The Therapist as a Secret Keeper


If Zora Neale Hurston is right, the “oldest human longing (is) self-revelation.But to whom should we show ourselves? How much is safe to disclose? When? At what risk?

We’ve all thought of this, but perhaps not of the costs and responsibilities of the one who listens to the secret.

I’ll try to address both the teller and the Secret Keeper.

The act of unveiling is fraught. We believe the uncovered one is alone in taking a chance. She gambles with her psychological nakedness.

Will she be mocked, rejected, used? Will her confidence be shared with others, publicized? Will the knowledge that comes to the listener/observer be turned against her? Will her vulnerability be exploited?

Priests hear confessions, therapists too: the speakers are ashamed or tentative. Their confidences are like objects packed with care, wrapped in cellophane, new and easily damaged. They’ve often never been opened.

To the client, they seem tarnished, in need of cleansing, but impossible to free of stain.

The disclosures must be understood as a gift. Here is the most delicate and fragile beauty the individual owns, no matter how ugly he believes it.

The “oldest human longing” takes the form of “admitting,” out loud.Admitting” as in a ticket to enter and a statement of guilt. The terror in the treatment room bursts the confines of a confessional space because here, unlike in church, the listener also sees you.

Your face is known.

Though priests in the confessional want to know everything, counselors should be hesitant. To the extent they control the conversation, timing is critical. A too-early disclosure might cause the patient to flee therapy, overwhelmed by the early exposure, his armor melted.

Whether in or out of psychotherapy, most of us share parts of our lives. The external elements include appearance, words, and actions: the public portion of ourselves. Though this evidence of our person carries dangers (as when we make formal presentations), it is commonly without oversized hazards.

Not so our “off the record” existence. Think of the whole of your history, personality, and behavior as individual pieces of a mosaic, like a stained glass window. All the excellence and perfections, flaws and cracks: the light and the dark.

Some parts are shared with some people, but often not enough for them to imagine the assembled multicolored glass. The therapist, however, comes to know the entirety of it or can conjure a perceptive, imagined awareness of the nondisclosed portions.

He should ask himself a question. Does he want to possess the most sensitive, private, anguished knowledge of you? What is the cost to him of keeping safe what he hears? He, too, is at risk. A different kind.

The more the psychologist knows of untold stories, shames and “weaknesses,” hurts and horrors, the more he might be perceived as an indispensable and unique person to the client.

The giver’s sense of debt for his acceptance of the gift and the tenderness with which the counselor treats it, the bigger the challenge and responsibility. Some think of the Secret Keeper almost as a being out of fiction, one who holds the divulgence in his soul.

For therapists, this can be too much for the small enclosure in which it is contained. If he cannot help to disentangle the patient’s transference toward him, his overlarge hopes and expectations, growth and eventual termination become difficult.

If the sufferer does not come to take risks and confide in others, the pedestal on which the healer finds himself is too high for his client’s benefit and for his own long term occupation.

Most of those in psychotherapy detach without a long lingering empty space which the practitioner used to occupy. The aura of absence shrinks as the patient’s world widens. If the therapist was skilled and his patient courageous, growth and awareness of new possibilities lead to unveilings and disclosures outside the clinic.

The analyst is a guide and an expert, but his job is temporary. Enhanced flourishing gained through treatment doesn’t smooth all the roads ahead.

At its best, the patient becomes a better driver over and around those potholes and a more resilient survivor of the worst of them. He seeks places and people new to him, free of the claustrophobia of his head. Reward and compatibility with others encourage the continuing adventure.

The encounters with new people and their acceptance of him might call up thoughts of the counselor, the one who first saw and valued what he disclosed.

Now, however, there is a larger, freer world elsewhere.


