Am I a Bad Person for Keeping a Secret? Experts Explain Why You Feel This Way—And What You Can Do About It
What is it about keeping secrets that make us feel bad?
Recent findings, including a study from Columbia University, suggest that the problem isn’t so much the act of keeping secrets. Instead, our distress lies in repeatedly thinking about info we’re trying to conceal. The Columbia researchers, for instance, found that people who spent more time ruminating about their secrets tended to experience worse physical and emotional well-being.
As our mind wanders, secrets “begin to consume our mental and emotional energy,” says Michelle Felder, LCSW, MA, founder and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders. “The guilt and shame we feel can lead to a deep sense of fear of what others would think if the secret was revealed.”
Of course, the type of secret makes a difference. Holding onto details about a surprise party is one thing. But when betraying someone’s trust (like covering for a family member’s infidelity), we tend to feel remorseful “because we know how this information might hurt them and us,” says Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, owner of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services in Phoenix, Arizona. “Fear has a big role in creating feelings of shame because we often play out the worst-case scenarios of what might happen if the other person finds out our secret.”
Shame can make us spiral, while guilt might actually be helpful
The terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Guilt is a feeling of regret in response to “a specific situation, whereas shame is something we feel frequently and consistently, even if we haven’t done something wrong,” says Dr. Fedrick. If we cheat on a test, for example, we might feel guilty for getting a higher grade than we deserved.
In contrast, shame comes from feeling as though there’s something wrong with us or we’ve failed to live up to our own or someone else’s standards, says Felder. That means we tend to feel ashamed of our performance whether we cheat or study hard for the exam. No matter what, we feel like a failure. Felder explains that “guilt describes a feeling that there’s something wrong with what you did whereas shame describes a feeling that there is something wrong with you.”
When it comes to secrets, shame and guilt tend to prompt different reactions, explains Dr. Fedrick. Let’s say a friend pulls you aside at a gathering and asks you not to tell anyone that they’re interviewing for a new job. Afterward, another friend approaches you to find out if everything is okay.
Even though this secret isn’t harming anyone, you might experience shame because you’re withholding information and “potentially upsetting someone who wants to know something out of curiosity,” says Dr. Fedrick. If instead, your friend had sworn you to secrecy because they lied about their resumé, you might feel guilty, knowing that you’re participating in their deceit.
We’re more likely to become preoccupied with secrets that evoke shame because they “can chip away at our sense of self and lead to feelings of worthlessness,” says Felder. “Feeling guilty about a secret, on the other hand, allows us space to make different choices.” While it can be difficult to move past feelings of disgrace and powerlessness which often accompany shame, wishing that we had done something differently (meaning, feeling guilty) helps us move forward in a way that aligns with our values.
How can we prevent secrets from affecting our mental health and relationships?
Living with secrets can lead to anxiety and distress. So, if you’ve been hiding something for a long time, consider how important it is to who you are today, says Felder. When we shift from “believing that secrets are a reflection of our identity, to understanding them as a reflection of past choices or behaviors, they can be less taxing on our relationships and mental health,” she adds.
Sometimes, we keep secrets out of habit and not necessarily because they can ruin our relationships. To the extent possible, avoid “putting yourself in a position that requires you to keep malicious or harmful secrets from loved ones,” says Dr. Fedrick. “It might be necessary to set a boundary with people whose secrets are making you uncomfortable.” It’s okay to tell a friend who keeps confiding in you that you don’t want to discuss certain topics.
If you find that secrets are impacting your well-being, consider speaking with a mental health professional who can help you process the information, says Dr. Fedrick. You can also try journaling about your feelings. And so long as your intention isn’t to feel better at someone else’s expense, sharing a secret with someone you trust can ease your sense of isolation. You don’t have to shoulder the burden on your own.
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