A new study published by the American Psychological Association suggests that feeling shame over a secret can be a heavy psychological burden. The researchers found that people who feel ashamed of a secret, as opposed to feeling guilty over it, are more likely to be consumed by it.
“Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships and our health,” said study lead author Professor Michael L. Slepian of Columbia University. “How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied.”
The investigation was focused on a survey in which 1,000 participants were asked a series of questions about secrets they were keeping. The questions were designed to measure how much shame and guilt were associated with those secrets. The individuals also reported the number of times they thought about their secret each day during the previous month.
“We examined shame and guilt, the two most highly studied self-conscious emotions,” said Professor Slepian. “Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self.”
People who reported feeling shame thought about their secrets significantly more often than people who reported feeling guilty. The experts also found that the concealment of secrets could not be predicted by guilt or shame.
“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,” said Professor Slepian.
Shame was found to be associated with feeling small, worthless, or powerless, while guilt was linked to feelings of remorse, tension, or regret. According to Professor Slepian, feeling regret did not cause a person to dwell on a secret the same way that feeling powerless did.
The researchers concluded that people are being too hard on themselves when thinking about their 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,” said Professor Slepian. “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 study is published in the journal Emotion.