, and try to talk first to the person who confided in you with this information.

The culture which you are part of also weighs in the decision. For example, in Asian culture, self-disclosure is considered inappropriate relatively to western cultures.

When?

When it comes to revealing secrets, timing is very important. Do you think this is the best time to reveal the information?

In general, secrets could do much more damage as time goes by. So the most likely answer to when to reveal the secret is “as soon as possible”.

Why?

There are excellent reasons to reveal a secret and excellent reasons to keep silence, too. What motivates you to reveal this secret? is it to relieve yourself, grow up, forgive, or take revenge? If the cases we have shown in the sections above does not match your reasons exactly, try to use them to get a general idea when it is reasonably acceptable to reveal a secret.

To whom?

Decide who you want to tell. It is a good idea to start with disclosing it to the person most affected by the secret, and then allow that person to decide if and when to widen the circle. However, talking to a therapist first is also a great idea. (Read more here about who to confide in with a secret

Tips For When You Have Decided To Reveal A Secret

If you’ve decided that it is better to tell the truth and stop hiding a secret, these four tips show the most essential parts that you should go through to help you do it.

1. Plan ahead

Plan where to reveal your secret. Do you prefer a public place or feel more comfortable behind closed doors? Also,There’s a difference between disclosing a secret to those who should know it, and making it public on Facebook.

Additionally, decide when is the best time to do it. For example, if you intend to reveal a secret to your loved one and he or she is going through a lot right now, it might not be the best time to do so. Consider waiting for a little time until you feel he/she can cope, but don’t take it as an excuse to put it on hold for very long or never tell the secret.

2. Be emotionally prepared

Keep in mind that if you feel very stressed or have emotional difficulties disclosing information, then you should give yourself some time to sort through the ideas in your head. It is best to be in a position of confidence in your decision to speak.

Although it is true that you will never be 100% emotionally ready to confront someone with a secret, having enough determination to pull through is the least you can do.

3. Prepare what to say

Preparing and revising what to say is a great idea, even if some people prefer to be more improvised.

Also remember to explain to the person why you kept the secret from him/her. Write this explanation and the secret on a sheet of paper and read it aloud or in silence. This will help you relieve some of the pressure and put you in a better state of mind when you reveal it.

4. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst

Be prepared for repercussions, the person’s reaction might not be what you expected or hoped for. Being prepared to deal with this situation is a crucial element.

Understand what the other person is going through. The information you have just revealed can be shocking, give him/her time to absorb the shock.

If the other person’s reaction has become out of control, don’t make the situation worse, try to calm things down then explain your situation more clearly.

5. Work through it together

Coming clean about your secret comprise more than revealing it to someone, it is also necessary to address its content and underlying issues in order to make sustainable progress in your social life.

6. Get some support

If you think it’s emotionally very difficult for you to reveal the secret, or you think the repercussions will be devastating, please seek professional assistance. Make an appointment with a therapist to talk about it first.

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

newsletter signup form



*You can unsubscribe any time via the link provided in Newsletter.

Related Articles

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

newsletter signup form



*You can unsubscribe any time via the link provided in Newsletter.