Take it to your grave is a saying often heard as it pertains to secrets. Almost all of us have things that we choose to keep entirely hidden from our circle. Sometimes we hide things for fear of being judged. As a sense of setting boundaries or protection, we sometimes keep the things we cherish most to ourselves. Or, we may keep secrets to protect those we care about. Despite our intentions—whether they’re good or bad—secrets often cause more harm than good. So, what makes us willing to keep things hidden when they often hurt us more than they help us?
Think about things that you keep hidden about yourself. Often, we have many small quirks we prefer to keep to ourselves rather than share with everyone around us. Maybe it’s a secret “guilty pleasure,” like reality television or adulterated pop music, or we have to hide our plans to avoid hurting the feelings of others. In many circumstances, we justify keeping secrets because we believe it will cause less pain. It may be less painful to ourselves or others who may not be able to handle the truth. We hope to protect the feelings of others and to protect ourselves from becoming too vulnerable.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the average person has at least 13 secrets right now—primarily about romantic desires, lies, and sexual behavior (note 1). Again, these secrets are to protect the feelings of another person. Of course, secrets are things one believes will end a relationship if they were exposed. I am of the belief that the very act of keeping secrets stresses the most important relationship of all — the one you have with yourself.
Keeping a secret is a solitary act. If it truly is a secret, no one else knows the things we intend to hide from others. Still, it often becomes a stressful task. When hiding something, our minds can be consumed by the paranoia of thinking that everyone knows our secret already.
In another study performed by Michael Slepian, a professor of Management at Columbia Business School, researchers found that the act of keeping a secret can be physically demanding, noting that participants appeared as though the secret they carried was a physical burden (note 2). This struggle could be the very factor that contributes to the exposure of a secret. When battling with this burden, we tend to not act like our normal or authentic selves.
Often, we are hyper-aware of how we are acting when we are hiding something. We constantly overanalyze our actions to ensure they seem as normal as possible. But trying not to think about our secrets only leads us to be further consumed by them. Slepian notes that keeping a secret is a goal that “you can never fully accomplish” (note 3). The near-constant anxiety and paranoia are a large part of what makes keeping a secret so burdensome.
The famous Bible verse from John 8:32 writes that “the truth will set you free.” For the person who kept the secret, that burden is lifted from them when he or she reveals it. They no longer have to be consumed with the worries of others finding out the truth. Understandably, the immediate reaction to the truth will cause more pain than feelings of freedom: keeping a secret about mental or physical infidelity in a relationship, can seem like a burden for the partner whose trust was violated and discovers the secret. It’s always better to know the truth about the people and circumstances around us as it allows us to make more informed decisions and to protect ourselves.
No matter how many times we hear about how much better it is, to tell the truth, and be upfront with others, we continue to keep secrets. In some ways, keeping secrets can act as a defense mechanism: We protect ourselves from becoming exposed to judgment about things that we already feel guilty about and ashamed of. In the same way, the act of hiding secrets is an act of repression: By not allowing others to know these things, we eliminate any possibility of having to talk about it with others. And so, we convince ourselves that we will not have to think about it either.
Not everyone has massive secrets they are hiding from the world, but we are all selective with what parts of ourselves we choose to show certain people. And this is wise. What we keep hidden may say more about us than what we choose to show. For example, when you meet someone for the first time. We are more conscious of how people perceive us based on first impressions. This vulnerability leads us to want to conceal the things we worry others might not like. In doing this, we may discredit our personality. We conceal things that make us different in an attempt to come across as more likable to others. We assimilate ourselves to who we think they would prefer us to be, and we are often doing this subconsciously. It is only when we begin to develop a deeper relationship with the person and trust them not to judge us that we allow them to see more of ourselves.
As psychology studies proved, keeping secrets is a burden. We often think that by shielding parts of ourselves from judgment, we are doing a good thing for ourselves, yet, in doing so, we also shut off the opportunity to be appreciated for who we truly are. Of course, lies hide the actions we know hurt others. But if we can’t accept our flaws, our mistakes, there’s no way that anyone else will be able to either. By keeping secrets are we truly living our best lives and living our truths?
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22390267 (note 1)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28481618 (note 2)
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/05/shhhhh/526581/ (note 3)
http://biblehub.com/john/8-32.htm (note 4)