Pssst! A Secret About Secrets.

Secrets are bad for you.

So says David Eagleman, author of the new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.  I happened to catch Eagleman on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and was so intrigued that upon arriving home, I sat in my driveway to finish listening to Eagleman discuss time, Ulysses contracts, and–my favorite–secrets.  And then, unsatisfied, I got the book.

Eagleman uses Doris Kearn Goodwin’s team of rivals concept to describe the different thought processes battling in the brain when confronted with a secret.  And that is what makes a secret a secret:

One part of the brain wants to reveal something, and another part does not want to.  When there are competing votes in the brain–one for telling, and one for withholding–that defines a secret.  If no party cares to tell, that’s merely a boring fact; if both parties want to tell, that’s just a good story.  Without the framework of rivalry, we would have no way to understand a secret.

Secrets create tension in your brain, but your brain doesn’t like the tension that secrets create.  This is why keeping secrets is bad for your health:  your stress hormones go up and your immune system function goes down.

But Eagleman prescribes a way around the negative effects of secret-keeping.  Telling your secrets, or even writing them down, improves your health and lowers your stress hormone levels.  Confessionals, Postsecret, and diaries are all effective secret-keeping coping strategies.

So what does this mean for you and me?

Don’t Keep Your Secrets Secret

Eagleman doesn’t discriminate, but I think there are good secrets and bad secrets.  A good secret is something we want to treasure in our own heart for a time, safe from the eyes of others.  (Actually, our brains wouldn’t consider this type of “secret” a secret, because we don’t yet want to share it.  But it is secret in the sense that we don’t want to share it with others.)

But a bad secret is a burden.  Don’t keep bad secrets!  Tell a therapist or a friend, or take simple–but effective–action and write that secret down!

Don’t Spill Your Secrets Indiscriminately

A secret is a big deal, and places a real burden on the secret-keeper.  Before you tell things you want kept confidential, ask yourself, “Is it fair to ask this person to keep my secret?”  (Many times, the answer will be a resounding “Yes!”  But ask yourself before sharing, because sometimes, the answer will be “no.”)  Proceed accordingly.

Don’t Share Other People’s Secrets

Our brains think secrets are a big deal, so respect the secrets of others.  If someone has confided in you, don’t even think about gossiping about it.  You may write it down, or discuss it with a therapist, or perhaps a stranger (Readers, I’m debating this one–what do you think?), but discussing the secret with mutual acquaintances  is out of the question.

(There are exceptions.  Therapists are required to break confidentiality when they believe their patient to be in danger of harming themselves or others.  But this is the exception, not the rule.)

Utilize a Secret-Keeping Coping Strategy

If you’ve been entrusted with a Big Deal secret, at the very least, write it down.  And then you can rip it into a million tiny pieces and throw it away.

Want to Find Out More?

Incognito was an interesting read, but not quite as interesting as listening to Eagleman’s interview with Terry Gross.  If you’re interested in hearing more, I highly recommend listening to his interview here.  Or, for the full experience, get the book.

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Leave A Comment
  1. Now I know why secrets have always stressed me out. It makes sense. If you watch little kids who know a “secret”, you can see them fighting the urge to “share” or “keep” the secret. It does make sense that we adults have the same basic issues with keeping a secret. As always, thanks for the advice!

  2. Sarah says:

    I agree with keeping secrets being bad for your health. When we keep secrets to save face during unpleasant circumstances they often add to the stress of that negative situation. Sharing those anonymously is a good idea to at least alleviate some of the stress in that situation.

  3. Jeannine says:

    Yes! Whenever someone asks me not to tell something, I tell them I must tell one person – usually my husband – or an out of state friend that doesn’t know them. I found out long ago that at least ONE person must be told, or it eats at me saying, “Remember not to tell anyone this.” Kind of like, “Don’t eat that Oreo in the cabinet.” I obsess and must eat it (or tell it)! Once I’ve told someone, the desire goes away, I forget about it, and then when it does cross my mind again I can calmly NOT tell acquaintances!

  4. Milissa says:

    I think it’s okay to share secrets with strangers…or to share a friend’s secret with someone that is a stranger to that friend. I wouldn’t do it in a way that’s mean or hurtful to the friend, more like a way of human connecting. And If you read the PostSecret website or books, you find lots of people share the same secret…it can be used as a way of encouragement and healing. Whenever I am in a situation where I’m sharing a secret (mine or someone else’s) I never tell the person it’s a secret…so the other person just sees it as me saying “You’re not alone, I’ve felt that way too.” or “Someone else has been there, it’s okay.” In that way, it never feels like gossip…and it doesn’t burden the stranger with “secret keeping.” Just my 2 cents. This is an interesting topic. 🙂

  5. April says:

    There is a phrase “You’re only as sick as your secrets” , this is true, you need to find a trusted person to share your secret “problems” with, it is healthy, and allows you to grow beyond it. I really enjoyed your blog post, very interesting. I also let people know that I share things with my husband, we are a unit, and there should be no secret keeping between spouses. ~April

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