Secrets, Shame & Mental Health

Author Article

An interesting study published in the journal Emotion this month examines different types of secrets and how we feel about them. In particular, the researchers concentrated on secrets based on feeling shame as well as those rooted in guilt.

Michael Slepian, PhD, of Columbia University was the lead author of the study and clarified the differencebetween shame and guilt, the two most studied self-conscious emotions. While basic emotions such as anger and fear refer to something outside of oneself, guilt and shame focus directly on the self.

Feelings that correlate with shame about a secret include feeling worthless, small and/or powerless. Guilt, on the other hand, stirs up feelings of remorse, tension or regret. According to Slepian, secrets about one’s mental health, traumatic experiences or unhappiness with one’s physical appearance tend to evoke shame. Hurting someone, lying to another person or violating someone’s trust induce more guilt.

While almost all of us keep some secrets, we don’t necessarily realize how harmful they can be to our health, well-being, and relationships. What Slepian and his colleagues found is that people who feel shame are more likely to obsess about their secrets than those who feel guilt. Those who feel shame often think about their secrets constantly.

The study involved 1,000 survey participants who were asked a series of questions about secrets they’ve kept, with many of the questions designed to measure shame and guilt. The participants were also asked about the number of times they concealed their secret over the last month. Interestingly, hiding a secret did not seem to relate to either shame or guilt, but rather how often the person interacted with whomever he or she was keeping the secret from.

What I find most concerning (though not surprising) about this study is that secrets about our mental health typically evoke shame. Of course, this is one of the many complicated reasons why those suffering from brain disorders such as obsessive-compulsivedisorder, trichotillomania, eating disorders — to name only a few — do not seek help. They feel shame and they are embarrassed.

In addition to living with the actual symptoms of these disorders, people with mental health issues might also spend their days hiding their illnesses. This only compounds their problems, not to mention how mentally and physically exhausting it can be.

In this article, the author, a therapist, discusses four hidden ways that people try to defend themselves against shame:

  1. Defensiveness
  2. Perfectionism
  3. Apologizing
  4. Procrastination

The article goes on to say that being mindful of the shame we feel is the first step toward acceptance and healing. Hiding shame only gives it more power, so we need to learn how to bring this often-distressing emotion out into the open. A good therapist can help us recognize how our shame manifests itself, and how we can best move past it.

In regards to shame and our mental health, I think the most helpful thing we can all do is to talk about our issues. I realize this is often easier said than done, but I’ve never come across anyone who has regretted taking this path. The more we open up, the more we can reduce the stigma associated with brain disorders — and the less they will be associated with shame.

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