I'll admit it: I'm a terrible secret keeper. Nothing makes me feel as high and mighty as being on the receiving end of a juicy secret: So-and-so got fired, this couple eloped, that friend is having a surprise party thrown in their honor. Someone decided I was worthy enough to be entrusted with information so few people know. Drunk with power, I feel the unavoidable itch to tell the confidential matter with anyone who will listen. Even though I’ve sworn to keep the information classified, I undoubtedly spill the beans.
Many studies have noted the psychological toll of keeping secrets: we perceive physical tasks as being more difficult when we carry a secret, and even thinking about a secret has been shown to negatively impact our wellbeing. Other research has shown that revealing secrets can help us find closure and determine how the stories we were hiding (like a major health diagnosis or a traumatic experience) impacted our lives. But is it ever OK to share a secret?
Determine your motives for sharing
First, think about why you’re dying to share this secret. “We don't want to be alone with [secrets],” Michael Slepian, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, who studies the psychology of secrets, said. “I think it’s for the same reason that people don’t like being lonely, period: To be alone with your thoughts is a way of being alone. If you feel like, I don’t want to be alone with these thoughts I’m having about this thing, that’s going to make it more likely that you're going to tell someone about it.”
I know that as soon as someone specifically instructs me not to tell another soul about their secret, I can’t stop thinking about it; I often simply want to talk to another person about it to get their insight or even debate. In which case, it’s fine to tell a trusted confidant, Slepian said. “That’s why people will reveal secrets when they shouldn't, because they want that help [and advice on what to do]. They want to chat about it,” he said. “Just a quick conversation about something can go a really long way to help you feel OK with this thing or capable [of] handling it.”
Find an impartial audience
Slepian said people shouldn’t share entrusted info with anyone if they or anyone involved with the situation could lose their job or get in legal trouble as a result. If not, “I think talking to someone totally removed from the situation is the right way to go,” he said.
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, recommended telling a close family member, partner, or friend who has less invested in the person or secret you’re sharing. An even better option? Venting to a therapist, counselor, a religious leader. “Therapists are one step removed and they have less passion about the topic than you do. They’re more used to holding this type of information,” Walfish said, noting even therapists even confide in other licensed professionals.
Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, said to choose a confidant who won’t judge the people involved in the secret. An unbiased secret receiver who doesn’t know either party directly and who has no personal experience with a similar situation is best. Another worthy candidate, he said, is a long-distance friend, to whom you can spill all the pertinent details—e.g., someone told you they’re having an affair—but change any names and your relationship to them. “You have shared it but the consequence is minimal because that person doesn’t know anyone here,” Shah said. And always be explicit about whether the recipient should keep this information to themselves, too.
If all else fails, telling a stranger—like a bartender, hair stylist, or barista—with no relation to the secret can help you dish without worry. Because, as you’re probably well aware, you can’t fully trust your friends to keep your secrets. “You share a secret with one person and you tell them not to share with anybody else,” Shah said. “You know what happens? They share with 10 more people.”
A 2015 study seems to support humans’ affinity for sharing with strangers, finding that 45 percent of survey respondents confided in people they weren't close with. In fact, the popular secret-sharing community PostSecret, in which people anonymously mail their secrets written on a postcard, was founded on the idea of sharing without consequence. Reddit forums devoted to confessions provide other avenues to sharing secrets—though experts wouldn’t recommend putting anyone’s dirty laundry on the internet.
Consider waiting it out
Also consider waiting a few days—or even just a few hours—to see if you still feel the itch to gossip after the initial excitement has worn away. Divorce attorney Gabrielle Hartley, the co-author of Better Apart: The Radically Positive Way To Separate, said she has found this useful in her career in the small community of Northampton, Massachusetts, where she lives and works. “I run into people at the grocery store, at the gym at the yoga class, on Halloween—you just cannot share anything,” she said. “In fact, within the context of a small town practitioner, you realize how it would adversely impact not only your life but your kids’ life, never mind the responsibility with your profession.” Earlier in her career, when she had the urge to fill her husband in on incendiary information about new friends he’d wanted to invite over for dinner (whom she already knew through the context of her job), she’d say “I’m not sure that family is my cup of tea.” Then, maybe years later, she’d tell him a vague story without any context to tie back to the person. “It’s not that interesting after a while,” Hartley said.
Stay aware of the consequences
Ultimately, when it comes to secrets, imagining a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario is imperative. What would you say to the friend who told you the secret if they found out you shared it? Does the relief of unburdening yourself of the news of, say, your cousin’s financial woes outweigh that risk? Is there any risk attached to not sharing it? And sometimes, the best-case scenario looks like instructing your friends not to tell you secrets in the first place. “If you know that you are the kind of person who cannot keep a secret,” Walfish said, “it’s incumbent upon you to share that with the other person.”
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