I grew up in a Midwestern town where the prevailing wisdom was to only talk about what was pleasant, and to keep secrets if necessary, to make that happen.
This meant staying mum when someone offended you, rarely vocalizing negative feelings, and smiling a tad more than is necessary. It also meant zero room for airing any sort of dirty laundry, especially not the kinds of personal secrets that keep people up at night.
Many of us like to believe that sweeping unpleasant truths under the rug might make them eventually go away. Instead, keeping secrets — especially heavy ones — can spin an even more complicated web of isolation and deception.
So why do we do it? The truth can hurt (sometimes really hurt), and often that’s why. But in many situations, it’s better to get it out and let the healing start, rather than allowing it to become more toxic.
“If the situations in your daily life are regular reminders of the secret, and you find it stressful to keep it, then yes, it can have emotional and physical consequences,” says Dean McKay, PhD.
“Some people also find keeping secrets stressful out of a general concern they will ‘slip,’ and this frequent and recurring thought of the secret can in itself be stressful.”
This difficulty is especially compounded if you feel trapped by the secret, or if it brings up other negative feelings like guilt, shame, or anxiety.
“If the secret is stigmatizing (a trauma history or issue of sexual orientation, for example), or if it feels like you would not be accepted if people knew your secret, it can create shame. If the secret is a big part of your identity or who you are, it can lower your sense of self-worth,” says Dr. Kristine Chapleau, PhD, a psychotherapist at Indiana University Health.
“If you feel emotions of shame, depression or anxiety, if it feels like a burden and you have to suppress it, it can interfere with your actions toward others,” says Chapleau. “These types of secrets can also lead to an increase in stress hormones and a lower immune system response that makes you more likely to get sick.”
Of course, not all secrets are created equal.
“Not all secrets are bad,” Dr. Chapleau says. Take, for example, jobs that require strict confidentiality for the safety of patients or customers. You hardly want your psychologist, your doctor, or your neighborhood CIA agent telling the secrets of their work to everyone they meet.
It’s also true that some secrets are perfectly fine being left in the past, especially if it’s something inconsequential for most others to know, like details about your sex life or that one super embarrassing moment from high school that still haunts you.
“The reality is that all people have personal aspects that they choose not to reveal,” McKay says.
Do you feel sick when you think about the secret? Do you regularly worry about your life going up in flames if this secret were to come out? Do you feel shame about that secret?
For the record, you never deserve to feel shame, no matter how “bad” you believe the secret is. As powerful as shame is, it’s rarely ever productive.
According to McKay, it’s important to try to free yourself from secrets that are making your daily life feel precarious.
“An example might be something that, if found out, would be damaging to your relationship or employment,” McKay says. “These would be quite problematic, and the sooner you can alleviate this — reveal it somehow or get into a different situation where the secret is not relevant — that would be ideal.”
If you do decide that your secrets are inhibiting your capacity for joy and would be better off being let out into the world, and if that secret doesn’t put other people in physical danger, there are healthy ways to share it.
There’s no guaranteeing that getting the secret off your chest will feel good right in the moment, but there’s something to be said for the catharsis of it, and odds are that you’ll ultimately be glad you did it.
Choose your initial audience wisely. “You can talk about [your secret], but be judicious,” Chapleau says. “Pick somebody whom you know to be understanding or supportive, or talk to a psychologist or counselor.”
“Sometimes anonymously sharing secrets online helps to make you feel accepted and that you’re not alone,” Chapleau says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one [with your kind of secret] but there are others out there facing the same issue and they can be supportive. But pick your online audience carefully and be sure it’s confidential and private.”
Make sure that you’re also choosing an online community that’s compassionate. “Some people on social media are the opposite of supportive and that can compound your problems.”
If the issue is more about coming to terms with the secret in your own mind (we’ve all been there), consider unburdening yourself by writing it out.
“Sometimes the hardest person to tell a secret to is yourself,” Chapleau says. “We can have trouble admitting a secret to ourselves. Addiction for example, the first person you have to admit it to is yourself and it can lower your self-esteem. Doing so helps you to accept yourself and work to improve.”
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not the sum of your secrets. Even if you’re harboring something that feels big and scary, letting it out will help take away its power.
If you feel like you’re drowning in the pressure of it, a good therapist can help you sort through things. While every situation is different, in many cases you’ll find that when the truth does come out, it’s actually a much smaller deal to others than you expected.
Whatever your secret might be, it’s just one tiny piece of the millions of things that make up the whole of your story.