When Secrecy and Privacy Collide

By Jeff Levy

There are many times in therapy when I am told something by my client that few other people know.  Sometimes, I am the only person who knows other than the person who has told me.  It takes courage to open a secret, and takes careful listening to know when a secret has been shared.  I try to be mindful during the time we are together to check in every so often when  I am gathering information.  “Who else knows what you’ve just told me?” I’ll ask.  Holding the secret of another is a privilege and a great responsibility.

When Secrecy and Privacy Seem the Same

Sometimes secrecy is confused with privacy.  Others may tell us that a certain experience or event is “private.”  This can be especially confusing when what they label as private has some element of shame attached to it; that telling someone would result in judgment, rejection, or humiliation.  For example, threatening someone—telling them not to share an instance of emotional or physical abuse is not asking for privacy.  It’s asking for secrecy.  When I am told something like this, I spend some time asking about the difference between secrecy and privacy.  For many people, it’s the first time they’ve even considered that what is secret might be different than what is private.

I have a clear recollection of when I was introduced to privacy.  I was six years old and in the car with my father.  Somehow we had arrived at the topic of money and I asked him how much money he made.  Without missing a beat, he told me that information was private and something I didn’t need to worry about.  Being six, I pressed the issue a bit.  “How come?” I continued.  When the car stopped, my father looked at me with an expression that clearly indicated this questioning would go no further.  “That’s private, Jeff” he told me.  “Only your mother and I need to know that information.”

Privacy extends to the therapeutic relationship as well.  If someone comes to me to address a very specific issue,  I try to get as much background information as possible.  If I ask a question that I sense feels intrusive, I’ll leave space for an answer and at the same time, check-in to see if my question feels related to why the person came to see me.  If it seems hard to talk about or if it feels like something not obviously relevant I might offer the option to talk about it later.  I try to leave the door open for a return visit to this territory where privacy and secrecy may collide.

Secrecy and Fraudulence

Larry was an executive in a large financial institution.  He came to see me because even after two graduate degrees from prestigious universities, he felt like a fraud; that others would soon discover he didn’t know all he was supposed to know.  Once “discovered” as fraudulent, he was sure he would be fired.   In one of our first sessions, Larry shared he grew up in a large religious family.  He knew he was gay from an early age.   He also knew from his family and church community that being gay was fundamentally “bad.”   He compensated by being the best, most well behaved son and student he could be.  He didn’t disclose his sexual orientation to anyone until he was in college.  And at 45 years old, he still had not had any explicit conversations with any family members.

When I asked him how many people at work knew he was gay, he looked at me with flushed cheeks.  He responded almost automatically: “That’s private information.  Why does anyone there need to know anything about my personal life or sexual orientation.  It’s none of their business.  Other people don’t go around talking about it.”  I could feel the anger and the fear attached to these statements.  I was fairly confident he’d been asked this question before and felt he needed to defend his choice not to be out at work.  This was clearly a loaded topic for Larry.

I gently followed with additional questions.  I asked him if others at work talked about their children, their spouses, their vacations, or their weekends.  “Of course they do,” he said with mild irritation.  I continued:  “According to what you shared before, isn’t that private information that is nobody’s business?”   There was an ever so slight pause before he retorted with “That’s different!”  I kept going.  “Do some of the men have female partners they talk about?  Do some of the women have male partners they talk about?  Do some people talk about how a husband or wife doesn’t get along with in-laws.”  Again, without pause, he answered affirmatively.

The Power of Opening Secrets

We sat quietly for a few minutes while I watched what seemed to be wheels spinning and gears churning in Larry’s mind.  “So…” he continued.  Are you saying that those other people are sharing information about themselves?”  I waited a bit more.”  “And they’re not making announcements about their sexual orientation, they’re just treating it as relevant information about their lives outside of work?”  I continued to wait.  “And I could share about myself in that way as well?”  I responded tentatively:  “it sounds like that might be what’s happening, and it doesn’t seem like they experience that information as private or as nobody’s business.”

In subsequent sessions, Larry talked about his hesitance to share being gay for fear of being ostracized, fired from a job, or both.  At the same time, he experienced not sharing as oppressive and stifling.  Not being able to be all of who he was made him feel less than who he was.  This, he explained, magnified his feelings of shame and “badness.”  It punctuated his sense of “fraudulence.”

We carefully teased apart the differences between privacy and secrecy.  As we talked further, Larry began to experience his silence about his sexual orientation as less about privacy and more about secrecy.  It was a secret he held for years because of the shame attached.  It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t anyone else’s business.  It felt more related to his fundamental sense of being “bad.”  If he felt this way about himself, others surely would as well.

Larry began experimenting at work.  First, he placed a picture of his partner on his desk, and honestly responded when others asked about it.  He talked about his weekends and mentioned his partner by name.  And slowly he also talked about how long they had been together, their respective families, and their home together.  While there were some people who distanced themselves from Larry, an overwhelming number of his colleagues responded positively and supportively, eager to know him better.  And not surprisingly, Larry worried less about being discovered as “fraudulent” at his job.

Later in our work together, Larry asked if we could revisit the idea of secrecy and privacy.  He realized that what he was labeling “private,” felt more like a secret he had held for many years.  It  was an old secret that left unopened, in the dark, only kept growing.  We agreed that there may be times when it really isn’t safe to open a secret for fear of the consequences, but also agreed that when possible and safe, opening a secret to the light can often reduce its power.

What We Need to Share and When We Need to Share It

Sometimes what we think is private, as in Larry’s situation, is really secret.  Those things we are asked not to share with others for fear of the consequences, those things we tell ourselves can’t be shared because of judgment, or those things we are told not to share because those with greater power threaten to harm us if we share.  Those are secrets.  And they can be toxic when left to rot in the recesses and crevices of our spirit.  What is private, however, we choose to share or not share based on context and a need to know basis.

Forty  years after that first conversation about money with my father, I remember driving with him once again, although this time I was the driver and he was in the passenger seat.  He was close to 90 years old at the time.  We had been silently driving and his hand slid across the car seat to cover mine.  We both stared ahead, neither of us acknowledging we were touching.  He told me he thought it was time for me to know about his finances.  It didn’t need to be private anymore and, in fact, he said it was necessary for me to know.   Although 40 years had passed between these two car rides, they live next to one another in my mind.

My father laid the groundwork around secrecy and privacy.  He helped me realize that very often privacy is based on context.  The decision to keep something private does not arise from a place of shame, but a place of confidence and clear boundary setting.  Secrecy, on the other hand, often arises from a place of danger and a fear that disclosure will result in ridicule, rejection, or harm based on a threat around disclosure.

Teasing Them Apart

There are those experiences we have where privacy and secrecy feel synonymous, or a point at which what is private overlaps or collides with what is secret.  Experiences of sexual abuse may have a history of being secret, but over time, as the experiences are shared with others, the shame around them may be reduced.  With reduced shame, what we once considered secret information may become private information.

We share our privacy with people with whom sharing enhances intimacy. In these instances, the motivation to share is not to reduce the shame of a secret. Rather it is to enhance a connection. Of course through closeness to and acceptance by others we also often reduce shame.

Secrecy and privacy are different. “Who else knows?” may be the most important question we can ask ourselves and others.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle and knows
—Robert Frost

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 18, 2017