Whatever Happened to the Strong, Silent Type?
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Whatever Happened to the Strong, Silent Type?

A researcher of secrets explains why the more you share, the better you feel

Black and white portrait of Gary Cooper
The Arrow / Getty Images

Here’s one of the healthiest things you can do this weekend: Stop in a bar, one you’ve never been to before, where nobody knows you. Say “Hi” to the bartender. Now tell this stranger your deepest, darkest secret.

No, you’re not at the beginning of a classic noir film. But you are making a huge step toward improving your health.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a bartender. It could be a close friend, a professional counselor, a priest or your partner. Unloading the secret you’ve been carrying can do you a world of good. 

How do I know this? Because my job is studying secrets. And I’ve seen how much they can damage us.

This is especially true for men. For generations, guys were taught to play their cards close to the chest, to never reveal too much. In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano shared his admiration for Gary Cooper, “the strong, silent type” who “wasn’t in touch with his feelings — he just did what he had to do.” But is silence really a strength?

There are indeed times when you don’t want to reveal too much, such as during a negotiation, or when it’s better to keep your mouth shut, like when you want to cool down an argument or feel tempted to tell someone, “You’re an idiot.” But otherwise, silence is very rarely a strength.

I know that holding back hurts because I’ve seen the data. I’m a behavioral scientist who studies secrets. I’ve asked more than 50,000 people from around the world about the things they’d rather not share. What’s clear from my research is that our secrets often hurt our well-being.

At Columbia, my colleagues and I compiled a list of the 38 most common categories of secrets. (Of these, the average person holds on to around 13.) The list includes the obvious stuff, like sex, money, lies we’ve told and cheating, but also more innocuous secrets, like hobbies, habits and beliefs. 

The most surprising revelation (from when I began my research) was that concealing a secret in conversation was rarely related to a lower sense of well-being. But frequently thinking about the secret outside of conversations was linked to lower happiness, lower life satisfaction and even poorer physical health. 

In other words, the hard part of having a secret is not hiding it but having to live with it, alone in our thoughts. 

From a decade of research, I find only one major gender difference again and again when it comes to secrecy. Men confide their secrets to others less often than do women. This doesn’t mean that they keep more secrets, but, rather, men less often discuss those that they have.

And this is where silence can hold men back.

Our secrets can cause us to feel ashamed, isolated and inauthentic. And these symptoms are difficult to treat on our own, because the secrets that cause us the most pain are often the ones that we most need to talk about. The struggle people so often have with a secret is a struggle of being alone with the secret. When we choose to be alone with something, we often develop unhealthy and counterproductive ways of thinking. 

Keeping a secret is a tempting way to deal with a problem. If no one ever finds out, it’s as if it never happened. No body, no crime. Habitually keeping secrets as a way to handle troubling situations, however, often means not working on those problems at all. 

I’m not suggesting you need to be more touchy-feely and start blathering about your feelings. But if you have a secret and it’s been bothering you, you should share it with someone. Someone who has no skin in the game, who won’t judge you and who certainly won’t make your secret more complicated by sharing it with others.

Talking to a bartender is just one idea. Maybe you share a secret with your barber or your butcher — somebody who knows how to listen. It doesn’t have to be a huge or weighty secret. But the simple act of letting that secret go, confiding in another person, rather than carrying the load yourself, will make you feel as if a weight has been lifted from your chest.

And once you’ve felt the sweet relief of not holding on to a secret, well, who knows where that will take you? The world has enough strong, silent types.

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