That dark, shameful secret you’re trying to hide is likely on your mind a lot — but that doesn’t happen with secrets that elicit other emotions, such as guilt, a new study reports.


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A new study published by the American Psychological Association reports that when an individual feels shame about a secret, they’re more likely to be consumed by thoughts of it. This effect wasn’t seen for other emotions such as guilt, the paper adds.

Under the rug

“Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships and our health,” said Michael L. Slepian, PhD, of Columbia University and lead author of the study. “How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied.”

Slepian and his team worked with 1,000 participants, who they asked a series of questions regarding their secrets. These questions were designed to measure how much shame (e.g., “I am worthless and small”) and guilt (e.g., “I feel remorse and regret about something I have done”) each felt regarding these secrets. Participants were also asked to report the number of times daily that they thought about their secret and concealed it during the prior month.

Neither guilt nor shame predicted how likely an individual was to conceal their secrets, the team reports. However, participants who reported higher levels of shame about their secrets thought about them more often than those who reported feeling predominantly guilt, the team reports.

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“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,” Slepian said.

So why do these two feelings produce such different results? The team explains that feeling shame around a secret makes us feel small, powerless, even worthless. Guilt, by contrast, tends to make us feel tense, remorseful, or regretful. Feelings of shame, in other words, impact our view of ourselves, while feelings of guilt impact our view of our actions.

Feeling regret simply did not cause a person to think repeatedly about a secret in the same way that feeling powerless did, Slepian concluded.

“Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self,” Slepian explains.

Secrets regarding one’s mental health, prior traumatic experiences, or unhappiness with one’s physical appearance tended to evoke more shame, the study revealed. Hurting another person, lying to someone, or violating someone’s trust tended to induce more guilt.

All in all, Slepian believes, people should learn not to be so hard on themselves when thinking about their secrets. “Secrecy comes with well-being costs,” the paper reads, adding that “secrecy has been correlated with depression, anxiety, and lower physical health”. “The frequency of mind wandering to (not concealing) secrets that reliably predicts lower well-being,” making it important for our well-being to learn how to properly handle our secrets.

“If the secret feels burdensome, try not to take it personally but recognize instead that it reflects on your behavior, and you can change that,” he said.

“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.”

The paper “Shame, Guilt, and Secrets on the Mind” has been published in the journal Emotion.