PostSecret: Part 5, The PostSecret Experience

Last post in this series. I hope you enjoyed it. And thanks to Frank Warren, creator of PostSecret, for his comments.

One of the papers we presented at the SWPA conference involved data we collected from PostSecret participants, people who have mailed in a secret to PostSecret. Specifically, we asked PostSecret participants to take an online survey we created to capture facets of their PostSecret experience. Among the things we inquired about were three big questions:

1. What are the motives of PostSecret participants? Why are they mailing in secrets?

2. Did participating in PostSecret affect other forms of secret sharing?

3. What was the psychological and emotional experience of mailing a secret to PostSecret?

To date, 117 participants have completed the survey. Of the data we have analyzed these participants report having mailed in an average of 3.17 secrets to PostSecret.

Regarding our first big question, we asked these participants why they mailed in their secrets. Some people might think that these participants were mainly interested in getting posted/published or to have some fun. But we suspected that many people were mailing in secrets for psychotherapeutic reasons. So, we asked two forced-choice questions regarding motive (% responding in parentheses):

1. If you had to choose between the following, which was the MOST important motive for mailing in a secret?

To get published/posted (14%)
Share/Participate (86%)

2. if you had to choose between the following, which was the MOST important motive for mailing in a secret?

Personal growth/healing (86%)
Fun/Entertainment (14%)

Overall, then, in their own eyes, most PostSecret participants report that their motives for sharing were therapeutic in nature rather than a form of idle entertainment or from the desire to "get picked" by PostSecret.

Concerning our second big question, quite interestingly, mailing in a secret to PostSecret seems to lead to subsequent disclosure and secret-sharing. Specifically, 58% of respondents stated that they went on to tell someone in their life the secret they had sent in anonymously to PostSecret. This seems to suggest that people may be using PostSecret as a "first step" in gaining the mastery and courage needed to share their secrets with people in their life. PostSecret may be empowering people toward greater transparency beyond the PostSecret community.

Finally, we asked respondents about the psychological and emotional experience of participating in PostSecret. To start, 56% of respondents stated that sharing their secret with PostSecret had been moderately to very beneficial to them, emotionally speaking. We went on to ask a variety of questions about the emotions of sharing the secret. Specifically, we asked about the degree of fear, excitement, regret and relief they felt when they dropped their secret in the mail. (One may ask why there was fear in an anonymous process. Interestingly, 7% of the respondents said that someone did discover their identity after the secret was published/posted by PostSecret.)

After collecting the emotional response ratings we correlated them with the ratings of emotional benefit. Interestingly, those reporting the greatest benefit from sharing with PostSecret reported experiencing the following emotional features:

More difficulty in sharing.
Greater relief after sharing.
Greater fear of possible identification after sharing.

In short, those who experienced the greatest (self-reported) benefit from PostSecret were people who experienced the PostSecret disclosure in a way similar to risky interpersonal discosure. That is, these participants report that the disclosure was hard to do, risky, and cathartic. Conversely, those dropping secrets in the mail with little emotional connection don't seem to get much benefit from sharing/participating.

In short, people participate in PostSecret for lots of reasons. But many people approach the mailbox with trembling hands and hearts. What they are about to do is affecting them powerfully. Further, it seems that after the mailing these people appear empowered to go forward with face-to-face disclosure with the people in their life.

Finally, we asked the respondents if they would share, roughly, the basic content of the secret (or the most recent of multiple secrets) they had sent in. Sixty-seven people answered:

