The Secrets That We Keep

My Friend’s Secret

When I was in high school, I had a close friend who harbored a secret. It was a secret that had a negative impact on her family, her social life as a teenager living at home, her relationships, and her view of the world. The secret often brought chaos to her life at home, though that chaos ebbed and flowed. When the secret did foster chaos, she had no idea what to expect would happen next and what that would mean for her and her family. 

From the outside, her family appeared to be the ideal American family. Her dad had a good job and her mom worked part-time while being the primary caregiver to her and her siblings. They lived in a nice but modest home. Her parents drove late model cars. They went to church regularly. She and her siblings got good grades and mostly stayed out of trouble. What was less visible to the outside world was that her mom was an alcoholic. 

My friend fought tooth and nail to keep that fact from anyone outside her family. When I observed the aftermath of one particularly out of control party and her mother’s extreme hangover the next day, my friend swore me to secrecy. The panic in her voice was palpable as she implored me not to tell anyone what I had seen. From what I understand, that secret still impacts her mental and physical health and her relationships today – 30 years later.

The Impact of Secret Keeping

Merideth with her pointer finger in front of her mouth

How many secrets are you holding onto right now? One? Five? Ten? None? Research suggests the average person carries 13 secrets at a given time. As youngsters, we often relished knowing a secret. To know something others did not know was exciting and made us feel important. It was also difficult to keep that secret. This was evident when one of my son’s friends told him that he was coming to my son’s surprise birthday party the following day. Ugh. Weeks of clandestine planning down the drain! Elementary schoolers struggle to keep secrets. Plenty of adults do too.

In fact, keeping a secret is work. It requires mental, emotional and, in some ways, physical effort. What is it about secret keeping that is difficult? We often think that concealing a secret is the exhausting or challenging part. Surprisingly, it is actually the experience of our mind wandering to the secret when we are not in a situation of trying to conceal it that is taxing. We think about the secret, the weight of it, how to make sure it stays a secret, or whether it should even be kept a secret at all. 

How we feel about the secret also shapes how exhausting it may be to keep the secret. When we feel shame (e.g., “I am a bad person.”) about a secret, our minds are even more likely to wander to it,  leading us to feel more fatigued. The same is not true for secrets that trigger feelings of guilt (e.g., “I did something bad.”). Guilt related to a secret does not make our minds wander to the secret more – perhaps because if we did something bad, then we may have the opportunity to right the wrong or fix it. If we are simply a bad person regarding a secret, then all may seem lost and thus we ruminate on the secret over and over again. I think this experience of shame was central to my friend’s struggle with her secret. Though she was in no way responsible for her mother’s excessive drinking, she felt shame about the situation and her helplessness to do much about it.

The intention of secrets is concealment of information from one or many parties. The act of concealment often leads to feelings of inauthenticity and pretending, which leads to more inauthenticity and exhaustion. Even when our minds wander to a secret, that mental process reminds us that we are being inauthentic – that the holding back of information also requires a holding back of part of ourselves. In fact, our minds are likely to wander to a secret twice as often as we are actually in a situation that requires us to actively work to conceal the secret.

Secret keeping can also make us feel fatigued in that it leads to feeling isolated or lonely. Further, to keep a secret we not only lie to or engage in subversion with others in order to conceal the secret, but we must often lie to ourselves. This creates distrust with others and distrust with ourselves, possibly increasing the feeling of isolation.

Diffusing a Secret’s Negative Effects

Whether keeping a secret negatively affects our well-being depends on the kind of secret that we are holding close to the vest. Secrets that seem immoral (e.g., illegal, harmful, or wrong) are more likely to result in shame and thus undermine our mental, emotional, and even physical health. Those that involve a relationship or another person may help us feel socially connected and in doing so improve our well-being. 

What can help prevent a secret from making you feel mentally, emotionally and physically crappy? Confiding it to someone you trust. It sounds simple but it works. Okay, depending on the secret, it may not be or sound simple. It may be downright terrifying. Sharing a secret can help relieve the mental, emotional and physical burden of secret keeping. 
A 2019 study found that when we confide a secret, we feel supported by the one in whom we are confiding the secret because they may provide comfort, insights, advice or emotional support related to dealing with the secret. This kind of support subsequently helps us feel more capable of dealing with the secret. When we feel better able to cope with it, our mind wanders less frequently to the secret and we feel that our lives and well-being are better for having confided it.

We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

This is a line from The Chicks song, “Sleep at Night,” which is about the lead singer, Natalie Maines, discovering her then-husband’s affair with a coworker. It is not a phrase I had heard prior but I connected with it deeply. Upon exploring it further, I learned that it is the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous. Interestingly, at the time I learned of my friend’s secret, I encouraged her to look into Al-Anon or Alateen for help in dealing with or responding to her mom’s drinking. She would not even discuss it. Looking back, the threat of someone outside the family knowing this secret was simply too great.

When we hide from the world and are not our authentic and true selves, we stay sick. The secret eats away at us – our minds, emotions, bodies, and spirits. Our mind wanders to the secret and we ruminate on it again and again. What should we do about it? What if someone finds out? What if people think less of us when they find out? It is the fear of discovery that leads us to become preoccupied with a secret and leads to more sickness and greater detriment to our relationships and well-being. 

This is even more true if we feel shame about the secret. To be clear, shame doesn’t just accompany secrets where we did something foolish, illegal, or wrong. Shame can come with secrets we hold about how someone treated us. As in Maines’s situation, when a partner is unfaithful, we may be tempted to keep it a secret. Being cheated on is mortifying and many people may initially blame themselves for the cheating. Or shame may come with a secret related to how we feel about ourselves – that we’re not good enough or will fail at something.

Confiding secrets that are harming our well-being and our relationship with ourselves is key to neutralizing the power that secret has over us. Telling a close friend about a partner’s betrayal, or that we are afraid we may get fired or laid off soon, or that a coworker with greater rank is sexually harassing us is the first step to relieving the secret’s burden. If we choose wisely in whom we confide the secret, we can also get support in figuring out what to do with the secret or in response to it, if anything. Giving voice to secrets helps take away their cancerous power that can eat away at our sense of self, well-being, and confidence in ourselves. 

Should You Tell?


  1. How many times a day do you think about the secret?
  2. How many times a day do you have to actively conceal the secret during a conversation with someone?
  3. How often does the secret distract you from your work, from school or from interactions with friends or family?
  4. How often do you feel shame regarding that secret?

If the answers to many or even any of the above are “often” or “daily,” it may be time to consider confiding that secret in a trusted friend or family member.

Bottom line: Secrets take up a lot of space in our minds and bodies. They can be a profound energy suck, especially if we are ashamed of the secret. Talking with a trusted confidant can limit a secret’s impact. Depending on the secret or situation, that confidant may be able to help you determine if there’s something you need to do about the secret. At the very least, the right confidant will be a sounding board for you, asking you thoughtful questions, being emotionally supportive, and helping you shoulder the burden of the secret you are carrying.

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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