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There’s a Big Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy

Several clients over the decades have insisted that they can’t share certain things about themselves because they’re “very private” people. While I understand their view, I see them as trying to protect themselves from the feeling of vulnerability that may arise from opening up. There’s a difference, you know, between privacy and secrecy.

We all need privacy—to be free of observation or disturbance—both emotional and physical, in some aspects of our lives. That’s why there are enclosed spaces for trying on clothes in dressing rooms and stalls with doors and locks in bathrooms. That’s why we wince in horror at the thought of people reading our diaries or, worse, our minds. To feel emotionally secure, there must be a real or imagined space for us to retreat in which we’re free from prying eyes and ears and can just be our authentic ourselves.

Privacy is a healthy, protective practice when engaged in judiciously. We need to show care and discernment about what we tell and to whom. It’s wise not to spill your whole life to someone you barely know. Wanting to be an “open book” too quickly says something about you and can be a way of setting yourself up for rejection or hurt.

Secrecy, on the other hand, is staying mum for the wrong reason which is that you are ashamed (though you may not realize it) and don’t want something about you to be known to others. We may fear being judged by them, then shamed or rejected or that they won’t keep what we’ve shared confidential but will blab it to others willy-nilly. Our shame may be from something we’re responsible for—a DUI, divorce, jail time, going bankrupt, having a child on drugs—but it may equally come from the shame of others which we mistakenly carry around as our own—coming from an alcoholic family, growing up in poverty, or having a parent who had mental illness or a bad reputation.

This privacy versus secrecy discussion comes up most often when I encourage clients to join a group— psychotherapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Alanon, or an eating disorders support group. Clients may insist they don’t want to go because they’re “private people”: they don’t want others to know their business, have reputations to protect, or may be seen by someone who knows them. What they mean is that they fear anyone knowing that they have whatever problem the group is for.

I counter that these groups promote confidentiality and, more importantly, the other members have this same problem my client does and are, therefore, unlikely to be judgmental or flip about confidentiality. When clients hide behind wanting privacy, I then usually ask what they’re really afraid of. And it always (always) turns out to be something related to shame. Think about how you feel about your secrets and sharing them with others, including talking about your eating problems. Remember the AA adage: secrets keep us sick.



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