Keeping Secrets vs. Setting Boundaries

I’m not sure why this is on my mind at the moment, but I want to talk about the difference between keeping a secret and setting a healthy boundary by not telling all. Perhaps it’s because of my counseling work with others, or a conversation I had with my mom yesterday, or just because I used to keep my disordered eating habits a secret.

So, here are some thoughts that come to mind when I hear the word secret: A secret is specific. It’s something few others know. As such, it’s something I can use to manipulate others (if I so choose). A secret gives me some power over someone. Holding a secret puts me in control of something. Keeping a secret can lead to lying to people I love. A secret can also bring with it shame, embarrassment, fear, or discomfort. Keeping a secret for a really long time can be unhealthy and lead to physical ailments. I know all of this because I have held secrets in my lifetime. At this point, there are others on the planet who know all of my former secrets. However, who I chose to tell what secrets was part of learning how to set boundaries.

So, when I hear the phrase “setting boundaries”, I think of the following: Boundaries are similar to limits. They are my personal comfort zone. Boundaries are lines in the sand. They are not walls. I can choose to erase them and move them. As lines in the sand, they are sometimes hard for others to see, so I need to clearly communicate to others what my boundaries are. I can do that by sharing my feelings and needs: “I feel frustrated that when I share my problems you want to come up with a quick fix solution. I really just need you to offer your support by listening and encouraging me.” Boundaries include things like not telling everyone everything, saying “no” when asked to do something you don’t want to do, and not letting others define you or direct your life. Boundaries are healthy.

Sharing my secrets — including that I was desperately struggling with binge-eating — with a select supportive few people in my life helped me edge further away from the black and white, all or nothing thinking that I am so prone to. It helped me recognize from whom I could get the most support and understand that it doesn’t have to be either/or. I didn’t have to hide everything from everyone. Nor did I have to share everything with everyone. Setting healthy boundaries was difficult for me to learn. In the beginning, I either let someone in completely or held them at arm’s length.

I want to encourage all my readers to find someone (maybe a counselor to start) to share your secrets with. Counselors are ethically responsible to maintain confidentiality (with a few important limitations aimed to keep you and others physically safe). The great thing about sharing a secret with a counselor is that it’s no longer something that no one on the planet but you knows about. Counselors can also help you identify areas where you struggle to set boundaries with people. As counterintuitive as it seems, setting boundaries goes a long way towards increasing the intimacy and closeness of relationships.

Just some food for thought today.




4 thoughts on “Keeping Secrets vs. Setting Boundaries

  1. Lucia says:

    I love this post! 🙂
    I only started being being open with a counselor in high school, and it has done so much good for me. At this point in time, I am starting to let friends see my more vulnerable side, although it is not easy and I’m taking it slowly. I don’t tend to “spill” and tell anyone everything, but bits and pieces here and there where it feels relevant and helpful is really good for me.
    As a beginning counseling psychology student, it’s interesting for me to see the boundaries various counselors I work with (as a client, student, or observer) set for themselves. Personal disclosure on the part of the counselor is such a sticky topic, it seems like. Have you ever written a post on this, or would you? I’ve only just found someone who sets an example that I might like to follow.
    Anyway, thank you for this post! The difference between keeping secrets and setting boundaries is so important to understand.

    • getoutofbedonedayatatime says:

      Thanks for your feedback on this post! I probably won’t write a blog post on counselor disclosure here, but I’m happy to tell you my thoughts on it — it’s another boundary I’ve had to “play with”. When I first graduated I was very careful to not reveal anything about myself to the client but that seemed to hinder more than it helped the therapeutic relationship. Then, for a while, I felt like I was looking for opportunities to share something about myself and that seemed too robotic. Now I think I have a sense of when it’s best to say something personal and when it’s not. The whole process has reaffirmed that statement that “counseling is more an art than a science”. It really is! My rule when I feel like I want to disclose something, as you probably already know, is to pause and ask myself “is this for the benefit of the client or for my own benefit?” (e.g., for my own need to vent or whatever). There are also some things that I readily tell clients…like the fact that I’ve overcome binge-eating disorder. Interestingly, I don’t always tell clients that I wrote a book about it! I guess I don’t wanna come across as saying, “Buy my book!” I do keep copies of my book in my office and loan them out to clients, though. 🙂 Again…it’s an art not a science. You’ll find your way through trial and error. Thankfully, most clients are forgiving when you realize you’ve gone off track and apologize for blabbing about yourself (been there, done that). Best wishes in your studies!

  2. Suzanne Smith says:

    I so needed to read this. Part of my struggle with BED is unhealthy boundaries. I have been struggling with the line between boundaries and secrets for a long time and especially now I have been struggling with setting healthy new boundaries in my job and with my family. Therapy has helped and so has OA but its nice to have it reaffirmed.

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