A Host Of Websites Offer A Way To Safely Let Go Of Secrets

Harboring secrets can take more of a toll than you think.

In late 2004, Frank Warren handed out several thousand postcards to strangers on the street in Washington D.C., asking them to write down a secret and mail it to him. At the time, Warren, a father, husband and small business owner stuck in a humdrum suburban existence, was seeking a project that would give his life meaning and purpose. He had no expectations. "But as soon as these soulful secrets on postcards started finding their way into my mailbox," he says, "I realized that I had accidentally tapped into something full of mystery and wonder that I'll never understand, something that had been there maybe the whole time just waiting for someone."

He decided to share these strangers' secrets with the world, and created a website for them in early 2005, PostSecret.com, among the first of its kind. Since then, he has received over 1 million postcards, many of which will be exhibited by the Smithsonian next month in the form of a pyramid. He has also published six best-selling PostSecret books, given a popular Ted Talk, launched an app, and continues to tour the country giving talks that include live confessions, among other project offshoots.

Today you can find an array of online venues for sharing secrets. Most are pretty bare-bones, like SecretTalk.com and TellingSecrets.org. There's also one for women only, another for NYU students and one that requires you to share a secret to see one. 

Courtesy Frank Warren
Courtesy Frank Warren

Though it may seem like light-hearted fun, there is something more to this. Research in recent years has shown that keeping big secrets bottled up is unhealthy, leading to anxiety, depression, stress, and other problems, while revealing them in a safe situation can help alleviate some of the negative effects of harboring them.

Michael Slepian, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, has co-authored several papers in recent years looking at the effects of keeping secrets, which include a feeling of physical burden that can occur when thinking about big secrets, making hills seem steeper and distances greater. 

"The more resources you are devoting toward keeping a secret," Slepian says by way of explanation, "the less resources you have for other pursuits, and those other pursuits therefore seem more challenging, and the world seems more challenging and forbidding and extreme."

His 2013 study found that sharing secrets can provide relief from that burden, making things seem less challenging. "The relief is real," Slepian says, but speculates that "it's probably not long-lasting," though there is no data to show its duration. Confessing secrets may be a treatment rather than a cure. 

As for how to alleviate secrets, he recommends telling someone who is accepting and discrete, and who won't express disapproval. If that's not an option, another approach is to write about the secret in depth and really think it through. Or you can share your secrets anonymously online, which Slepian endorses as "a really good first step."

"For me, it's not just something interesting and fascinating," Warren says of the PostSecret Project. "It has an actual impact, not just in people's relationships but on their health and outlook on life itself." He has heard from people who said that sharing secrets on his site helped them come to terms with their secrets. (The most commonly shared secret is about the search for intimacy.) The guarantee of anonymity, and the respect he shows to those who confess on the site — the comments section is carefully moderated to filter out nastiness — further encourages people to open up.

Ben Tobin, a 35-year-old Seattle-based software developer who started TellingSecrets.org on a whim nearly 10 years ago, has also received a great deal of positive feedback from people who confess on his site. Users have written to thank him for the chance to get something off their chest that they couldn't tell anybody, says Tobin. With 1,200 unique visitors last month, the site is modest and self operating, and employs a filter for keeping out bogus secrets.

"In some tiny way it makes the world a better place if some people feel a little better about themselves or just feel unburdened," says Tobin. "It feels good to be able to facilitate that even if I don't know who they are."

Courtesy Frank Warren
Courtesy Frank Warren

"They feel like they can let that secret go in a safe way in the same way you might tell a stranger on a train a story about your life that you would not confess to even a spouse or friend," says Warren, who receives stacks of postcards weekly in his mailbox in Germantown, Maryland, some of which are archived here. He typically posts 10 new ones every Saturday around midnight along with reposts of what he calls "classic secrets" from the past. But it's the more current Sunday Secrets that he considers most powerful because readers know that people out there are wrestling with them at the moment. 

The selection process is painstaking, Warren says, and he puts a lot of thought into choosing secrets with the most universal resonance, carefully piecing them together as if he were a composer arranging music. "I want to pick at least one secret that hits every different kind of note of emotion and arrange that in the right rhythm," he says, "so my hope is that the Sunday Secrets are much more than the sum of the individual postcards."   

Frank Warren looking through a batch of postcards.
Frank Warren looking through a batch of postcards. Courtesy Frank Warren

The confessions also benefits readers — there have been over 700 million visits in 10 years — by creating empathy, Warren explains, as well as a caring community that has raised over $1 million for suicide prevention. 

"Sometimes what can be most impactful is when you see a secret you are struggling with but haven't even identified it or given it any words," he says, "but you see it articulated on a postcard sent by a stranger living on the other side of the world, and that helps you understand yourself in a surprising way." 

For instance, there was a postcard from a woman who wrote about an abusive relationship she was in that inspired a follow-up postcard from another woman who confessed that she hadn't been aware her relationship had gone sour until she saw it in someone else's handwriting on the site. Epiphanies like this happen all the time, Warren says.

Watch a trailer for PostSecret below to find out more about the power of online confessionals.

Cover image via iStock.