The *Secret* Way To An Awesome Life: 4 Insights Backed By Research


I’ve got a secret.

In fact, I’ve got 13 of them. So do you. That’s the average number of secrets people say they have when surveyed. Five of them are “complete secrets” – you’ve never told anybody. And eight more are “confided secrets” – you’ve told at least one other person but won’t be going public with it anytime soon.

A study of 2000 people in the US revealed the most common types of secrets. 92% of the time secrets fit into these categories:

  • Hurt another person (emotionally or physically)
  • Illegal drug use, or abuse of a legal drug
  • Habit or addiction (but not involving drugs)
  • Theft
  • 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
  • Extra-relational thoughts
  • Emotional infidelity
  • 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
  • Orientation or gender identity
  • 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
  • A specific story you keep secret (unrelated to the above)

Can you relate to any of the above? I’m guessing you can. (With apologies to Nietzsche, “When you stare into the internet, the internet stares also into you.”)

Here’s the thing: often, keeping secrets isn’t good for us. Especially the ones that nag at you. We don’t need to announce them on an LCD billboard in Times Square but we’d be better off if we opened up to someone. That’s not always an easy thing to do – so let’s find a way to make it easier.

We’re going to dive into the hidden world of secrets and get a better idea of how they work, how they make us feel, how we can cope and who we should talk to.

We’re going to get some help from the work of Michael Slepian. He’s a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia University. He’s done an enormous amount of research on secrets (a Starbucks employee once confided in him that she gives decaf to customers that are rude to her.) His book is “The Secret Life of Secrets.”

Let’s get to it…


The Downside Of Not Opening Up

More than a hundred studies have shown a consistent pattern: if your go-to way of dealing with issues is bottling them up, you’re gonna have problems. Not talking about your difficulties is correlated with health issues and lower life satisfaction. But that’s not all…

Keeping secrets harms your relationships. Study subjects who kept secrets from their spouse reported being less comfortable accepting kindness from their partner, got less enjoyment out of social activities and were more interested in self-punishing activities like isolation, receiving criticism and even lab tasks that caused physical pain. Yeesh.

And if that’s not enough, keeping secrets makes you dumber. Monitoring what you say so you don’t spill the beans is cognitively draining. Researcher Clayton Critcher told subjects not to use the words “breakfast” or “therefore” and then asked them a series of questions. Cognitive performance on a series of subsequent tasks plummeted. It was like playing a mental version of “the floor is lava.” When we have to choose every word we say with a pair of tweezers, we get stupid real fast.

But the worst part wasn’t talking with others – it was how secret-keepers felt when they were alone. Conversations are a limited part of your day, but guilty rumination can be limitless. The more unresolved an issue was, the more shame, guilt and anxiety we feel.

Meanwhile, opening up helps. Michael found, in general, the more people disclose, the healthier and happier their relationships were.

Now I’m not saying all secrets will be well received but research shows that those close to you are much more charitable than you’d expect. Rarely does one fact overturn everything they feel about you. They’re probably not going to hate you and they’re probably not going to double up on the floor and laugh like a hyena. They’re much more likely to say, “I’ve had an experience like that too.”

As I talked about in my book, vulnerability often makes people like us more. Through a complicated system of emotional ropes and pulleys, it makes people feel closer to us and builds trust. When deciding whether or not to open up, treat the issue of “What will people think?” as a real question, rather than a scary rhetorical one.

But what if this is something you really, really, really can’t tell anyone?


If You Must Keep It A Secret

I don’t want to come off as naïve. Some secrets, if shared, could be devastating. (It’s more than a little disconcerting to realize you could blow your life up in less than 5 text messages.)

Some secrets may feel shameful and embarrassing but don’t really impact anyone other than you (“I wet myself in front of my fourth-grade class and still have nightmares about it”) but other secrets directly impact others and could deeply hurt them.

Michael found that the more immoral a secret is, the more shame you feel. The more solitary and personal it is, the more isolated a secret makes you. And the more a secret is emotional vs logical, the less insight you have into it. This points to the three ways that secrets often hurt us: shame, loneliness and lack of insight. But that also points to three angles that can help us cope.

Ask yourself:

  • Is anyone harmed by this secret? If no one is harmed by your secret, remember that past mistakes are in the past. You just need to give yourself permission to move on.
  • Does the secret protect anyone you know? If the secret protects or benefits someone else, you can find solace in knowing that however bad it may be, this action isn’t purely selfish.
  • Do you have any insight into it? Just understanding why you are keeping a secret can help you feel more in control of the issue and better able to deal with it.

