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The Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy

Are you a private person, or are you keeping a secret?

by Kelsey Yandura
July 27, 2020 | Living

You're in a relationship, but you have a crush on someone else. 

Your religious parents would disapprove of your spicy sex life.

You're struggling financially, but you don't want your friends to know. 

Each of these scenarios involves sensitive information that you may not feel comfortable — or safe — sharing with others. You might choose not to divulge such information because you fear being judged or exposing yourself to reprisal. 

But when is staying quiet a matter of your personal privacy and when is it secret keeping? And does it matter?

Hiding versus being unobserved  

You might think secrecy and privacy are essentially the same, but relationship coach Bruce Muzik insists that the difference is much more than a matter of semantics. 

"Secrecy is actually not even closely related to privacy. They just get confused," he said. 

"Secrecy is the act of hiding information. Privacy is about being unobserved — being able to have my own experience of life without the eyes of anyone else on me."

Regarding privacy, U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis famously described it as "the right to be left alone."

Relationship specialist Dr. Robert Weiss offers another useful distinction: Secrets break trust, whereas privacy is simply not sharing certain parts of your life.

Everyone needs privacy

Just as humans need social interaction to stay happy and healthy, we also need a certain degree of privacy to function well in society.   

"We are compelled to seek privacy so we can balance out our communal life," Muzik said. "We can't know ourselves without being alone." 

Muzik warns that individuals who try to limit privacy in relationships are often doing so under a guise of intimacy. Really, it's just an attempt to assert control. 

"Privacy ends up causing trouble with people who are insecure," he said. "They see privacy as a threat to their direct access to their spouse or their partner."  

According to psychotherapist and author Amy Morin, privacy is actually very healthy in relationships, and oversharing can be a boundaries issue.

"It's important to establish healthy relationships with people before revealing too much private information with them," she said.

Secrets are motivated by fear and shame 

Whereas privacy feels like a choice, people who have secrets often feel compelled by fear or shame to keep them hidden.  

"When you keep something secret, it's because of fear," Morin said. 

"Perhaps you're afraid someone won't like you or that they'll shame you. Or maybe you think revealing a secret will have serious consequences, like you might get fired or a relationship might end." 

Illustration of a woman telling a secret. Rewire PBS Living Privacy
The average person holds 13 secrets at any given moment.  |  Credit: Adobe

Unfortunately, keeping secrets tends to make problems worse.

"Secrets lead to more fear and shame," she said. "And the longer people hide them, the more difficult it is to reveal them." 

People often keep secrets to protect themselves, explains Weiss.

"Many believe that if their secrets were revealed, they would be exposed and people would leave," he said. 

"The word we use is 'compartmentalized' — one part of their life is over here and one part is over there, and they don't meet."

Secrets are harmful to your overall well-being 

While the act of keeping a secret can be generally unpleasant, it may also have a negative impact on your daily life. 

According to a team of researchers from Columbia and Stanford, keeping secrets can lead to increased fatigue, decreased task persistence and performance, and an overall lower level of well-being.

Another study led by Michael Slepian has found that the act of suppressing, harboring or being preoccupied by secrets can even feel like a physical burden. As the researchers succinctly conclude, "secrets weigh people down."

Intimacy requires trust 

The average person holds approximately 13 secrets at any given moment, five of which they have never revealed to another person, Slepian's research has shown.

People who keep profound secrets can have a hard time feeling close to anyone. 

"They always have a reason to doubt that anyone really cares about them or whether they are worthy," Weiss said.

"A deep friendship is about being known. When I keep a meaningful secret, I am cutting myself off from intimacy in the relationship. I'm saying I don't trust the relationship enough to let you in." 

Opening up  

So, should you share a secret with someone? Muzik suggests the following rule of thumb:

"If the person would be angry or feel betrayed having discovered the information from some other source, go and share it with them," he said.

"That secret is damaging your ability to relate and to connect." 

However, Weiss advises you to use caution and not rush out to tell your secrets.

"Seek guidance from a professional first — a lawyer, therapist, accountant, or whoever," he said. "I don't think if you have a secret you're in a position to do it by yourself."  

If you decide to open up, be prepared for a long road ahead, warns Weiss. Once trust is broken due to the keeping of secrets, it's not easily rebuilt.

"It can be repaired with reliable, honest behavior over time," he said. "If you can do that, you demonstrate to me that you want to restore my trust."

Kelsey Yandura
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).
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