Honesty and integrity may be two of the main lessons we’re taught again and again — honesty is the best policy, after all — but it’s inevitable that we all hold some secrets close to our chests. But the effect of these secrets, and especially of those that bring us shame, can show up in our mental health, even years later.
A new study, published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, determined that if a certain secret makes you feel shameful, as opposed to another emotion like guilt, it can become all you think about.
When the researchers polled 1,000 people about what types of secrets they’ve kept, and how those secrets made them feel — did they answer “yes” to statements like “I am worthless” or “I regret something I have done”? — they found that shame was a far more powerful emotion than guilt.
“Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our wellbeing, our relationships and our health,” says Michael L. Slepian, PhD, the study’s lead author, in a statement. “Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self.”
These past secrets continue to resurface time and time again since they happened if the feeling associated with them is shame, whereas those that bring guilt do not tend to plague our mental health.
And the reason behind that is subtle, but it’s there. As the researchers suggest, feelings of guilt can have an actionable effect. We tend to make good on our secrets and try to make amends. Shame, on the other hand, makes our secrets feel unfixable, which is why they sit so heavily on our hearts.
But just because a past secret brings you shame, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.
“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,” Slepian adds. “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.”