Friday 19 December 2014

Why sharing a secret is good for you

Keeping secrets and harbouring shame can have a negative effect on our mental and physical health, as Postsecret creator Frank Warren found. Sarah Breen spoke with him before his Dublin talk on Saturday

There have never been more people on the planet yet loneliness has never been more common

In November 2004, Frank Warren printed 3,000 self-addressed postcards and invited random strangers to anonymously send him a secret they had never told anyone before. What started as a small community art project in Washington DC soon spread and before long Warren was receiving hundreds of postcards every week, from all corners of the globe. And so Postsecret.com, the most visited advertisement-free blog in the world, was born.

No one was more surprised by the popularity of Postsecret than Warren, who now spends 50 to 60 hours a week curating his collection of over half a million secrets, posting them online and speaking on college campuses around the world. Next month, on December 8, he brings Postsecret Live to Ireland for the first time.

"When I started this project I had no idea it would ever take off like this," says Warren, speaking from his Maryland, US, home. "I'm actually a pretty lazy person by nature so I'm surprised it turned my life upside down like it did. I probably spend most of my time travelling now, sharing the stories behind the secrets and listening to audience members share their secrets live, which is electrifying. I also do a lot of work here at home, going through emails and postcards.

"Other things pop up too. There's the Postsecret play, which has been taking up a lot of my time."

A play isn't the only thing that Warren's little art project has spawned. There's also the small matter of five best-selling books and numerous web awards too. He didn't come up with this "crazy" (his words) idea in order to gain fame and internet notoriety though, rather to see if, through our secrets, we are all really connected in some way.

"When I started Postsecret I had this knowledge that I had a rich interior life with little inside jokes and sexual peccadilloes and dreams and hopes and fears that I kept to myself," says Warren. "The belief was that other people might have that too. I thought that if I could create this safe, non-judgmental place where people could share these hidden parts of themselves in a way that they wouldn't be vulnerable, that it could be really special. And it's always been special for me, but I have been shocked at how it's connected with people everywhere."

And boy, has it connected. Warren now receives around 200 postcards, usually creatively handmade, every single day from people keen to share their deepest, darkest secrets.

Some are cute: "When I assign my students to groups I try matchmaking them," some are sad: "I smile all the time so nobody knows how sad and lonely I really am" and some are just plain weird: "There is a Skittle on the bathroom floor at my job. Every time I pee I am tempted to eat it."

"One of the beauties of sharing secrets on Postsecret is the international reach," says Warren.

"When people on different continents and in different countries are visiting the website and purchasing the books and getting that same feeling as somebody that lives next door to the secret sharer, not only is it just affirming your own sense of humanity, but it's also building connections with others. It leads to deeper empathy with people across the street and around the world."

One of the recurring themes of the stories shared on Postsecret is the feeling of loneliness, an emotion that seems to go hand in hand with keeping a secret.

This reason, and the urge to feel part of a community, Warren claims, is why Postsecret is one of the most popular blogs in the world.

"One is the 'I pee in the shower' type, which, for whatever reason, is pretty universal around the world. And the other is a secret written a thousand different ways, all expressing the same story: the struggle to find intimacy. The search that many of us are on, looking for that one person we can be our full and true selves with."

So why do we keep secrets when it's a fact that sharing can prove so cathartic?

"The underlying motivation for people to keep secrets is they fear some kind of negative evaluation or rejection," says Dr Anita E Kelly, Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and author of 'The Psychology of Secrets'.

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