How Keeping Secrets Can Hurt You

Michael Slepian is a professor at Columbia Business School who is interested in the impact of keeping secrets. In a soon-to-be-published study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology he reports his findings on a 1,000-person survey1.

The researchers not only asked about what types of secrets people kept, but how often they thought about it. So, what did they find?

  1. The average person had thirteen secrets,
  2. They had never told anyone five of the thirteen secrets.
  3. The most common secret overall involved simple lying.
  4. The most common secret that they had never told anyone involved “extra-relational thoughts” they’d had about someone other than their current partner.

An interesting finding was that, compared to his previous studies, there was no correlation with keeping secrets and health. What did matter was how often they thought about it. If the secret wasn’t bothering them, there was no impact. On the other hand, if they thought about the secret often and associated negative thoughts with it, their health was negatively affected.

Especially harmful were the secrets that made people feel fake or inauthentic. The more they felt that they were repressing their true selves, the worse their sense of well-being was. This goes well with the perceived stress studies that show that if you feel that stress is affecting your life, it is!

So what can you do about it? One way is to release the stress that your secret causes. In other words, tell your secret. Of course, you would have to do this to an individual you trust. Personally, as a Christian, this is one area where I feel at peace because I can confess my secrets to God in prayer. Is a secret keeping your from having peace? Just pray about it.

1 To take the survey and see how you compare with the other test-takers, go to

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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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