Tag Archives: Secrecy

Carrying a Secret can be a Heavy Load

24 Aug

With the recent news of finding bodies buried in backyards in our region , a lot of people are probably wondering what other secrets are out there, just waiting to be discovered.  Personally I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets. In the past, even after   a friend    would solemnly swear me to secrecy, I’d usually blab to  the next person I’d see. I just couldn’t help it. Maybe this was because in my professional role as a therapist, I had to be especially careful about always maintaining confidentiality.   I’m a little better now, but not much. I hope I’m never captured by   enemies, I’d probably tell them more than they wanted to know, even before they asked. No need for water boarding with me.

People keep secrets for a lot of reasons, but mainly I think it is to avoid looking bad  in front of other people or to escape the consequences of our behavior.   Sometimes we keep secrets just  to avoid conflict with others, or to prevent our  enemies from using  information against us.

In literature keeping a secret   usually leads to something bad.  New York City writer Maria Konnikova   points outs how keeping a terrible secret takes it’s deadly  toll on the health of the fictional  Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (father of Hester Prynne’s  illegitimate baby)   in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  She wonders if a terrible  secret could actually do that much damage  to someone.  She says,  “The Scarlet Letter gets one thing so incredibly right   that it almost…  makes up for everything it gets wrong: it’s not healthy to keep a secret.”

It seems, however, to depend on the nature of the  secret.  Gail Saltz, a psychiatry professor at Cornell Medical School,  says that  secrets can be either  “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and  his colleagues found that secret thoughts tend to  be  very  accessible.  People can recall memories, which  they had been asked to keep secret, better than memories which  they had been instructed to tell the truth or lie  about.   Secrets come to mind much more often than almost any other kind of thoughts. They frequently preoccupy us, contrary to  our conscious wishes.  Wegner found that in his experiments people were   likely to give  unintentional hints about things they were supposed to keep secret.  Wegner  also found that personal secrets often  result in outward signs of distress, and  that secrecy can itself create further unwanted thoughts,  continuing  the cycle.

Knowing how difficult it can be to keep secrets, Wegner his  colleagues  give the following common sense suggestions: 1. Avoid  alcohol since it diminishes inhibitions.  2  Reduce stress, since it  decreases  conscious control. 3. Write the secret down (in a symbolic way this disclosures the secret  and relieves some of the   pressure, even though     no one actually reads the secret  and finally  4. Avoid situations where being asked to keep a secret is likely to occur.

When we speak about secrets we use a special vocabulary and we often say things like, “We carry (or hold)  a secret”   as if where an actual physical object. Our language also refers to   “being weighed down” or “carrying a heavy  burden ,”  and confession is said to “lighten our load”.  Researchers  have investigated how our bodies may literally interpret  such  metaphorical descriptions.   For example, the importance or seriousness of information is often associated with weight. A serious persons is said  to have “gravitas”, or an intellectual work may be  said to be quite “weighty”. Dutch  studies have shown that when subjects learn  that a certain book is  important, they begin to   perceived that book as physically weighing more.

Along similar lines,  Michael L. Slepian from Tufts University and his colleagues found that bodily  states, associated with physical burdens, may be simulated when  people have important personal secrets. In this study they looked at the behavior of people who harbored important personal secrets, such as infidelity or sexual orientation. In a series of studies,  they found that subjects, who were currently held an important personal secret, perceived hills to be steeper, distances  longer, and  physical tasks  requiring  more effort than they would otherwise. Participants were also significantly less  inclined  to help other people with physical tasks. It was as if their own energy reserves were depleted.  The more subjects thought about the secret,  the more the secret   influenced   their perceptions.

The researchers found that   concealments are   perceived at a somatic level as physical burdens,   they can result in actual physical overexertion and exhaustion. This exhausting effort required to maintain secrets over many years,  may also explain why criminals sometimes suddenly confess,  despite years of previous  silence.

Psychologist James Pennebaker, from the  University of Texas, found  that people who had a serious trauma before age 17 were much more likely to have health problems as adults. The majority of these people kept the trauma secret. Pennebaker had   subjects visited his lab each week to  write about their  traumatic experiences. Some subjects talked about the trauma, while others just wrote about it, showing their writing to  no one.   Divulging the secret to others or simply writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned,   were both highly  correlated with physical and mental  health improvements.  People who continued to conceal  their traumatic secrets showed more  hypertension, influenza,  and even cancer.  The subjects, who wrote about their secrets demonstrated, enhanced immunity and in some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients even increased.

In similar research studies, holocaust victims who finally disclosed secrets   demonstrated a marked improvement in their health status,   after the interviews.  The more they disclosed, the more their health improved.

How the disclosure of personal secrets creates such health benefits is rather complicated.    Pennebaker says that writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps subjects better understand and master aspects of the secret that had been hidden. Disclosure can become a habit, leading to more openness in relationships. Revealing secrets can also reduce obsessive ruminations and their accompanying anxiety. Without   anxiety and self-absorption,  people become better listeners and have more opportunities for richer social relationships.

Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly and her colleagues   examined people’s health statuses and found that secretive people, tend to be sicker than other people. She found that  “self-concealers,”, were often   more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have discomfort.  She believes there may be a genetic link  between   secretiveness and   vulnerability to illness.

Kelly  also believes that  keeping  benign secrets can have  positive aspects,  providing personal boundaries or avoiding  unnecessary social conflicts.  Disclosing  a   malignant secret, may have a positive outcome, but that  depends on having a safe confidant.   If such a confidant is not available, Kelly takes a cue from Pennebaker and   suggests writing about the secrets, which  simulates the benefits of disclosing the secret  to others.

So, it you have some deep secret that is troubling you, spend some time  writing about  it  down,  or  find someone that you trust and take a chance. You may find that a large burden is  finally lifted.  Just don’t tell me anything,  if you know what’s good for you.

From a column that appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

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