The Secret Keepers

September 3, 2007

Matt Moore continues to write really engaging posts and his latest one The Technology of the Secret really piqued my curiosity. He’s writing about the process of telling and keeping secrets and how much of his work (and indeed my own) revolves around secret keeping.

Simply hiding something makes it more desirable to others. We may hide it for any number of reasons. It may be shameful, boring, illegal, hurtful. Whatever it is, we don’t want people to know about it. We manage & maintain our identities and the exposure of a secret threatens that. Our secrets make us vulnerable. And because they are a part of ourselves that form us that we cannot publicly acknowledge, they can be a heavy burden. Many cultures have developed rituals & roles for the entrustment of secrets to others. The catholic confessional, the psychiatrist’s couch.
Secrets (of ourselves & also of others) are powerful tokens of exchange. The secrets of others might be exchanged for material gain but our own secrets are offered to people to build trust between us. We often start with little vulnerabilities and then move on to the bigger things. And in a world where random connections are increasingly common, we sometimes fell happier giving our secrets to complete strangers instead of those close to us.

In my experience there are 4 reasons why someone “tells” their secrets to someone else.
1. I’m telling you a secret because if I say it out loud in the presence of another person then I can begin to hear it myself for the first time.
2. I’m telling you a secret because I feel lonely holding this and I want some company in my isolation.
3. I’m telling you a secret because you can then have the worry about what to do with it and I can absolve myself of that responsibility.
4. I am telling you a secret because I need you to “mind” this for me until I can work out what to do about it.
I’m ambivalent about secret keeping primarily because there is an assumed contract around confidentiality which is rarely negotiated. It’s fairly clear if someone is breaking the law but outside of the legal requirements to disclose what about the moral or ethical issues?
I remember one consulting assignment where 10 people revealed their (competing) views about the organisation and made it clear that they expected me to keep their stories confidential. At the end of the few days they were relieved to have told someone and I was burdened with the content and the expectation that I would miraculously come up with a “solution” to a problem nobody was prepared to talk about.
In the end, I gathered the group together, told them I’d maintain confidentiality around their stories but I wanted to talk about the formal and informal ways in which communication was conducted in the company. The assignment turned out ok in the end because my interpretation of the balance between container and contained was a good fit and we had a very meaningful discussion but what I learned from that assignment was never to take confidentiality for granted so now it’s an ongoing part of my contracting with clients.
My work as a therapist brings up all sorts of issues about secret keeping but at a macro level I wonder why psychotherapists are so absent from public discourse when doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists appear with regularity in the media. One of the stories therapists tell themselves is that they have to maintain the confidentiality of the clients’ stories. Yes and no. Keeping secrets is also a way of colluding with the powerlessness of being unheard. Is it ethical to “fix” clients to return them to wider social systems that may have contributed to their distress in the first instance? Is it “ethical” to maintain a vow of silence about family life; relationships; abuse and all of the other secrets we are entrusted with? Who does secret keeping really benefit?
So you could say I’m ambivalent about secrets and my instinct now is to wonder what’s behind the giving of a secret to a secret keeper and how are we both being made and re-made in that process.

5 People reacted on this

  1. Annette,
    I am ambiguous about asking another to keep a secret for you. As the recipient, I think you should be within your rights to ask why this transaction is taking place. And also to be clear what you will and won’t do with that secret. I think asking others to own your problems is deeply unfair thing to do.
    One observation I would make is that I used to think that once someone told me something, it was my job to do something about it. I no longer think that. But that level of distance requires mindfulness in what may be a fraught situation. Sharing a secret should not be a case of “tag, you’re it”.
    N.B. There may be a fifth reason. Which has less to do with the secret itself and more to do with your relationship with that person: I am telling you this secret and I want to see what you do with it. On occasion, I have played that game myself – and it is also a common game played in the consultant-client relationship.

  2. Good points Matt and of course I didn’t write about the power there is in being a secret keeper. ..who you know and what you know – a heady concoction.

  3. It is indeed a heady concoction. Can it be addictive? What are the risks involved? Risks might include:
    – An unwillingness to let people deal with their own secrets.
    – A desire to control others – or not resist when they ask you to take responsibility for them.
    – An obsession with “intense” rather than “normal” communication.
    Lots of things I suppose…

  4. I think it’s all of those things and a few more:
    1 The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome (I just made that up!)..but who wants to be the one that says – hey, the world isn’t as we think it is – so there’s both challenge and safety in colluding.
    2. Being useful – Adam Phillips talks about this in Side Effects – where he talks about psychoanalysis offering nothing but side effects and who’d buy into something that offered no certainty and guarantee if the realised that? So where does that leave consultants etc who can’t offer the security of secret storage?
    3 and Intense/normal – yes – I think there’s an addictive quality to drama and if there’s no drama there’s no work for a lot of consultants…
    Matt – I sent you an email did you get it? If so/not hit me back with a mail..

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