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May 4, 2012

STAWAR: The burden of secrets

With the recent news of finding bodies buried in backyards, 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 waterboarding 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 its deadly toll on the health of the fictional Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (father of Hester Prynne’s illegitimate baby) in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The 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 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.

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. 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.

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.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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