The second image is The Whisper by Charles Blackman, sourced from The final object is Whispering Zephyr by Thomas Ball, sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

18 thoughts on “The Therapist as a Secret Keeper

  1. gb fragmented gumdrops

    I the age of privacy concerns, I would rather keep most of the stuff contained only within the therapist’s office. I used to seek support outside of therapy, but friends and family cannot handle it. The majority of society would suggest keeping secrets and issues contained within the confines of a therapist’s office. For those in special positions, such as law enforcement, military, government work with security clearance, or even veterans, there are some sensitive topics that should remain confidential and only disclosed in the therapist’s office. Herein lies the difference between civilian therapy and other forms of therapy for sensitive cases. That said, the stigma is real, and so is secondary traumatic stress. Trained therapists, first responders, and ER doctors are better equipped than laypeople on handling traumatic disclosures. Untrained civilians are at higher risk of secondary trauma exposure when survivors seek support outside the therapist’s office. And that is what therapy is for – to spill the haunting secrets that were never heard in public, so that one can heal. The therapist, doctor, and psychiatrist are all secret keepers. It is their job, just like those who work in government; it is their job to keep secrets and do the best they can with preventing secondary trauma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your situation, gb, is not typical of most people seen in a therapist’s office. I agree that a separate set of guidelines with respect to privacy is necessary in such an instance. Nor do I think that every person must reveal everything about themselves to anyone. I’ve never met a person who did that, nor anyone I so advised. We walk a line between “being known enough” to have a chance at intimacy (with the accompanying risk of rejection) and “living in the shadows,” always guarded, never sufficiently ourselves, always alone. Thanks for your knowing comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        I was always under the impression by many therapists that therapy is the only place to process our secrets. There were no limits or filters explained. So I am confused. Are there different orientations regarding disclosure? Does it have to do with therapists being burned out?


    • I am not talking about the therapeutic task of “processing secrets” when I refer to the need of some people to being more open with selected others. Nor am I suggesting people should reveal every secret to friends, potential friends, bosses, acquaintances, etc. Therapists uniformly believe their patients must grow past their relationship with the counselor and into satisfying relationships in the world outside his office. Concerning burnout, an experienced therapist understands that some clients will require more of his energy than others. His caseload, if he is in his own practice, is his responsibility to balance in terms of the kinds of cases he can handle without getting burned out. Of great importance is his ability to sense the speed with which a patient’s disclosures should be offered by the client. This is not something he is in full control of, but he can often slow down the process so that the patient doesn’t become overwhelmed or frightened by his new vulnerability.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “The more the psychologist knows of untold stories, shames and “weaknesses,” hurts and horrors, the more he might be perceived as an indispensable and unique person to the client.” This is very true, and when I was caught up with these feelings, I felt I could not live without him in my life and was terrified therapy would end one day. After initiating the end of my therapy, which I felt had run it’s course, I still could not imagine no longer seeing him, and I experienced heartache after saying goodbye to him, but after a few days of suffering I surprisingly felt my heart no longer ached, and that I could carry on without him in my life. I also learned my attachment and adoration was not reality, but a fantasy that was built-up in my mind. It was fake, though it felt real. It did not have legs and could not hold me. I like my former therapist but do not love him. I was living in la la land. Glad I figured this out.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Such truth! I recently quit therapy after 8 long years and an enormous attachment to my therapist (transference). I couldn’t deal with the attachment and thinking of her and every.single.moment! I wasn’t getting anywhere. I kept emailing her. I couldn’t live without her. So I abruptly stopped therapy. I did tell her the reason. She thought I should still see her, but I just couldn’t handle it. It’s been 3 months. I think of her so often and still want her to be my rescuer. But I know that isn’t the idea. But because I don’t see her I can slowly learn to live without her. I miss her terribly. And such a strange feeling that this sole person knows EVERYTHING about me. That makes her bound to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Inger. It is a peculiar arrangment that Dr. Freud invented! One-sided (in part) and intensely felt, but curative at its best. As you know, time tends to heal; “scars” at the loss of a therapist tend to be smoothed out, as if by the wind and the water. Be well.


  4. I like the idea that, the more a client seeks external interactions, the less they’ll need the therapist, but at the same time it fills me with a sinking horror because it feels it won’t be at all the same. Maybe because I’m just not ready for it yet? 🤞🏼

    Liked by 2 people

    • I tend to agree with your last line, but it is also true we tend to survive many irreplaceable losses during a lifetime. Think of parents, perhaps grandparents, special mentors, and the dearest and oldest of our friends. Each of these is different, but if we are lucky and keep trying, then others come along, many also unique in their own fashion. And, many of us become more resilient. It sounds like you are at least keeping open the possibility that with time the horror will dissipate and the reality become more tolerable. Good luck, LovingSummer.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. People seem to love writing “tell all” books about their lives. I’m not sure how this fits in with this discussion, but I immediately thought of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it does apply, Joan. There are some people who have few restraints or hesitation to reveal. In my experience they seem to have little interest in therapy. They aren’t aware that this is the polar opposite of what I discussed in this essay. Oblivious to their “oversharing,” they don’t recognise a cost or a problem to themselves or others by doing what they do.


