The average person has thirteen secrets, at least according to a podcast I listened to this week. We all have secrets, some of them bigger than others, and we have them for various reasons. Usually keeping something secret is done for protection, either of a loved one or to protect ourselves.

Toddlers can’t keep secrets. They are seriously bad at it. Until they develop the capacity to understand that other people have their own thoughts and ideas (theory of mind), they just blurt out the “truth.” When my oldest was around four or five years old, I was buying a Christmas present for his dad, and my son happened to be with me. I told him,”You can’t tell dad what I bought because it’s a giant secret.” My husband was laughing to himself later that night and asked me what I had told our son. As soon as he saw him, my son blurted out, “Mom bought you a giant SEA FROG!” which was frankly more exciting and memorable than any Christmas present I ever bought anyone.

The first type of personal secret very young children learn to tell is a secret to avoid getting in trouble, to protect themselves. Their first attempts at keeping these types of secrets are often fantastical because they don’t yet realize that white lies must be plausible in order to avoid detection. It doesn’t take long before they get better at lying. We can all think of many of these childish lies. Once when the kids’ bathroom mirror was smeared all over with wet handprints from top to bottom, I demanded to know who made such a mess, intending to make the perpetrator do the clean up. “Uhm, I think it was the legend tigers,” proferred my second child. As we found over the next two years, the legend tigers were ever-present and quite mischevious. Apparently they had human-looking hands. Another time, “someone” cut little triangles out of their cousin’s shirt with some scissors. When pressed, they explained, “I think I dreamt that.” Last time dreams worked that way, Freddie Krueger was stalking Johnny Depp and his girlfriend on Elm St.

With the rise of social media, people have many low-risk avenues for sharing their private feelings, their secret ambitions, their embarrassments, their flaws, even for confessing their crimes, sins and betrayals, without having to deal with direct consequences from loved ones who might view them differently as a result. This is a valuable resource psychologically, but it doesn’t necessarily increase our intimacy and authenticity in our real life interactions. In fact, venting our secrets in a strictly online environment, particularly if it’s anonymous, can delay the need to spill the tea in our real lives. But there are benefits to letting go of our secrets.

One of the biggest benefits is the potential for increased intimacy, but this only comes when we are truly vulnerable. Unless we open up the possibility of being rejected, we know that our partner or friend hasn’t fully “chosen” us, not the “whole” person we are, flaws and all. Psychologists are often asked by a partner who has committed adultery whether they should come clean to their romantic partner, the person they cheated on. The current consensus (if there is such a thing in psychology) is that sharing this information is only valuable if it’s for the partner’s benefit, not to relieve one’s own guilt. For example, if you share this type of information, you are giving your partner agency, and you are respecting their right to choose (not) you by showing more of yourself. But that also means that they might reject you, leave you, use this information against you, or be miserable. Given the possible outcomes, it’s easy to see why people justify keeping secrets.

This is similar to how companies and organizations may justify keeping unsavory aspects of their product “secret.” Secrets can be kept through outright lies, misdirection, or simply avoiding the topic. I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately, and at the end of her books, she often explains why the amateurs around her failed to detect the true criminal, and what they did right or wrong in the process, sort of a procedural explanation for how to detect the truth from the falsehoods and reveal the ultimate secret (whodunit?). Here are a few of the methods from some of her novels:

  • Be skeptical whenever you only have one source for a story. You want two or more sources (but beware of conspirators backing each other!). A story can’t be taken as a fact.
  • Pay attention to the people nobody pays attention to: the quiet ones, the foreigner, the outsider, the servant class, the women, the children.
  • Listen to your subconscious. It often picks up on clues you haven’t yet figured out are meaningful.
  • Watch out for the “good man” syndrome. When someone looks too good, there’s reputation management at play (which is hiding a secret). Nobody’s perfect.
  • Whenever there’s a big distraction, it might be hiding the real crime. Sometimes when there’s smoke, there’s fire, and sometimes smoke is a smokescreen.

Several years ago, I was among a group of women at a Relief Society social, and one of the sisters was making a comment about some unsavory bit of information about the Church. She said it was ridiculous, and that there were people saying the Church had hid this fact which the Church would never do. I pointed out that she was incorrect, that this was actually a true fact, and that the Church didn’t really have a good use for this fact because it didn’t make them look good, so yes, they didn’t go around advertising it. (Boy, I sure don’t remember what it was after all this time). Another sister who was there agreed vehemently with me, also pointing out that people from older generations were big on secrets, something I also noted. They don’t call them the silent generation because they are big blabs! She shared an example of a family secret that she only had accidentally discovered as an adult, that her grandfather had basically fathered a second secret family (through an affair, not polygamy). The prevalence of DNA self-testing kits has brought a lot of family secrets kicking and screaming out of the closet and into the open.

When you make a choice to keep something a secret, even if it’s ostensibly to “protect” another person from a truth you think they can’t handle, you are creating a scenario in which the relationship is more distant, more superficial. But maybe that’s what the relationship will bear. I recently found out some secrets various friends have held, things that happened long in the past, but that they didn’t share with me at that time. Decades later, it feels safer to them, perhaps because through the test of time, the friendship has remained. Perhaps both parties are more mature now. Perhaps the secrets have faded in importance. Sometimes our secrets seem so very important to keep, but they really aren’t. It’s really just the insecurities we’ve built up around them. We think we are protecting someone else, but we are really protecting ourselves. But when we do this, secretly we know we are a fraud. We are only accepted because they don’t know, or so we think. We don’t trust them with our true selves.

  • Have you ever held a secret to your own detriment?
  • Do you find it troubling when the Church keeps certain things “secret”? Did the Church essays show that revealing those secrets (albeit in a very downplayed way) was not worth the risk?
  • Does the secret itself matter, or is it the ways it was kept from you (e.g. lies, misdirection, avoidance) that matter more?
  • Has someone close to you shared a secret later in life that made you feel closer or had the opposite effect? Why?
  • Have you shared your secrets online? Was it anonymous? Do you think this trend is a good or bad thing?