Studies show that considering these things notably increases people’s ability to cope and improves their well-being when the secret was something they couldn’t share.

But there is another solution… maybe you can talk to someone about it. However, this raises yet another question – who?


Who To Talk To

Michael surveyed thousands of people and found that most of us would prefer to share our secrets with someone compassionate. No surprise there. But we also like the idea of talking to someone who is assertive and decisive – someone who will push us to explore solutions and do something about it.

He also learned what we do not want in confidantes: blabbermouths and moral judgment. (Michael also found people who are morally judgmental are more likely to blab your secret, so make sure to open up to someone who has a similar moral code.)

More often than not, sharing secrets doesn’t burden the other person. In a study of 200 subjects, Michael found that listeners were happy to learn the other person’s secret. It conveyed trust and intimacy.

And the big question – do the people we talk to keep our secrets confidential? 70% of the time, they do. You know what? That number doesn’t exactly thrill me. Probably doesn’t thrill you either.

So there’s another alternative to explore – opening up to someone unconnected to you. If you’re afraid that someone spreading your secret would absolutely kill you to death, telling a stranger, a therapist, or a wise Uber driver can be a good way to have your cake and eat it too. You get the secret off your chest, but the risks are minimized.

And opening up really did help people. Michael’s work showed the more someone was worried about a secret, the better they felt after discussing it. On our own we often dwell on the most catastrophic result. Talking to someone else can give us a more positive and realistic perspective as opposed to just cycling the doom loop faster.

But what if there is absolutely no one you would feel comfortable talking to? Well, there’s a solution for that too…


If You Can’t Talk To Anyone

If you feel that opening up to anyone would put bullet holes in your soul, then write about your secret.

University of Texas at Austin professor James Pennebaker has found that writing about our problems can have effects similar to therapy. And it can help you avoid those negative health issues associated with bottling things up. (More details about Pennebaker’s writing method here.)

This a good option and very safe – but you don’t get all the benefits of opening up to a real person. If you’re the type who catastrophizes issues into some apocalyptic End of Days scenario, writing isn’t the best way to soothe yourself. It doesn’t give the emotional support a friend can. Other people can challenge your negative assumptions in ways that Microsoft Word cannot. But if talking to someone doesn’t seem like a realistic option, writing can be a helpful mental disinfectant.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up – and we’ll find out the best way to deal with the good secrets we might be keeping…


Sum Up

Here’s how to deal with secrets:

  • The Downside Of Not Opening Up: Not opening up hurts your health, your relationships and makes you dumber. No bueno. For most secrets, talking to someone is the best way to go and others rarely judge us as much as we think they will.
  • If You Must Keep It A Secret: Asking yourself if anyone is harmed, if the secret protects someone, and knowing why you’re keeping the secret can help you cope.
  • Who To Talk To: Pick someone compassionate and decisive who is not a morally judgmental blabbermouth. If you’re afraid they won’t keep things confidential, you can open up to someone unconnected to the situation.
  • If You Can’t Talk To Anyone: Write about it. Writing can act like therapy. (This may say a lot more about my career choice than I’m comfortable sharing.)

So what should you do with your good secrets?

The opposite: keep them to yourself, at least for now. Uncertainty magnifies emotions — bad and good. So don’t ruin Aunt Marge’s surprise party by blabbing. You’ll enjoy it more and she’ll enjoy it more if you keep it to yourself.

We think that stopping to smell the roses is a good thing because positive events are rare. But that’s not true. Studies show positive things are more common than negative. The issue is that positive events are more predictable — so we take them for granted. Negative events are less predictable, so they hit harder.

This makes it a very good idea to keep positive things a surprise. It makes them less predictable for others and gives them the greater impact usually reserved for the bad. Make the great moments as unique as the sad moments usually are and you have a prescription for joy.

We need to hold on to those good secrets just like we need to open up about the negative ones. The times I’ve spent dwelling on my own negative secrets have been some of the most painful and pointless moments of my life. (Which is really saying something.)

There are some good things in store for you. And they will feel all that much better when they happen because you don’t know what they are yet. So stay optimistic. The world keeps secrets from you…

And some of them will turn out to be very, very good.


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