Secrets We All Keep

One little girl whispering into the ear of another

We all keep secrets. It seems to me that we have to do it. Sometimes, to protect someone. Other times, to protect ourselves.

A researcher who focuses on secrets says ninety-seven percent of people are keeping at least one secret. And he found that the average person is keeping as many as 13 secrets at any one time.

How does Michael Slepian define a secret? It’s pretty simple. If you’re deliberately keeping something from someone, then it counts.

Slepian is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. He talked to thousands of people for more than a decade of research. Thirteen secrets seems low. When I was a teen and young adult, I was keeping hundreds of things from my parents. Weren’t you, too? Or maybe you could tell your parents the truth not fear their reaction. Perhaps you weren’t drinking underage and lying about where you were going. Or, maybe your secret count was even higher.

In his book, The Secret Life of Secrets, Slepian gets into the harms of secret keeping. When it starts, how it starts, and what makes it continue. I know an elderly woman who hid that as a teen she’d had a child that she’d given up for adoption. Her husband and two adult children had no idea. But when the now middle-aged man contacted her, she gathered the courage to confess to her family, Their reaction amazed her. Because of the times she grew up in, she was afraid she’d be shunned by everyone she loved. Instead, they enveloped her in love and support. She had carried that secret’s heavy burden alone for decades.

Slepian says telling your secret to even just one person can bring mental relief. It also brings people closer together.

The research shows that withholding the secret in conversation isn’t the problem. It’s thinking about it at other times and planning the cover-up. “Constant vigilance”, he writes, “can be exhausting.”

We found that the more frequently people simply thought about their secrets, the lower their well-being.

Michael Slepian writing in Scientific American

But, can we really expect anyone, including ourselves, to share every secret? Surely, some things can be kept to ourselves without causing us or anyone else harm. And haven’t we all met a person who tells you their deepest, darkest secrets within the first five minutes? Sometimes things are better left unsaid.

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about a lie I started telling as a kid. I claimed to have written a poem that I took from Mad Magazine. It had been years since I repeated the lie but it weighed on me that I’d told it at all. I was an attention-seeking kid. And there were reasons for that. So I forgave myself even while admitting to my lie. It was a burden to me that probably mattered little to anyone else, proving Slepian’s theory about who the secret hurts the most.

If I ever explode, thousands of secrets will come flying out! Being a good friend means keeping someone else’s secrets. However, I agree that the secrets of others don’t carry the same heavy weight as our own. Unless it’s something dramatic like a murder! But no one’s confessed such a thing to me. (Note to friends: Don’t admit to a murder to me – I will turn you in!)

Some secrets are necessary and short-term. Like planning to propose or throw a surprise party. Others, such as infidelity, lying to get a job, or hiding one’s sexual orientation can eat away at you. Slepian says the most commonly kept secrets include a lie we’ve told (69%), romantic desire (61%), sex (58%), and finances (58%).

With thanks to Metro UK, here are the 38 categories of secrets we keep. I counted 13 types of secrets that I’ve kept at some point in my life. What about you? And is it time to finally let them go?
  • Hurt another person (emotionally or physically)
  • Illegal drug use, or abuse of a legal drug (e.g., alcohol, painkillers)
  • Habit or addiction (but not involving drugs)
  • Theft (any kind of taking without asking)
  • Something illegal (other than drugs or theft)
  • Physical self-harm
  • Abortion
  • A traumatic experience (other than the above)
  • A lie
  • A violation of someone’s trust (other than by a lie)
  • Romantic desire (while single)
  • Romantic discontent (being unhappy in a relationship)
  • Extra-relational thoughts (thoughts about having relations with another person while in a relationship)
  • Emotional infidelity (having an inappropriate emotional connection with someone, engaging in something intimate other than sex)
  • Sexual infidelity
  • A relationship with someone who is cheating on someone else to be with you
  • Social discontent (unhappy with a friend, or unhappy with current social life)
  • Physical discontent (dislike of appearance or something physical about yourself)
  • Mental health struggles
  • Inappropriate behavior at work or school (or lying to get hired or accepted)
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Profession/work discontent (unhappy with your situation at work or school)
  • A planned marriage proposal
  • A planned surprise for someone (other than a marriage proposal)
  • A hidden hobby or possession
  • A hidden current (or past) relationship
  • A family secret
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Sexual behavior (other than sexual orientation)
  • Not having sex
  • A hidden preference (or non-preference) for something
  • A hidden belief (e.g., political, religious, views about social groups, prejudices)
  • Finances (e.g., spending, amount of money you have)
  • A hidden current (or past) employment or school activity
  • An ambition, plan, or goal for yourself
  • Unusual or counternormative behavior (unrelated to the above)
  • A specific story you keep secret (unrelated to the above)

3 thoughts on “Secrets We All Keep”

  1. Therein lies the question? When does personal privacy become a secret? When does life or becoming dissatisfied with life become a secret? I’ve often been accused of rarely talking about myself. Is what I choose and choose not to share with others a secret? Too many questions unanswered to buy into this study.

    1. Hmmm. I understand your stance but I think it’s more about what you consciously choose to suppress. It’s not just not wanting to talk about yourself. It’s something that nags at you but you know you can’t share. Thanks for the comment, Allan.

  2. Is the definition of a secret something you keep to yourself that necessarily burdens you? At this time of year, I keep secrets — mainly about shopping for presents because I want family and friends to be surprised when Christmas morning rolls around. But those kinds of secrets don’t put any weight on me, if you get my drift. I’m wondering if they define that in the research.

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