Secrets make you sick

The best thing you can do with your darkest secrets

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

“Secrets make you sick” has always been one of the guiding values of my show, The Nutters Club. While it’s clearly true, science is helping us understand more about the how.

Over our 10 years of talking with both guests and callers – and allowing them to tell their stories – The Nutters Club radio show (founded by New Zealander of the Year, Mike King) has shone light into areas few other interviewers would dare go.

It’s allowed people to talk about the things they consider their shameful secrets.

But once we tell those stories, whether it be to one other human being – or tens of thousands of people listening to the radio – we break the spell that shame holds over us, largely because we discover we’re not the only one that feels that way.

It’s always been thought that what makes secrets harmful is not what they contain – our darkest desires, our skeletons in the closet, our hidden crush – but the sheer effort it takes to keep things to ourselves.

Being secretive is mentally hard work, as the theory goes.

But new research suggests that this commonly held assumption is incorrect. Actually, the problem is if we keep something to ourselves we end up thinking about it more. We ruminate on it, and if what we are keeping to ourselves is harmful, traumatic or shameful – as it often is – then this causes distress.

Something very similar happens when we try to repress, or not think about something. It’s like the old mental experiment “don’t think about a white elephant”.

To not think about the elephant, we have to, well, think about the elephant. Attempting to block thoughts paradoxically involves thinking about the undesired thoughts more.

Anyone who has spent time practicing mindfulness meditation knows this. To truly decrease the frequency of distressing thoughts we have to allow them to arrive, in the knowledge that they will also go, if we let them.

Much like secrets, when we try to bury something it gets bigger. What we focus on becomes our world.

Fortunately the solution with secrets is very simple: tell someone. The research tells us that once something is no longer a secret we focus on it less. Simply telling someone and receiving a modicum of emotional support is enough.

It leaves us feeling less alone and able to cope with whatever we were hiding. Most importantly we become less prone to thinking about it.

Which is why the other guiding value of The Nutters Club is: “honesty is the new drug of choice.”

Of course none of this is a secret: we’ve known all this, as have our listeners, for the last 10 years. But it’s always nice when science proves you right.

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