Secrets hurt their holders

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It was the beginning of the late 1980s. Don and Judy were finally ready to start a family. But, after a few attempts, they realized that they would have to adjust their plan. They would need a sperm donor. And, even before they found one, they had already decided. They were going to have two children, and they would never tell their children that their father was not biologically related to them. This was a secret they promised to each other that they would never tell.

For the past decade, I’ve studied the psychology of secrecy. I know the story of Don and Judy’s secret well because I’m their first child, and I learned about this secret the same day I gave an invited talk about my research on secrecy for a job interview. I was 26, and if you’re wondering what it’s like to learn such a major secret, I’ll tell you this: it was surprising. It was shocking to learn that I was not biologically related to my father nor his parents with whom I was very close. And it was even more shocking to learn that my brother was, in fact, my half-brother, conceived from a different donor. But I had not been the keeper of the secret for all those years. And, while the revelation for me was jolting, the greater impact and harm came to my parents themselves.

Secrets usually hurt their holders most. Keeping a secret is associated with lower life satisfaction, lower-quality relationships, and symptoms of poor psychological and physical health. Our secrets often hurt us, but not for the reasons you might think. While hiding a secret in conversation can feel uncomfortable, the hiding turns out to be the easy part. Simply thinking about a secret outside of a social interaction is associated with feelings of shame, isolation, and inauthenticity. These experiences can leave us feeling helpless, at the mercy of our secrets, and unable to cope. And these harms can begin the very moment you decide to keep a secret.


Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum



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