Is it really true that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead? Possibly … or maybe keeping secrets will just hasten you to an early grave. A post on The Atlantic highlights the high costs of secret keeping on a person’s physical health: everything from chronic conditions to the common cold have been associated with keeping secrets, while spilling your emotions and experiences through writing has been shown to boost immunity. Not only that, but keeping secrets can be such a burden that hills seem steeper, distances longer, and stacks of books heavier.
With all this research revealing what a difficult load a little bit of information can be to carry, I almost feel bad for the times I have asked friends and family to tell no one about whatever I am about to say to them. It isn’t really fair for me to put them through that kind of angst or anxiety. And while I have felt betrayed and disappointed when I’ve discovered that they broke my trust, I realize in retrospect that there are things I could have done to ease the burden of secret keeping: things that I can use in the future to ensure that I’m not putting my confidants in the position to either break my trust or jeopardize their health.
But secrets can be fun, useful, and sometimes necessary, too. They can make your confidant feel important, special, and trusted. They can bring you closer together. And they can protect others from being hurt. It is practically impossible to do away with secrets altogether, so here are some thoughts on how to keep a secret the healthy way:
1. Let your confidant know who they can tell.
It’s usually not the case that you don’t want your secret spilled to anyone at all. But if you phrase it that way, you are putting your friend in a tough position. So be specific about if there is anybody she can talk to about it. In my book, spouses are definitely okay. I assume that wives tell husbands and husbands tell wives everything, and I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that. People I don’t know are okay as well. If they don’t know me, they probably don’t care all that much about what’s going on with me — but they can be an important safety valve for my friend.
2. Let them know who they can’t tell.
It seems a little rude to say, “Just as long as you don’t tell so-and-so,” but there may be good reason for it: their safety or particular circumstances in their lives that would make the information more potent or problematic for them. Or it may be as simple as: “This is something I need to tell them myself, when the time is right.”
3. Give them a time limit.
Some secrets are time-sensitive. “I just need you not to tell anyone for the next couple of weeks.” Or, “It’s all going to come out by the end of the month, but I don’t want it getting out before then.” Letting them know that this isn’t something that they need to keep under wraps forever can make the secret more manageable — and make it less likely they’ll either stress about it or spill it.
4. Tell them if there’s some wiggle room.
I’ve asked friends and family to keep some pretty trivial secrets before: silly things that really weren’t that important. And while I have been hurt to find out that they were a little looser with their lips than I had asked, I realized that it really wasn’t a big deal that they told. I probably should have let them know from the beginning that while I’d appreciate it if they didn’t say anything, I understand that if they feel like they have to tell someone. On the flip side, if they know that this really is serious, at least they know you’re not burdening them over nearly nothing.
5. Check in with your confidant.
If you are going to burden somebody with a secret, I think it’s important to check in with them every now and then — they might deserve an update on whether or not it’s safe to talk about now, or you might want to check to see if they are handling it well and give them permission to forget about it or talk with someone if it is causing them too much stress or anxiety.
Have you ever had to hold onto a secret that caused you a lot of stress? How did you handle it?
image credit: Lizzie Heiselt