Keeping secrets is not easy. There's a reason behind phrases like "I need to get something off my chest" when talking about revealing a secret. There is also ample research suggesting that keeping secrets can have negative effects on well-being. But where does that weight and burden come from? Can you measure how much each of your secrets actually weighs on you?

Although there isn't a physical scale to weigh your secrets on, secrets do accumulate burden from different sources and to varying degrees. Think about how the weight of a backpack is actually the weight of several items put together. In our research, we identified four primary sources of secrecy burden (or backpack items) that are crucial for understanding how keeping secrets can have negative consequences for both personal well-being and relationships.

Personal Aspects of Secrecy Burden

Imagine you recently lost your job and are choosing to keep it a secret from your friends. How difficult is it to keep that a secret? Do you think about it often and find yourself frequently distracted in everyday life? Have you changed anything in your normal routine because of this secret? These are some of the things that contribute to the first source of secrecy burden: daily personal impact. Across two studies, we asked adults about a negative personal secret that they were currently keeping and found that higher levels of daily personal impact burden were associated with greater psychological distress, loneliness, and inauthenticity while keeping the secret. That is, the more secrets start to infiltrate a person's day-to-day life, the more negative consequences for both personal well-being and relationships.

Now imagine that your friends found out about your job loss, either because you told them or some other way. Would that be an uncomfortable conversation to have? Would your social reputation suffer? Are there other consequences that you would worry about? These future-oriented thoughts and concerns make up the second source of secrecy burden: anticipated consequences. In our studies, this aspect of secrecy burden was also associated with negative well-being and inauthenticity, although to a somewhat weaker degree. However, unlike the secret's daily personal impact, higher burden from anticipating negative consequences upon revealing was also associated with lower flourishing (a general decrease in positive psychological well-being). It seems that having concerns about the future is more closely associated with how positively a person views their life overall, compared to experiencing difficulty in day-to-day life.

Social Aspects of Secrecy Burden

These first two sources of secrecy burden primarily stem from the individual secret keeper and the information being concealed. But what about the social burden of secrets? Imagine that now the "secrets backpack" feels heavier or lighter depending on the person you're walking with. Secrets are always kept from at least one person, suggesting that some of the burden should stem from the specific relationship in which that secret is kept. In other words, it's not just what the secret is, but also from whom you are keeping that secret and how that relationship might be impacted.  

For instance, does not telling one of your friends about losing your job make you feel more distant from them? Do your interactions with that friend feel more difficult or less authentic? These aspects make up the relationship impact of secrecy burden. We found that not only was this burden associated with more anxiety, depression, and inauthenticity among secret keepers, but also that higher relationship impact burden predicted lower well-being two to three weeks later. We found a similar effect for anticipated consequences burden, suggesting that the prolonged negative consequences of keeping a secret start to arise when the negative implications of that secret extend to one's current relationships or potential future.

Lastly, even if hiding your job loss (or another life event) is not particularly stressful or does not interfere with how you interact with your friends, you may still feel social pressure to share that information. Perhaps your friends expect you to share that type of news with them, or maybe you feel guilty about not telling them, given how close you are. These feelings contribute to the pressure to reveal aspect of secrecy burden. Interestingly, although perceiving greater pressure to reveal one's secret was associated with greater anxiety, depression, and inauthenticity in the moment, this aspect of secrecy burden did not predict lower well-being two to three weeks later. That is, although thinking about these pressures may lead to lower perceived well-being at a given moment (potentially by invoking threats to personal autonomy), the effects do not seem to last over time.

What can you take away from this research? First, secrecy burden is complex, consisting of both individual and social components. Second, these different aspects of secrecy burden affect your personal being and relationships in different ways. The next time you find yourself struggling with a secret, ask yourself this: what exactly about keeping this secret is stressful for me right now?

For Further Reading

Bedrov, A., & Gable, S.L. (2023). How much is it weighing on you? Development and validation of the Secrecy Burden Scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Alisa Bedrov is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying the effects of keeping and sharing secrets on close relationships.