Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Art of Secret Keeping

Everyone can relate to having and keeping secrets - such as secret romances, illness, sexual orientation or preferences, job or financial problems, drug/alcohol problems, or illicit ways of pleasure seeking.  You may also be keeping secrets for others - like a family member or friend sharing something troubling and asking you to not share it with anyone else.  Humankind has kept secrets for thousands of years, but is keeping a secret good for your health?

James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated a large part of his career to studying the health effects of keeping and disclosing secrets.  He and his colleagues found that keeping secrets increases the body's stress response.  On the other hand, their studies found that writing down one's deepest thoughts and feelings around private matters (also called expressive writing) can have immense benefits.  Over and over again it has been shown that sharing deep, dark secrets on paper or a computer (for some even anonymously online) can improve both emotional and physical well-being.  For example, individuals who participated in the writing study made fewer visits to their physician and showed improved immune system markers.  

Besides posing a stress to our bodies, how else could keeping secrets hurt us?  People who lead a double life may have more difficulty defining their identity and may be unsure of how others may react if they showed their true selves.  Secretiveness can also affect self-esteem, as it causes people to seek out less (much needed) social support.  The social environment also poses the question of who will listen.  A social network can be of little use if it signals that it does not want to know or see the truth (also called denial).

It turns out the question around sharing vs. keeping secrets is more complex than originally assumed.  Recent research shows that keeping secrets can have a protective function for people.   For someone who is sensitive to rejection, it may be better to keep certain secrets.  And it may not be the secret keeping per se that drives people to ruin, but rather the possibility that secrets keep people isolated from others.

Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that if you choose to reveal a secret, do so to someone who feels safe and close to you.  When applying this to the concept of psychotherapy, it is interesting that one of the major factors of positive change is a positive and trusting relationship between therapist and client.  Therapists are required by law and ethics to keep what is told to them confidential (with some very specific exceptions), which is another important aspect promoting safety and therapeutic change.  This may give way to another lesson: the ability to form a safe and trusting relationship may be a pre-requisite to any big revelation.  If all else fails, we all can turn to the trusty old pen and paper - and then either shred or lock away our written secrets.

PS:  Dr. Pennebaker co-chaired my dissertation and provided invaluable support and guidance throughout my graduate student days.  I am forever grateful to him.

Resources for further reading:
Anita Kelly at University of Notre Dame
James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin