Psst. Do you want to know a secret?
The truth is, I am lousy at keeping secrets. My advice to you would be: If you want it to stay a secret, keep it to yourself.
It’s not that I’m especially noble or ethical, you understand. It is more that I have a hard time remembering to keep straight all the stuff people tell me in secret. All I’m saying is, if you tell me something in confidence, at some point I will likely let slip the little nugget you have shared. Just be forewarned.
It’s not that I can’t keep my own secrets. I think I am pretty good at not giving any hints to my wife about what is in the package under the Christmas tree or what I bought for her birthday. Of course, that is partly because she has been dropping hints in the weeks leading up the celebration.
In that situation I don’t feel like I am guarding some super secret military plans upon which rests the fate of the Free World. Heck, I figure she already knows what is under the tree, so it’s not really a secret.
Still, I think I can say I have managed to surprise her on more than one occasion. It is not particularly difficult for me to find room in my head for secrets that I concoct. It’s the secrets of other people I have trouble keeping “in the vault,” as the characters on “Seinfeld” might say.
It is interesting how we phrase it: We “keep” a secret, which means we must hold on to it. We can never let it go. We seal our lips so the secret can’t slip out. We keep it under our hats or under wraps, and we take it to our graves.
All that concealing requires quite a lot of effort and energy. It can wear a person out. What usually happens in my case is I forget it is a secret and either let the cat out of the bag or spill the beans.
Research seems to bear out the notion that keeping secrets requires effort that affects a person’s focus. One study mentioned in the most recent Atlantic Monthly asked subjects to keep a secret and then perform certain tasks. The secret-keepers did worse on spatial-ability tasks and gave up sooner on tests of handgrip endurance.
It also appears that bigger secrets are more difficult to keep than insignificant ones. Subjects asked to think of an important secret they carry were more likely to see hills as higher and distances longer than subjects who were thinking of minor secrets.
Other studies indicate that keeping skeletons in our closet may affect people physically. One study from the University of Notre Dame showed that those who keep secrets “show anxiety, depression and overall body aches and pains.” Another makes a link between keeping emotional memories secret and problems ranging from the common cold to “hypertension, influenza and even cancer.”
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, says keeping secrets causes the brain to “fight with itself.” He found that writing down secrets releases stress hormones in the brain while keeping secrets puts the brain in a constant state of stress. Many studies confirm that writing down secrets even if the writing is later destroyed can be healthful in many cases.
It is important to remember that, as beneficial as coming clean might be to the one holding the secret, other people are affected when confidential information is revealed. Sometimes that is to the good, and other times it is harmful. It is always best to be thoughtful of others when making such a decision.
As for me, when it comes to secrets I try to keep Benjamin Franklin’s advice in mind: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.