Keeping Secrets Can Hurt Your Mental Health, But Here's How To Stop It

mbg Contributor By Caroline Muggia
mbg Contributor
Caroline Muggia is a writer, environmental advocate, and registered yoga teacher (E-RYT) with a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College.

Image by Ryan Tuttle / Stocksy

Keeping secrets can be stressful. You worry about someone finding out or what people might think of you. Oftentimes, you can't stop thinking about that one thing you haven't told anyone. Well, according to new research, it may have to do with shame.

A new study in the American Psychological Association found that when people felt shame about a secret, they were more likely to ruminate over it compared to someone who felt guilty about their secret.

The researchers asked 1,000 people about their secrets and whether they felt more shame or guilt about surrounding them as well as how many times they thought about it and kept it hidden in the previous month.

Those that reported feeling shameful responded "yes" to statements like "I am worthless" whereas those that reported feeling guilt responded "yes" to statements like "I regret something I have done."

They found that those who felt more shame were more likely to think about their secret than those who felt guilty. While both emotions primarily affect how we feel about ourselves, the researchers suggest that this discrepancy between the two could have to do with the fact that while guilt is uncomfortable, it encourages people to take action, where shame can feel like a hopeless dead end.

"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," said Michael L. Slepian, Ph.D., of Columbia University and lead author of the study in a statement.

Previous research suggests that living with shame can have negative impacts on health, so it's worth considering steps you can take to start the process of breaking it down so it holds less power over you.

Identify your shame.

The first step is to identify what your shame is. You'll want to look out for negative thought patterns such as "I'm not good enough." Once you've determined your shame, you'll want to start finding ways to take away its power. Shame feeds off of fidelity and will not have as tight of a grip on you if you are able to disarm it.

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Share with others.

You can begin this process by sharing what you found with those you feel most comfortable with. Consider telling close confidantes and people you trust. This way, you can start to shift the conversation from "something is wrong with me" to "something went wrong." You'll start to find empathy for yourself, and eventually the shame will no longer be able to survive inside you.

Write positive affirmations.

When you start to pick apart your shame, you may find it tells you things like you have no value, your voice is not relevant, something is wrong with you, or you're inherently bad. You can counter these negative statements with positive affirmations such as "I love and approve of myself."

Shame is a powerful emotion, and many, if not all of us, live with it at some point in our lives. Remember that there's no one way to go about releasing shame, and it could take a blend of a few different tactics to feel free of the anxiety, rumination, and depression that can come along with concealed shame.

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