Why are some people bad at keeping secrets?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Natalie Kennedy
8th April, 2013
In the UK we are ambivalent about secrets. Historically we may have gone to our GP or priest for confession which could be seen as a cleansing for people. We may have had a wise older person but now we have less contact with our extended family, people have turned to friends and workmates who may not have the wisdom of the sage. In addition we have become less boundaried as a society as tabloid news, magazines and Facebook secrets have been exploited and passed around very quickly. This has created a culture of distrust of celebrities and politicians, but also for the ordinary person.
Secrets come in all shapes and sizes. One the one hand, some people may view the sharing of a secret as something positive which affirms that you are trustworthy. This may make it easier to keep the information to yourself. On the other hand, keeping secrets requires both self control and the ability to make choices, but withholding information creates stress for the person holding the secret and can leave them feeling alone and alienated from those that don’t know. This can evoke a lot of anxiety which makes it more difficult to think clearly, and for people who find it hard to manage those feelings or who are very anxious, keeping a secret can be almost impossible.
Is it related to personality?
Adults who have a schizoid personality style (not disorder!) are often more self contained and prone to rationalise and intellectualise issues. They are more ‘cut off’ from their feelings and tend to be good at compartmentalising, so could put the secret in a box and leave it there. I have one friend who tries to ‘let go’ of her emotions so she doesn’t have to feel them. Over the years, she has perfected this way of being and everyone goes to her when they want to share important information as five minutes after you have told her, she has forgotten it!
Conversely, people with borderline personality styles have a tendency to be more anxious, are more likely to feel their feelings, but also find themselves overwhelmed by them at times. They can be eager to be part of a group and have a need to be liked by other members. Generally, secrets may create anxiety and isolation and this type may find it difficult to regulate these feelings, making it easier in some cases to just spill the beans! People who congregate around the watercooler gossiping are often trying to feel that they belong, to create intimacy and bonding, but sometimes in this atmosphere it can be easy to pass on stories a colleague may want to keep confidential. The ‘club’ can then make members feel insecure and become destructive.
Narcisistics are often leaders because they crave being ‘seen’ by others, but they also find it hard to feel empathy. They may feel really privileged to hold a secret as it can inflate their ego, but it may be very powerful to share it with others. It can also be difficult for them to understand how devastating it is to break someone’s trust by disclosing a secret. The leader of the ‘gang’ standing around the watercooler is usually a narcissist. It can make them feel good to collect secrets, but also to decide when to share them, so they can stay the centre of attention.
Is it related to past experiences and your upbringing?
There are two periods in life when we learn how to develop our ‘selves’ independently from our parents or carers: as a toddler and as a teenager. Ideally, we are able to negotiate these periods knowing that we have a person we can go back to for love, support or advice. We also tend to imitate the way our parents relate to us (even when we tell ourselves we don’t want to be like them!) However, if our caregivers are inconsistent, we will usually model them by developing the same strategies they use with us. If a parent does not seem interested by us or our secrets, the child will learn to keep it to herself by being avoidant (schizoid). Typically, children who are sent to boarding school at an early age often talk about their thoughts as if they were feelings and are uncomfortable with emotions. This epitomises the ‘stiff upper lip’ the English are renowned for.
The Narcissist will endeavour to get everyone’s attention because they feel they have not been ‘seen’ by their carers. We can see this in the growth of celebrity culture, where some people do their job and are not photographed after, while others have their lives plastered across newspapers, magazines and social media, as if no amount of attention is enough.
By contrast, the borderline person will have had too much attention which may have been invasive. They may have less space to grow and develop and consequently can become anxious and needy around others and they are more likely to be ambivalent in relationships. Some of my clients who are parents talk about how anxious their child is whilst ignoring how nervous they are themselves. They may tell the child too much and expect that to be reciprocated. Consequently the child doesn’t learn the skills needed to keep secrets. All these influences affect what we learn about self control, and expand or limit the amount of choices we feel we have to deal with our ‘selves’ and others in life.
If you are bad at keeping secrets, how can you make yourself better at it?
Essentially we carry the dynamics of the family system into our adult lives and play those ‘roles’ in our intimate relationships, colleagues and with friends. As awareness is the first step towards making changes, it can help to start to think about what our family was like and how secrets were shared to see if there are any patterns that keep being repeated. Did your family have problems with boundaries and do you still struggle with that now? Were your family respectful of your private thoughts and feelings and/or your belongings or did they invade your space?
It can also be useful to think about how we feel about holding the secret. You may want to think about whether secrets are healthy for you to keep. Some people enjoy being the holder of numerous secrets as it makes them feel special and gives them a purpose or role. In co dependent relationships, secrets may be seem like the person is dumping a burden and the recipient can start to feel very resentful. If there is a pattern of passive aggression, this anger can spill out inappropriately. In this case it might be better to explore how you can say No!
If a child says they are being abused then it is important to let them know that you will have to tell someone as it is your job as an adult to protect them.
If it is less serious there are several ways to help you explore this issue including:
Asking the person “what would you like me to do with this information?” Often secrets involve guilt or shame and it may be that they just want to process the secret and ‘be heard’ without judgement or they might want advice on an issue.
Is there a limit to the amount of time I need to keep the secret? If it is a gift then think about why you want to tell someone? Be honest about your motives. Is it because you unconsciously want to spoil the surprise for someone because you are angry with them about something else? Or is it that no one could keep a secret in your family and it has become a habit. Is it one you want to keep?
Would you like a surprise and could you use that feeling as a reminder when you want to tell the other person.
Would it help you to think about why that person has chosen to tell the secret to you? It can be an honour to have someone share such an intimate part of themselves. It says that you are responsible and reliable.
Think about how upset you would be if someone told your secrets.
If you really are struggling to keep it to yourself, is there another person you can trust to share it with, like a partner or therapist.
Try doing a meditation where you see yourself putting the secret in a safe place in a house, another land or forest that you have created in your mind.
Why not start a journal? Writing is very therapeutic way of taking something out of your head and putting it onto a page instead. You may want to use pictures or words from old magazines to make it more cryptic in case someone found it but art does make us feel better!
Finally If you are a serial secret spiller, it may be best to just be honest and tell people not to confide in you!
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