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 Wikiarts.org/ The final object is Whispering Zephyr by Thomas Ball, sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.