  6. What burden we place on our therapists and confessors! They both offer us a vital service in navigating and surviving in our ever-growing complex societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rosaliene. The burdens come with great rewards and, of course, there are others whose professions also are demanding. Were I of a mind to go back to work, I imagine I’d make the same choice. Either that or standup comedy!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. gb fragmented gumdrops

    I can see how freeing and healing it would be for clients to broaden their worlds through finding bonding relationships that allow for secrets, reciprocity, and genuine closeness. But what if clients already have some of that, just not at the level of therapeutic relationships? For example, say a client is married and has a few close friends to confide in. The client still feels that some secrets, if not all, are important to disclose in a therapeutic relationship because he or she feels like a burden can be addressed and lifted, eventually. Are all therapeutically based attachments from such disclosures always telling or indicative of a person’s attachment style, dependency, narcissistic injuries, or otherwise? Or could it be that the therapeutic relationship is a unique relationship that is often one-sided and yet very intense with the benefits of a listening ear, some priming, and some unconditional positive regard thrown into the mix? The erotic transference, or even positive transference that idealizes the therapist can have some rational half-truths, insofar that the benefits of being heard comprise deep feelings of gratitude coupled with a longing that could rarely be fulfilled in a reciprocal relationship outside the therapeutic “womb.” The tension between client and therapist rises when the reality of the one-sided relationship coupled with the longing grief settles in and is made aware. But a good therapeutic relationship would explain this in a way the client can understand and work through those things, correct? Premature termination makes it more challenging because, I think, both client and therapist have missed out on an opportunity for growth. The same could be said for those who rarely disclose any secrets of true therapeutic value or even those who lie – more missed opportunities for both parties. The growth of the working therapist is as important as the growth of the healing client. That is how therapists become better at their careers, perhaps, and even more rewarded than what they could imagine before. But I am just speculating. I have no idea what therapists struggle with, given their power and intellectual differences, as well as maybe their intelligence differences. Sharing so many secrets is such an intimate action, one that is met with acceptance, reprimand, correction, or rejection. Unconditional positive regard accepts, cognitive behavioral therapy corrects, behavioral therapy sometimes reprimands, and unseasoned or uncomfortable therapists sometimes rejects, I think.

    For me, I have a hard time attaching and feeling. The feelings are trapped inside, as if they belong to someone else. It is easier for me to divulge some secrets, but not others. And when I do feel, it is just barely touching the surface. I am more afraid of showing emotions than I am of feeling them, and I am less afraid of divulging secrets than I am of actually attaching to a therapist. Maybe I do not know how to attach to a therapist. My transference is seemingly negative more so than erotic, though I have had some positive transference experiences, I think. I am a very mixed attachment style, though I have no idea which type I fall within. No one has told me. I spent most of my life guessing or self-diagnosing. There are some secrets I am reluctant to tell anyone, and have never told anyone. I honestly believe that I will take those secrets to the grave. Nevertheless, the secrets I do tell are somewhat connected to the secrets I won’t tell, and I figure that I can heal from all without full disclosure. I just wished I felt safe enough to disclose everything and still feel understood, accepted, and hopeful toward a future that allows me to maximize my potentials. I am being vague in my last sentence on purpose, but suffice it to say that there are certain things too unconventional to utter to another soul.


  8. A number of your questions relate to the idea of an “either/or” type of answer. Here is the problem. If you know any of the writings of Immanuel Kant, a great 18th-century German philosopher, you know he says (for example) lying is always wrong. Even if, he would say, a criminal with a gun in hand breaks into your residence and asks you the whereabouts of someone you love. Thus, divulging secrets (to me) is best thought of as being on a continuum: some with some people, many with a therapist, none to most others, some only with the most intimate and trustworthy friends, etc.


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