No matter how much you're told that honesty is the best policy, it's only natural to keep something to yourself every now and then. But a new study has revealed the mental health impact of keeping secrets that make you feel shame. And the experts have some pretty sound advice on how to avoid such an impact.
Researchers at Columbia University looked at the difference between keeping a shameful and guilty secret on mental health. "Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships, and our health," the study's lead author, Dr Michael Slepian, said in a statement. "How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied."
The team surveyed 1,000 participants to find out how much shame or guilt people associated with their secrets and how often they thought about each secret in the month prior to the survey as well as how many times they tried to hide the secret from other people. Certain statements such as "I am worthless and small" and "I feel remorse and regret" were used to measure shame and guilt respectively.
The reasons these emotions were chosen was because they are the "two most highly studied self-conscious emotions", according to Dr Slepian. "Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt centre on the self."
The results — which were published in the American Psychological Association's Emotion journal — showed a number of things. Firstly, that people who felt their secrets were shameful tended to think about their secrets way more often. This was compared to people who felt guilty about their secrets or people who felt no shame or guilt.
Secondly, researchers found that those who felt shame felt small, worthless, or powerless while those who felt guilt associated with feelings of tension, remorse, or regret. No link between shame or guilt and the hiding of secrets was determined.
So what is more likely to be construed as a shameful secret? Well, according to the study's authors, anything associated with mental health, physical appearance, or a prior traumatic experience fell into the shame category. For guilt, secrets involving lies, a violation of trust, or hurting another individual cropped up.
All of this is a very scientific way of saying that trying not to think about the secrets you keep could do you the world of good. Of course, that's easier said than done in some cases. If you're struggling to let something go, Dr Slepian's advice is to try to swap any feelings of shame for ones of guilt. That may sound counterproductive, but hear him out for a second.
"If the secret feels burdensome, try not to take it personally but recognise instead that it reflects on your behaviour and you can change that," he said. "Guilt focuses people on what to do next and so shifting away from shame toward guilt should help people better cope with their secrets and move forward."
I suppose that does make sense. Here's to a shame-free 2019.