Though his 18-year-old patient Ida Bauer was “in the first bloom of youth,” Sigmund Freud wrote in 1905, she had come to him suffering from coughing fits and episodes of speechlessness. She’d become depressed and withdrawn, even hinting at suicide. During one session, as he tried to help her uncover the source of her sickness, Freud observed Bauer toying with a small handbag. Interpreting the act as an expression of repressed desire, Freud concluded, “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”
Sometimes a handbag is just a handbag, but modern research does support the idea that secrecy can be a source of mental and physical distress. Keeping a secret, as the idiom suggests, requires constant effort. In one recent study, subjects asked to conceal their sexual orientation in an interview performed worse on a spatial-ability task, reacted more rudely to criticism, and gave up sooner in a test of handgrip endurance . And the bigger the secret, the harder it is to keep. Another study found that subjects asked to recall a meaningful secret perceived hills to be steeper and distances to be longer than those asked to recall a trivial secret. When researchers requested help moving books from their lab, the subjects harboring meaningful secrets lifted fewer stacks .