04/19/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Much Stressful Secret-Keeping Is Worth the Trouble?


Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I have a friend who seems to keep no secrets at all -- at least, not about himself. Maybe you have a friend like this, too. He chats openly with his clients about his drug experiences. He tells the women he's dating when he feels attracted to others. He's even been known, on occasion, to read his own high school love poetry aloud, and crack up at its painful awkwardness right along with his audience.

And throughout all this, he never seems to feel the least bit embarrassed. On the contrary, the more he reveals about himself, the more comfortable and confident he seems to feel in his own skin -- and the more secrets about himself he wants to share.

I'm not quite as bold as my friend, nor am I sure that his approach is universally applicable. Not everyone's bosses and significant others are all that understanding, and when I think about revealing the details of my debauchery to my coworkers and mentors and parents... I feel afraid. The road to genuine acceptance is lined with rejection, which is no fun for anybody. Maybe some secrets are meant to be kept within a close-knit circle.

At the same time, my friend's principle is undoubtedly a powerful one: The more you reveal the "real you," the more likely you are to (eventually) wind up surrounded by people who respect you for who you really are. Psychological science backs up this commonsensical wisdom -- for instance, one recent study performed at the University of Texas, Austin found that keeping a secret actually raises your body's levels of stress hormones, while revealing a secret lowers them.

So, what to do? Well, how about telling secrets to strangers anonymously? In other words, what if what's really stressful about secrets isn't the fear of a particular someone finding them out, but just the mental effort of keeping them bottled up?

PostSecret isn't the only site that supports this view. Some of the top-trafficked pages on Reddit are anonymous confession fests, where thousands of users post their most humiliating ("My parents told me I was possessed by demons") and disturbing ("For the longest time I wanted to be [sexually] abused") secrets via throwaway user accounts that they delete immediately afterwards. Since no one gains any personal infamy or recognition from this, it stands to reason that most of these users -- at least, the ones who are telling the truth -- are motivated by the sheer exhilaration of saying things they've kept bottled up all their lives.

But this all raises another question: If the act of keeping a secret takes such a toll on our minds and bodies, and the act of revealing one is so freeing, is it truly healthy to keep secrets at all? I'm not talking about white lies, really -- we've all found ourselves in situations where the whole truth won't do as much good as the truth tilted at a more attractive angle. What I mean is, could all this self-reinforcing secret-keeping stress be evolution's way of telling us to let the truth out for our own good -- and for the good of the tribe?

This is, presumably, one reason why many religious traditions emphasize truth-telling as a central virtue -- and why self-help texts for Christians and atheists alike both emphasize not only a search for truth, but also a mandate -- whether from God or from one's own ideals -- to share the truths we learn with others. But even the most truth-obsessed authors recognize that there must be limits to this kind of sharing, and so they return to the same questions: How can we know when the time is right to reveal a secret? How much of the truth is helpful to reveal, and how much may damage a relationship?

My own answer, I confess, isn't the most confident one. On one hand, I think most inconvenient truths have a way of coming out eventually, especially in close relationships -- so if you're planning on sticking around for awhile, it makes sense to talk these things through with others. On the other hand, I'd say that certain kinds of secrets -- the kind we like to call "sensitive" -- can fracture some relationships even as they strengthen others.

And so we come back to the beginning. As the old saying goes, fear -- especially fear of awkwardness -- is a bad counselor. Stress isn't a particularly wise or rational informant either. So is radical honesty the best policy? If you're tired of the status quo, I'd say so. Revealing an old secret can unleash a tidal wave of relational shifts -- but it also sets us free to deal with the facts as they actually exist. And I, for one, am tired of feeling tired out by old facts.

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