Knowing the difference between privacy and secrecy can be challenging.
Deciding who, when and what to tell is sometimes baffling—especially when the
information you're holding is important or has the potential to impact someone else in a significant way.
And if you have a history of cutting factual corners, playing loose and fast with the facts, or if you've struggled with an addictive behavior, you're likely more confused than the average person about the difference between secrecy and privacy.
Let's use these working definitions:
Secret: information intentionally withheld for the purpose of avoiding consequences.
Private: information intentionally withheld for the purpose of creating safety or protection of self or others.
Privacy involves the use of healthy boundaries, while secrecy replaces a boundary with a wall of some kind. It could be a wall of silence, avoidance, anger, defensiveness, or some other means of blocking communication.
Because the practice of privacy is good boundary work, it's relational and intimate. On the flip side, secrecy is self-serving and intimacy-destroying. (Generally speaking, thoughts and/or fantasies are always private information.)
The following three questions are an excellent guide to help you figure out whether information is secret or private:
- Have I disclosed the information to anyone else (or would I be willing to)?
- Have I lied or omitted data to conceal the information?
- Do I feel guilt or shame about the information?
If you answer no to the first question and yes to the other two, chances are you're holding a secret.
If the information is private, you'll have a sense of appropriate—and healthy—"ownership" of it. Secrets, on the other hand, usually involve information that directly affects or impacts another person in a significant way.
The fundamental difference is that of safety/protection (privacy) vs. concealment (secrecy). If you check in with your physical sensations, you may even have a felt sense in your body as to which one it is.
Sometimes people rationalize or justify withholding information by telling themselves:
- It would just upset him/her for no reason.
- My partner and I don't agree about this.
- I said I wouldn't _____ but I do, and I think it's okay.
- It's really no big deal anyway. I don't see why I need to share it.
The problem with these rationalizations is that they're short-sighted and they lack empathy.
If you withhold important information from someone because you don't want to upset him/her, imagine their upset when they find out you were dishonest either directly or by omission.
If you make an agreement with your partner for the purpose of placating him/her or to avoid confrontation, the likelihood that you will break the agreement and keep it a secret is high.
If you disagree with your partner and believe you have a right to a behavior or an activity, you owe it to your partner (and yourself) to state your want/need directly and work through the difference of opinion in an honest and relational way.
Lastly, if it's no big deal then why hide it?!
The fundamental problem with secrets of any kind is that they destroy intimacy.
When secrets come out, as they inevitably do, you will have to deal not only with the content of the secret but also the huge gulf of distrust created by your omission, distortion, or outright lie.
Are you holding a secret?
Talk to someone or several people you trust and get their feedback. If they agree that you need to share it then by all means do. What you share may initially cause some upset, but you will feel a weight has been lifted. Where there are secrets, there is also the heavy burden of shame.
When you disclose what you've been attempting to conceal, you'll feel relief. You'll also have the satisfaction of being transparent, authentic, and congruent (meaning your insides are matching your outsides)—knowing that you're living according to your values.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW, CSAT, SEP is the author of Moving Beyond Betrayal: The 5-Step Boundary Solution for Partners of Sex Addicts. For more information, please visit her website.