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The mental cost of keeping someone else’s secret

Email Keeping others' secrets can take a toll on mental health, study finds RN By Fiona Pepper and Joanna Crothers for Life Matters

Posted February 13, 2019 07:00:13

A young woman whispering in the ear of a female friend. Photo: A new study shows keeping other people's secrets can be both a burden and a boost. (Getty: Westend61) Map: Australia

At any given time we are keeping an average of 17 secrets — not our own, but secrets that have been confided in us.

That's according to new research that also shows being told a secret can take a toll on our mental health.

"We know a little bit about how people feel about keeping their own secrets, which is often weighed down, burdened," Katharine Greenaway from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, who conducted the study, explains.

"We were interested in whether that burden might actually transfer over when someone else tells you a secret."

Audio: The mental cost of keeping secrets (Life Matters)

She set about determining "the benefits and burdens of keeping others' secrets", interviewing more than 600 participants who were holding more than 10,000 secrets.

The research uncovered significant "relational benefits" to being trusted with a secret — but a more negative impact too.

"We do seem to be burdened by other people's secrets," Dr Greenaway says.

To investigate this burden further, her colleague Michael Slepian developed a questionnaire which identifies the most common secrets.

It classifies 38 different types: from secrets that involve other people, such as theft or infidelity, to personal secrets such as a negative health diagnosis.

Dr Greenaway says the questionnaire found "it's not really about the category of secret that seems to cause the burden, it's about the significance".

The burden is real

The greater the level of confidentiality required, the greater the impact on the secret-holder, Dr Greenaway says.

"It's a very social thing, keeping a secret," she says.

"You need to know who knows the secret, who to guard that information from and of course to not stray to topics of conversation that might reveal the secret.

"It can be really socially taxing as well as personally taxing."

A man sitting at a bar alone. Photo: Dr Greenaway says the burden of knowing someone else's secret can be socially taxing. (Unsplash: Ismail Hamzah)

Dr Greenaway says the impact of keeping a secret is mainly felt when we're alone and our undistracted mind returns to the secret.

"We're ruminating about that information, what it means for us, whether or not it might get out in the future, how we can cope with that information going forward," she says.

"And so it's actually, ironically, when we are alone with our secrets that they seem to be most costly for us."

Listeners of RN's Life Matters shared their own experiences of carrying the burden of someone else's secret.

"I think the toughest secret someone ever shared with me was that they were self harming. It was really difficult … knowing this was a secret that I couldn't actually keep." — Anonymous

"At work my boss shared with me her profound depression and related alcoholism … some disclosures come with the need to get someone to act. [It's] very, very hard because secrets are traditionally kept." — Anonymous

One listener has the stress of carrying a friends' secret over many years.

"My friend told me four years ago that she had a daughter when she was 18 and had her adopted out. She's never told her husband or children. We are 74 now and she has the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease." — Anonymous

The benefits of being trusted

Additionally, Dr Greenaway says there is a plus side to being told others' secrets — positive or negative.

"We can also feel closer to people as a result of them telling our secrets," she says.

"Even though we feel burdened we can also have this offsetting of that cost by feeling a greater sense of intimacy or closeness with the person who had confided in us."

Dr Greenaway explains that there is a sense of privilege in being identified as someone trustworthy and "it distinguishes you from others".

Three women sitting on a bench at the beach whispering to each other. Photo: Unlike negative secrets, a positive secret can make us feel energised and excited. (Unsplash: Ben White)

Her research also revealed trends regarding types of people we tend to choose to confide in.

"One is compassionate people, people who are likely to be empathetic and kind when we tell this information to them," she says.

"Another class of people that we impart our secrets to are assertive people — these are the people that are going to get us the help that we need."

Some secrets are exciting

Being told a secret isn't always a burden.

Dr Greenaway says being told a positive secret — such as news of an engagement, pregnancy or job promotion — can have the opposite effect.

"Whereas negative secrets weigh us down, make us feel fatigued and burdened — positive secrets actually make us feel energised and excited and really looking forward to what's to come," she says.

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Unlike negative secrets, Dr Greenaway explains, positive secrets are almost always going to be revealed.

For the holder of a secret, there's often a sense of relief when sensitive information is finally shared.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of disclosing to someone how we're feeling," Dr Greenaway says.

"We know from self-disclosure literature that this is incredibly powerful as a mental health activity."

Topics: human-interest, community-and-society, social-sciences, mental-health, health, australia, melbourne-3000

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