Good News: You Can Ease The Guilt Caused By Keeping Secrets

Can you keep a secret? If you're like most people, you probably already are keeping quiet about something: A 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the average person holds around 13 secrets. While some secrets might be lighthearted (not everyone needs to know about your in-shower karaoke sessions, for instance), others can be painfully heavy.

Sometimes, keeping skeletons in your closet can lead to guilt, especially if your secrets involve information that could hurt someone else. According to Psych Central, guilt is believed to serve an important purpose by highlighting wrongdoings that may threaten your social bonds. When you feel guilty, your conscience may be nudging you to right your wrongs so you can maintain your relationship with your loved one or acquaintance.

However, guilt can also turn toxic when you have no idea how to make things right — like when holding onto a secret. If keeping your lips zipped is starting to eat away at you, ease the guilt with these tips.

Pinpoint the reason for staying hush-hush

Keeping information to yourself might make you feel inauthentic and riddled with guilt, but it doesn't always have to. If you have people-pleasing tendencies or you usually over-share every detail of your life, keeping a secret can seem wrong. But in reality, some things are nobody's business. Privacy is a valid need, and it can be essential in protecting your personal life. It's totally okay to keep your relationship issues off of social media and only post happy photos with your boo, for example, as long as you and your partner work on things behind closed doors.

On the other hand, there's a line separating privacy and secrecy. "If you aren't revealing something because you don't want to, it's likely an example of maintaining privacy," psychotherapist Amy Morin explained to Well+Good. "And if you're not revealing something because you are afraid of the consequences, it's likely secrecy." Take time to assess your reasons for not disclosing certain information. Consider who might be impacted by it — if anyone — and in what ways. This can help you determine if the secret should be revealed or is best kept under wraps.

Work to fix the situation

Secrets about past mistakes might be the most closely guarded — and are among the most common. Dr. Michael Slepian, a professor at Columbia University who researches secret-keeping (and who led the aforementioned study), says that the most prevalent secrets are about lies people have told, romantic or sexual attraction (including thoughts of infidelity), and finances. Other common secrets include hiding illegal behavior, violating someone's trust, or cheating at work.

When you know you've done wrong before, you might struggle to let go of the guilt attached to your secret. However, working to repair the situation and improve yourself as a person can be a powerful remedy, even if you never come clean. If you're concealing a previous affair that you've since ended, for example, focus on nurturing your relationship with your partner now as best you can.

Once you've learned from your mistakes and have started making choices that better align with your values, let the rest go. "You cannot change the past. But you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it's appropriate," Dr. John Grohol, founder of Psych Central, told Headspace. "Do so, apologize, or make up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others."

Commit to coming clean at a later point

Some secrets just need to be shared, but you don't have to open up until you're ready. You might need time to process what happened or to build trust with the other person first. It's okay to divulge only when you feel emotionally and physically safe enough to do so.

To keep guilt from distracting you until then, make a personal commitment to tell your secret at a later date, whether it be in one month, one year, or somewhere in between. Mark the date on your calendar or in your phone (using a code word if possible, of course). Then, leave the secret in its own mental compartment until then.

A 2017 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin discovered that how often someone thinks about their secret — not the content of the secret — is more likely to determine how negative they feel. Read: The more you obsess over it, the worse off you'll be. A set-it-and-forget-it strategy gives you permission to stop ruminating over the secret, at least for some time. When the scheduled date arrives, revisit the secret and decide again if you're ready to come clean.

Talk to someone you trust

When the guilt from keeping a secret just won't go away, confessing might be the only solution. Start with baby steps: Reveal your secret anonymously on an online message board or confession-sharing website like PostSecret. This is one way to finally speak the truth without being identified. You may even receive support and empathy from others online, which might boost your confidence when revealing the secret to people in your circle.

Another option is to speak to a trusted professional, such as a guidance counselor or therapist. Often, they'll receive your secret without judgment and offer tools to help you work through your guilt. If you confide in a close friend or loved one instead, ask them if they're comfortable learning of your secret before you divulge it — not everyone can handle the burden of knowing another person's confidential information.

Finally, Dr. Michael Slepian has a few criteria for when to reveal a secret. He told Metro, "Is anyone being harmed by the information being contained? Is this something that will eventually be learned, or could be learned through some means other than your telling? Would the other person expect you to share this with them? If you answer yes to these questions, you should likely confess, and take control over how others learn the information."