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The secret to keeping a secret (and why most of us can’t)


By Amanda Cassidy
13th Oct 2023

Unsplash

The secret to keeping a secret (and why most of us can’t)

Don't tell anyone but...

A friend feels betrayed. She confided in a few of us about her problems conceiving a baby. Her fertility challenges are sensitive and she gets upset. We spend the evening comforting her over a few glasses of wine, brainstorming ideas, fiercely protective of our lovely pal. We all have our issues, today it is her turn.

But a few weeks later, her husband is horrified when a mate jokes around about him shooting blanks. They are deeply private about their issues as a couple and trace the comment back to the fact that one of our friend’s husbands is the mate.

In other words, the circle of trust had been broken because one of the girls told her partner about this friend’s problem. And it turns out that this is quite common.

Confide

“Many people don’t see telling their other half as ‘breaking’ a secret,” explains psychologist Emma Hillard. “Especially if they are outside that particular circle and it is an issue that doesn’t affect them directly.”

“I might say something in passing but if someone asked me not to, I’d never,” vowed one woman we asked about this. Another pointed out that “we shouldn’t have to clarify when things are private and when they are not. I’d never open up to anyone if a friend or family member had a private issue. I don’t need an ‘off the record’ warning first.

“My partner wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in hearing about something intensely private going on with my friend. Not in a mean way, just because he rightly knows that it is none of his business.”

On average we keep about 17 secrets others have confided in us. That’s on top of 13 secrets of our own.

Research by the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences published these findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and their paper found that keeping others’ secrets had mixed consequences.

They found that being confided in brings relational benefits, but is also a strain.

All in the mind

Dr Greenaway, who was part of the study in Melbourne, says that secrecy really pervades all aspects of our lives. “It’s a big part of our work and personal lives. What we generally see is that the more you’re keeping it secret from core people in your life, then generally the bigger impact on your psychological wellbeing.”

The reason people open up in the first place WITH THOSE THEY TRUST is that they are ready to open up about what is often a burdensome problem or hidden anxiety.

Now, I don’t know about life in Australia, but my life is drastically less-secretive than those Aussies. I’ve a couple on the go at any one time but mostly, I forget about them and that’s probably why my friends tell me I’m pretty reliable when it comes to zipping it.

The biggest secret I’ve ever kept was when I found out I was pregnant and distilled bottles of non-alcoholic wine into alcoholic bottles when on a hen. In my defence, I was very early on my first baby and I was afraid to tell anyone in case I jinxed things.

But keeping any secret involves some serious mental multitasking. And that’s why we are, in general, not so great at it. “Even if you are the most loyal of friends, keeping something sifted apart from our usual thoughts is a cognitively demanding task and our minds are not as nimble as we think. It is a surprisingly complex manoeuvre to keep in mind not only this privileged piece of information but what your conversational partner does and doesn’t know,” observes psychologist Art Markman.

And then there is the biological part of us that craves being the centre of a group, a special person who knows something others don’t. The temptation to say, don’t tell anyone but… is often too much for us. Bringing others into the secret fold abstains us, we imagine, because it will go no further, right?

Wrong.

And therein lies the problem with my friend. Telling her husband her friend’s secret isn’t ok just because he is outside of the social sphere. A secret is a secret and if you feel unable to trust yourself to keep your lips sealed, perhaps next time there is a girlie pow-pow or a sisterly sesh, bow out or move on.

Loose lips sink all kinds of ships. And friend-shaped ones are the most precious of all.

Image via Unsplash.com 

This article was published in November 2021.