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So some researchers reckon that the average person is keeping about 13 secrets, half of which they've never told anyone. This was a huge shock to me because I am not keeping nearly that many secrets. I couldn't even think of that many things you would have to keep secret. So I started thinking a lot about what makes something a secret, and why my rate might be low.
Aspects of secrecy, in no particular order:
Good secrets vs bad secrets
I heard a way for parents to explain to their kids if an adult who asks them to keep a secret is being shady: A good secret is something happy that you keep secret for a short while, and then reveal - like a christmas present, or a baby name, or an intention to propose to your boyfriend. A bad secret is one that you are told never to reveal to anyone, ever.
Your own secrets vs other people's secrets.
Secrecy vs privacy - does keeping it feel like a burden?
So I suppose I do know a lot of things about other people that I don't share - say, a traumatic event in a friend's childhood. But they don't feel like secrets because I don't really feel any sense that I ought to tell someone. Why would I?
Similarly, if you're gay and you need to keep that secret because homophobic people have power over you, that's a secret you're forced to keep. But if you're into BDSM and you don't tell your boss about it, that's not 'keeping a secret' it's just, you know, appropriate boundaries.
Secret from everyone, or just a few people?
If a friend talks to me about relationship troubles, and says "don't talk about this to anyone, though", I will probably interpret that as "don't talk about this to anyone who is ever likely to meet me or my wife, and don't use my name". But I would feel pretty free to talk about the situation in an anonymised way to an unconnected friend, so I wouldn't feel burdened, so it's not a secret.
But it might feel like a secret if I was a good friend of their wife, and interacted with her all the time - then I might start to feel like I was lying by omission.
Secrets connect the secret-sharers and disconnect you from the secret-not-allowed-to-knows
So they are a tribe-enforcing thing. They are a way of forming bonds between people (like a pact to never tell anyone about the Terrible Crime you committed). That's why secret societies have all these secret rituals and stuff. Not because the secrets themselves are particularly interesting, but because it makes you a tribe, and separates you from outsiders.
So, who do you want to be connected to, and who do you want to be disconnected from? That's why secrets within relationships are so dangerous: they disconnect you from the person you want to be connected to. But a (harmless) secret shared between people who want to feel connected is a delight.
Four tips about secrets
Don't assume people will know you want them to keep something confidential
If you share something private, always tell the person explicitly to keep it confidential - don't assume they'll know to
People have really different ideas about what's personal. Maybe you tell me your income, because in your culture you don't talk about money. And you don't tell me to keep it private because it's so obvious to you that it's a private matter. So I talk about it casually to the next person I see. Or your sex life, or your secret ambitions. Never assume something is 'obviously' private.
There are levels of confidentiality:
- Don't tell anyone, ever
- Don't tell anyone except your long-term romantic partner
- Don't tell anyone who I know or might meet one day
- You can tell people, but don't use my name.
Tell them which level you need. Most people can't manage 1, so ask them before you tell the secret if you need Level 1, and ask if they can do it, if you trust them to be self-aware enough. In practice, the difference between Levels 1 & 2 is usually them saying to their partner -
Level 2: "Alice told me XYZ"
Level 1: "Alice told me XYZ, but you're not supposed to know, so don't say anything."
If a friend tells you something even vaguely personal, ask them if it's meant to be confidential - even if you don't really see why it would be.
See above. Tell them in advance what degree of confidentiality you're capable of. It's pretty common not to be able to keep a secret, but have self-awareness about it and let people know.
Don't keep bad secrets about yourself
- It is very unlikely that anyone will judge you as hard as you are judging yourself. You can burn with shame for years and then you finally tell someone and they're like "oh yeah i know a few people who've done that, hey have you watched the Steven Universe finale yet because I have FEELINGS about it" and you realise it just was not that big a deal to anyone else and you wasted years feeling miserable and scared.
- if it IS a big deal, generally the consequences are still not as bad as living in constant fear of being found out. Things that happen once (the reveal) have less of an impact on your wellbeing than things that happen everyday (concealment). (Obviously this depends on local laws etc, be safe)
- no one will be able to blackmail you
- if you get imposter syndrome, you will find it easier to deal with if your loved ones know the worst things you've done. That way you can relax and not worry that they'd hate you if they knew the 'real you'
- if it's something you think is fine, but others might judge you for (differences in values or politics), I think there is a lot to say for being explicitly who you are, and letting people self-select out of your life. People are entitled to judge you - honestly, they are! If someone thinks how you live your life is wrong, then they absolutely get to choose not to know you, just like you can choose not to know people who act in ways you find unethical. If you present yourself clearly and honestly, then people who like that will find you, and people who don't will avoid you, and you'll end up with a way better group of friends (better as in, more suited to you). It's not the end of the world to end a relationship (of any kind) with someone because your values weren't compatible.
Do keep good secrets!
I said in the intro that secrets form bonds between the secret-sharers. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Also, secrets are fun! Like many things (petty grudges), secrets are fun but harmful so it's a huge joy if you can find a harmless way to have them. For example: you and a dear friend could hide a cache of emergency money somewhere in your neighbourhood and tell no one. Or, if you are with someone when you experience some random moment of delight (seeing a rare animal, say) you could make a pact to keep the moment a secret between you forever. (I know I said above that a secret you tell someone to keep forever is a bad secret - but that's more of a heuristic to teach children. Adults can create safe versions.)
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #12 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
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