Private vs. Secret -- what is the difference?

Several people in comments raised the issue of secret vs. private wondering about the difference and how that plays out in therapy.

While the dictionary does not make a clear distinction between the two, in practice they are different. We might start with this:

Privacy is the state of being unobserved; changing clothes for example -- that which I keep private, I am merely withholding from public view. Private matters are those traits, truths, beliefs, and ideas about ourselves that we keep to ourselves. They might include our fantasies and daydreams, feelings about the way the world works, and spiritual beliefs. Private matters, when revealed either accidentally or purposefully, give another person some insight into the revealer.


Secrecy is the act of keeping things hidden -- that which is secret goes beyond merely private into hidden. While secrecy spills  into privacy, not all privacy is secrecy. Secrecy stems from deliberately keeping something from others out of a fear. Secrets consist of information that has potentially negative impact on someone else-emotionally, physically, or financially. The keeper of secrets believes that if they are revealed either accidentally or purposefully,  the revelation may cause  harm to the secret-keeper and those around him or her.

So that which is secret often contains an element of shame that private does not. We may keep something private for all kinds of reasons, but most of the time, we keep something secret out of fear and shame of what others would think if they knew. We keep something secret because we believe the cost of telling is so high that it's virtually not a choice at all. Privacy is voluntary; secrecy is not.


Private: I got terrible grades in high school.

Secret: I forged my degree.

Keeping something private is an act of choosing boundaries and staying comfortably within them.

Keeping something secret is an act of hiding from the pain of disclosing something shameful.

This difference centering around the feelings about the information which is withheld is the principle factor in the difference between what is held private and that which is secret. It is this element of shame or fear attached to the secret that makes it different from something private.

When Jung writes:

The possession of secrets acts like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community.

All personal secrets ... have the effect of sin or guilt, whether or not they are, from the standpoint of popular morality, wrongful secrets.

he underlines the corrosive effect they have because there is no way, so long as the secret is held, for its bearer to know that she is not worse than everyone else, that the secret does not make him unlovable. The revelation of the secret within the container of a secure psychotherapy relationship begins the  cleansing effect of exposing it.

Those things which a person decides to hold private, even in therapy, may in fact be secrets rather than merely private matters. Because if there is no shame attached, then why the need for keeping such a thing outside of the secure container of therapy? 

© Cheryl Fuller, 2007. All  rights reserved.