I have posted before about secrets in therapy and every time I have, questions arise. Often people conflate privacy with secrets. So today let’s revisit this somewhat difficult issue.
Privacy vs Secrecy
Privacy is the state of being unobserved; changing clothes for example — that which I keep private, I am merely withholding from public view. Private matters are those traits, truths, beliefs, and ideas about ourselves that we keep to ourselves. They might include our fantasies and daydreams, feelings about the way the world works, and spiritual beliefs. Private matters, when revealed either accidentally or purposefully, give another person some insight into the revealer.
Secrecy is the act of keeping things hidden — that which is secret goes beyond merely private into hidden. While secrecy spills into privacy, not all privacy is secrecy. Secrecy stems from deliberately keeping something from others out of a fear. Secrets consist of information that has potentially negative impact on someone else-emotionally, physically, or financially. The keeper of secrets believes that if they are revealed either accidentally or purposefully, the revelation may cause harm to the secret-keeper and those around him or her.
So that which is secret often contains an element of shame that private does not. We may keep something private for all kinds of reasons, but most of the time, we keep something secret out of fear and shame of what others would think if they knew. We keep something secret because we believe the cost of telling is so high that it’s virtually not a choice at all. Privacy is voluntary; secrecy is not.
Private: I got terrible grades in high school.
Secret: I forged my degree.
Keeping something private is an act of choosing boundaries and staying comfortably within them.
Keeping something secret is an act of hiding from the pain of disclosing something shameful.
This difference centering around the feelings about the information which is withheld is the principle factor in the difference between what is held private and that which is secret. It is this element of shame or fear attached to the secret that makes it different from something private.
Secrets, like an affair or a gambling problem or some misdeed or money problems — the kind of thing we lie awake and worry about, worry about others discovering — are often a big part of what brings people into therapy and what patients find most difficult to talk about. Shame and fear of judgment fill the room. The carefully cultivated image of respectability or responsibility or moral superiority will surely shatter into a thousand pieces the moment anyone, even the trusted therapist, finds out what is concealed beneath the facade. Each patient with such a secret imagines herself to be alone in the world, unlike and apart from all the rest of humanity, unable to imagine that the therapist has heard similar tales many times before.
When we carry secrets like this, they become barriers between us and everyone in our lives, cutting us off from real intimacy. Anything which threatens to reveal what we seek so to hide becomes a source of anxiety and must be avoided. Maintaining the facade, the persona which covers the shame of the secret becomes paramount. In Japan I am told there is a saying that first the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink then the drink takes the man. The same is true of secrets as the secret comes to own the life of the person carrying it.
Secrets in therapy
Psychotherapy, like the confessional, offers a unique opportunity to break the secret and its hold on the life of the carrier. First comes the mustering of courage to say it, to tell the therapist what has been held in shame, to brave the condemnation and the rejection, the fear of which maintains the grip of the secret. And once spoken, then the work of discerning the meaning of the secret and opening to the shadow.
I hear from people about things they are afraid to discuss with their therapists, secrets they carry and feel shame about. I know how hard it is to open up the dark corners of our lives and let another see in. It feels like a huge risk. But what is the point of being in therapy if, at some point, the secret is not told? If it remains untold and unexplored, the therapy in a very real sense is a lie because it never gets to the truth of the patients life and feelings. So we say to patients that they should say whatever comes to mind and mean to include the secrets as well.
Here are some of Jung’s thoughts, all taken from Vol. 16, pp.55-60:
Anything concealed is a secret. The possession of secrets acts like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community.
All personal secrets … have the effect of sin or guilt, whether or not they are, from the standpoint of popular morality, wrongful secrets.
…if this rediscovery of my wholeness remains private, it will only restore the earlier conditions from which the neurosis, i.e. the split off complex, sprang.
All of us are somehow divided by our secrets but instead of seeking to cross the gulf on the firm bridge of confession, we choose the treacherous makeshift of opinion and illusion.
Jung here underlines the corrosive effect secrets have because there is no way, so long as the secret is held, for its bearer to know that she is not worse than everyone else, that the secret does not make him unlovable. The revelation of the secret within the container of a secure psychotherapy relationship begins the cleansing effect of exposing it.
Those things which a person decides to hold private, even in therapy, may in fact be secrets rather than merely private matters. Because if there is no shame attached, then why the need for keeping such a thing outside of the secure container of therapy?
It is by no means easy to let go of our secrets, whether we feel, that do so would be rude or because we fear being judged or rejected or abandoned. It is hard work and takes time. But it is important to keep at it.
Saying whatever comes to mind is a goal and one it takes work to reach. An important part of that work is exploring the difficulty we have in getting there.