The Two Types of Secrets
By Claire Sykes
A secret is any information you decide to keep from one or more people whom you believe would expect to know it.
Everyone has them— from surprise party plans to love affairs. At some point, you're keeping a secret. Whether it's an embarrassing memory, shameful facts about a friend, or that simple scheme to mark a birthday, it's something you wouldn't dare share.
A secret is any information you decide to keep from one or more people. But things you think are just off-limits (your number of previous boyfriends, for instance) may strike someone else as buried in deceit. Whether something is private or secret depends on the expectations that the people in a particular relationship have about what should be disclosed.
Many secrets are harmless, like that surprise birthday party plot. Others are "immoral," says Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., a Harvard psychology professor, "because you're keeping something from someone who should know."
Family therapist Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., professor and author of The Secret Life of Families, says there are two types of secrets:
Essential secrets promote normal growth and development. Your daughter's crush on her teacher is a good example.
Toxic secrets cause psychological damage or allow decisions to be based on missing information. Put an extramarital affair in this group.
Most likely, your secrets—about yourself or someone else—are those you or others find embarrassing, shameful, disgusting, or traumatic. "The most common secrets," says Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame , "are sexual matters and information that makes you look like a failure or mentally ill." A coworker's affair with the boss, alcoholism, or deep depression would all go on that list. Also, anything that's taboo or something that you feel would change the way others act toward you (an HIV diagnosis, for instance) often stays under wraps.
Why we keep secrets
Normally, you keep secrets to save yourself or others embarrassment, shame, or emotional pain. Perhaps you fear you or others will be shunned or abandoned. Then again, you may agree to secrecy out of kindness (keeping your impending divorce from your dying mother) or to foster a bond with someone (vowing not to tell a soul about your friend's facelift).
While a secret can unite, it also can divide. Your feelings of guilt can distance you from others. Someone who suspects you're hiding something may not trust you and may harbor a secret in turn. Family secrets can estrange relatives and cause painful communication trouble, Dr. Imber-Black says.
Keeping secrets "can also make you ill," says Dr. Wegner. "When you have a secret, you try not to think about it or feel the emotions connected with it. But by attempting to suppress your thoughts and emotions, you end up being obsessed by them instead. This produces stress, which can lead to long-term health problems."
Should you tell?
If you're not bound by a vow of confidence, you may at some point want to unburden yourself of your secret. You may want to write it in a journal or talk it out with a trusted confidante first. This may be all you need to do. But if you do decide to tell, steer the conversation toward an issue surrounding the secret, to see how the person responds initially.
It takes courage to let a secret go. If you do, be ready to work out any conflict that follows.
You may never share some secrets. But many people have told even their deepest secrets to at least one other person Trust your gut. People generally know best when you should and shouldn't reveal.
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