1 my educational challenges
2 a pregnancy scare
3 my possible unwanted pregnancy.
4 I remember that one of them was "I'm scared my medication defines me." but I don't remember the others. I guess that means that they're no longer that big of a burden :]
5 cutting, suicide, depression, fear, change, nightmares
6 They were about how i was feeling at a very difficult time in my life.
7 Not being worth anything when my friends aren't around.
8 Marriage. Life after Rape.
9 my love
10 "I flirt with men in the military because they have the future my parent wouldn't let me have"
11 I emailed a photo of a £10 English note which read "I can't pretend everything is okay anymore" it was liberating to see it up on post secret but also now its somewhere else being used and I don't know where!
12 about having a crush one someone I have never met in real life
13 one was about how i feel about the "right one"
14 I sent three. 1- a bad relationship 2- lost loved one 3- finally finding love, in the most bizarre place.
15 One of my biggest regrets--my instigation of the end of a close friendship.
16 Relationships
17 none of my friends understanding my motives for doing something, and how i felt.
18 rape
19 It was about realizing how scared I am to move away from my family and friends.
20 I seriously consider moving to another country and changing my name to get away from my father.
21 Not being able to talk to a friend because I didn't want to date him and therefore it lead to us avoiding each other since then.
22 my sexuality.
23 desire/lust I had for a dance partner - both while I had a boyfriend and after we broke up
24 Moving across the country and leaving everyone behind. I didn't realize how much I needed them until it was too late.
25 "He was the biggest mistake I ever made, but he was worth it." I cheated on my ex-boyfriend, and that was definitely one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I still feel like I learned something from it about myself and about how my actions have consequences and what it means to be used.
26 an old friend
27 religion
28 Living with a disorder that everyone thinks I've overcome (trichotillomania).
29 sex, relationships, marriage, father, etc...
30 Something I did that i fear will jeopardize a close friendship.
31 How my father killed my mother
32 Self harm
33 My secrets were about being gay, falling in love with my bestfriend, and how being a homosexual related with Church of Christ religious upbringing and background.
34 cutting
35 leaving school, at the time i was terrified
36 me having an abortion when i was 13 after being raped at a party i wasn't supposed to be at.
37 The one secret I shared was about my first was too embarrassing to tell anyone I know, but I felt that other people might benefit from seeing it. Post Secret has also led me to share a much more significant secret with people that care about me, although I did not mail it in.
38 Doubt about my sexual orientation.
39 one was about my bulimia, the others were about my crush on my best friend with a girlfriend
40 three blues, two greens & a beer. you're the only one that know what that means. and i like that.
41 The most important one was about uncertainty in regards to a previous relationship - about why it didn't work out.
42 Both of my secrets delt with lonliness and personal flaws.
43 My friend's choice to have an abortion and my regret at not trying harder to stop her or find other options.
44 I am 18, Mormon, and Gay, I am In Love with him, I have had sex with him, but I am still going on a mission, is that wrong?
45 Love.
46 letting go of a past relationship
47 Insomnia
48 1) masturbation. 2) ex boyfriend x2.
49 relationship
50 not knowing who I really am. If I'm the good guy that I was being raised to be
51 it sounds silly, and verry teenage girl-ish but, it was about a boy, of course, and for 3 years, it was like he was the only person i could see. we tried..but it failed..and i could never find someone that gave me the same feeling. i still have a lot of feelins for him.
52 Family problems, love problems, sadness (I submitted several)
53 I had a few....
54 my sexual orientation, my relationships with people, stuff I wish I could say to people but never really would in real life... that sort of stuff.
55 Cutting
56 Race
57 The loss of my love and fear of wasting my life
58 my then girlfriend (now ex)
59 Loosing my virginity, even though I'm a devout christian and vowed to wait for marriage. It made it even worse that he was drunk and barely remembered it. i've not had sex since, but i know that i could have waited if i wanted to. its just disappointing because i never knew i cud let myself down.
60 A variety of things. Mainly about feelings.
61 I'd just committed adultery with a man 12 years my senior.
62 sexual experiences
63 It said, "I keep hoping he'll get drunk and want to kiss me again." It was about my ex-boyfriend and how I felt unwanted and thought that the only way someone would want to be with me was if they were drinking.
64 The one I had posted on the PostSecret website this past summer 2007 said, "Every time I see a black person in passing, I worry that they're thinking I'm a racist."
65 Some secrets were about family, some were about friends, some about my ex-boyfriend. My most significant was a picture of my three-month-old niece on the day she was born. On the picture I wrote, "You might have saved my life."
66 Being gay, Loving my best friend, and Church
67 me and an ex boyfriend, how I still care about him and he has completly moved of from me

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

One thought on “PostSecret: Part 5, The PostSecret Experience”

  1. Hi Dr. Beck,

    Thanks for posting this series on PostSecret and for the research you and your team did.

    I am a junior soc major and student leader at a smaller Christian liberal arts university in central Ohio and I have been approached about helping start a PostSecret-like initiative on campus.

    I was excited to do it, but my initial hesitancy was whether such anonymous disclosure was the best available option for deep healing.

    Now, I think we will proceed with doing PostSecret of some sort. In any case, hopefully it will contribute to someone's healing.

    That said, we are hoping somehow to foster greater healing - if at all possible. I don't know what all could be done to foster a community in which such healing could take place.

    Any thoughts as to how to offer people healing? Or how to foster community in which people feel safe in their struggling?

Leave a Reply