Shameful Secrets Worry Us More Than Guilty Secrets, Psychologists Believe

Secrets that make us feel ashamed bother us more than those which we keep because they're steeped in guilt, psychologists believe.

In what is understood to be the first study into how the emotions which motivate us to keep secrets change our experience of secrecy itself, researchers wanted to understand which feelings are most likely to cause our minds to involuntarily flick back to actions we want to hide.

Dr. Michael L. Slepian, lead author of the study at Columbia University, commented in a statement: "Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships and our health." That includes depression, anxiety and even poor physical health.

"How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied," he said.

Shame and guilt were the focus of the study, Slepian explained, because they are "the two most highly studied self-conscious emotions," he said. "Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self."

People tend to keep secrets because they fear being negatively assessed or embarrassed by others, the researchers argued. Guilt, for instance, is more often tied up in avoiding a moral judgment and being viewed negatively, while shame-based secrets are more to do with feeling helpless. The potential harm caused by keeping secrets center around these fears.

Across four studies, the team assessed a total of 1,000 people. These participants were harboring as many as 6,000 secrets in total, according to the authors of the study published in the journal Emotion.

People's minds, the researchers hypothesized, are more likely to wander to shameful secrets, rather than those associated with guilt.

In one round of studies, participants completed an online survey in which they were asked to recall secrets, describe the emotions they triggered, and answer questions including how often their thoughts arrived at the secret.

A second round of studies involved respondents thinking of a secret their partner did not known about, and describing whether it made them feel small, worthless or powerless (associated with shame) or remorse, tension or regret (linked to guilt).

The results indicated that people who were ashamed of their secrets were more likely to be bombarded with unwanted thoughts than those who felt guilty. The study also suggested participants harboring secrets associated with trauma and mental illness experienced the most shame. Meanwhile, those keeping secrets to do with lying, hurting others, or breaking trust provoked the highest levels of guilt.

But the associated emotions of guilt or shame didn't make a person more likely to hide what they had done.

Slepian said: "Hiding a secret is largely driven by how often a person is having a conversation related to the secret with the person whom he or she is hiding it from, not how he or she feels about the secret."

He advised anyone who feels their secrets are affecting their well-being to "recognize… it reflects on your behavior, and you can change that."

"Guilt focuses people on what to do next and so shifting away from shame toward guilt should help people better cope with their secrets and move forward," Slepian said.

Dr. Hew Gill, professor of psychology at Sunway University, Malaysia, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek the findings were limited because "any research where we trust people to tell us the truth about their secrets has the obvious problem that we can never know what is actually true and how far people are being dishonest with the researchers or even with themselves."

Slepian's warnings mirror the findings of a separate study that suggested sharing our secrets can improve our physical health.

"Revealing to an accepting confidant can reduce this feeling of alienation and, as a consequence, can lead to health benefits," the authors of that study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology wrote.

This article has been updated to include comment from Hew Gill.

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Researchers believe shameful secrets bother us more than guilty secrets. Getty Images