The word “secret” implies scandalous, illegal, or at least embarrassing. Actually, it could be anything that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others. Note: intention is essential; that’s what separates secrets from things merely unknown.
Of course there are “official” secrets: state secrets, corporate secrets, secret formulas/recipes, even secret ingredients. All can be important, even interesting.
But most of the secrets in our lives are personal, such as
- The first erect penis I ever saw was my brother’s.
- I overheard people at my sister’s concert talking about what a terrible musician she is.
- My father in law helps me remember my wedding anniversary every year.
- I put already dead batteries in obnoxiously loud kids’ toys.
- I’ve had sex with 13 men.
- I lose on purpose when playing video games with my spouse.
- I’m afraid to see a therapist, because then I might have confirmation of what I suspect.
- My dog is a better sleep partner than my spouse.
- I never wear pants when on video calls for work.
- I resent the cat for stealing my spouse’s affection.
- If my dick wasn’t so small, I wouldn’t be such a great athlete.
- I shave my face every day, and I’m a woman!
- I haven’t washed my socks in three days.
- I steal the kids’ Halloween candy.
- I pretend to snore so my partner isn’t as embarrassed about her own snoring.
- I shoplift at yard sales.
- I fell for her when she said my sweaty body was sexy.
- I’m the one who lost my sister’s Totally Hair Barbie when we were kids.
- My mother is an alcoholic, and I pretend I don’t know.
Perhaps surprisingly, people are eager to share their secrets!
Thousands of postcards poured in, in several languages—and braille—from all over the world. The project exploded beyond its original intent. By early 2006, Frank Warren had compiled early postcards into PostSecret: Extraodordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives.
The project spawned shows, exhibits, a website, and several more books: A Lifetime of Secrets (007), The Secret Lives of Men and Women (2007), My Secret (2006), and PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God (2014). (Eventually the website was taken down because viewers started posting porn and attacking some of the secrets shared.)
Warren believed that sharing secrets, even anonymously, was liberating, and often therapeutic. I highly recommend any and all of these books as fascinating reading, and also as sources of insight and (for writers) inspiration.
Psychology of Secrets
The topic of secrets is so seductive that of course, psychologists got onto the topic. At Psychology Today, you’ll find a pretty comprehensive research overview in the article, Why We Keep So Many Secrets, 2022. The facts and statistics that follow are from that article.
There are 36 common types of secrets identified by researchers, and about 97% of people have a secret in at least one of those categories. The average person is currently keeping secrets in 12 or 13 of them. Examples of the categories include:
- Hurting another person (emotionally or physically)
- Illegal drug use, or abuse of a legal drug (e.g., alcohol, painkillers)
- Habit or addiction (but not involving drugs)
- Theft (any kind of taking without asking)
- Something illegal (other than drugs or theft)
- Physical self-harm
Among more than 50,000 research participants surveyed, the most common secrets include a lie we’ve told (69 percent), romantic desire (61 percent), sex (58 percent), and ﬁnances (58 percent).
It’s OK to have secrets, says psychotherapist Gillian Straker. “We are definitely entitled to have our own inner subjectivity and our own inner lives. “With social media we are having less and less private space — so to have some private space, even if it’s from your partner, feels to me a positive.”
On the other hand, the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual impact of secrets are well documented. In fact, research suggests keeping secrets can significantly boost stress hormones, impact blood pressure, inhibit sleep, contribute to mental health and substance use disorders and even increase chronic pain. Every time you think about a deeply held secret, stress hormones such as cortisol can surge, impacting your memory, blood pressure, gastrointestinal tract and metabolism. “Those hormones also include norepinephrine,” Gopal Chopra, CEO of PingMD says, “which affects parts of the brain where attention and responses are controlled.
OF course, some people are more secretive than others. Some common synonyms of secretive are reserved, reticent, silent, and taciturn. While all these words mean “showing restraint in speaking,” secretive also carries a suggestion of deviousness and lack of frankness or of an ostentatious will to conceal.
Yes, there are differences between some of the secrets of women and men, at least with regard to sex. According to Justin J. Lehmiller Ph.D.:
- Women are more likely to report keeping sex secrets because they don’t think their partner would understand.
- Men are more likely to report keeping sex secrets because they don’t think their partner would approve of their behavior.
Bottom line: Secrets are common, numerous, wide-ranging, powerful, and personal. Consider your secrets and the pros and cons of keeping them.