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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW

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A Gift to the Secret Life

Posted: 07/14/11 03:55 PM ET

We all have a secret life -- that includes you too!

You are like Gurov in Chekov's story "Lady with a Lap Dog", invested in a deeply secretive and adulterous love with Anna and unable to let go of it. "He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people .."

You may chuckle with moral superiority or feel a sense of relief that you are not the public figure holding a humiliating and embarrassing secret. You may be disgusted by the revelations made of Anthony Weiner's almost-adulterous secret online sex life. You may not approve of President Clinton's hidden personal life. You may be shocked in disbelief to find how Madoff could keep his secret immoral ponzi scheme going for so long. You may discard in denial the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld hinting at Mahatma Gandhi's homosexual and racist orientation. Your secret life may not be as dirty, may not be as humiliating and it may never make headlines if it is made public. In fact, you may indeed be a law abiding, hard working, honest and monogamous person, or a community pillar, or a spiritualist, or known for your character strength. But underneath all the visible layers of what the world sees, you have a secret life which is carefully hidden from most of the external world.

Do not mistake my claim of your secret life as a reference to your "unconscious." By secret life, I do not mean the buried repressed desires, or the narcissistic wound from the unavailable mother. I do not mean the secrets that are supposed to be revealed in the dreams or under hypnosis. This secret life is very much part of your awareness and you are deliberate in choosing not to disclose it to the external world and sometimes not even completely to yourself. This secret is not a trivial social etiquette such as not picking your nose in public, not using curse words in front of kids, or saying thanks for a gift you know you are never going to use.

Your secret life may be like Bill Harris's in "Lost In Translation" who is lonely and tired of his loveless marriage, or Walt in "Gran Torino" who is unable to confess to the priest that he has been troubled by killing young Koreans as a soldier in the Korean war, or Cecilia in "Purple Rose of Cairo" who escapes into a life on fantasy from the movies. You may be haunted by fears that you do not deserve your good life and you are constantly vigilant that something traumatic is going to happen, or you may live in a grandiose conviction that you are going to get that great break to fame.

Now imagine describing this secret life to at least one person, a person who is significant to you; a parent, spouse, mentor, or someone directly involved in your secret life. Imagine that this person is not only able to understand what you are going through, but is able to appreciate and accept you in all your weaknesses and fantasies without doubts and objections. You believe, at least in that moment, that this person is not going to use the information against you and there is no fear of losing power or being too vulnerable to such a person.

We all want to be seen and want to be heard in this way. We all hold this fantasy, somewhere deep down, in our ideal world. Most of the time, we do not trust that this will be a safe process, so we prefer to stay lonely, under the guise of privacy. Some of us find carefully selected friends as a compromise for not getting the real thing. Becoming the giver of such moments to another person comes with a big responsibility which most of us are not ready to bear. We are too busy licking our own wounds. Some of us are lucky and courageous enough to find a few such authentic moments. Most of us need to find self-sufficient ways to be seen and heard: therapy, meditation, churches and temples.

How would it be to be seen and heard in this way? Would it save us from the acting out of the secret life in unexpected ways? Would it be possible to stop us from inadvertently hurting people who are close to us? Could Madoff and Weiner have changed their actions were they given a chance to be truly heard by someone directly affected by their secrets? What if they are given a chance, now, to be understood in complete sense? Would that change their actions and the effect of their actions from now onwards?

Although there are not all-encompassing answers to these questions, one thing makes sense. In any close relationship, spousal or parental, such "being heard", "being understood" and yet "being appreciated" is what we mean by intimacy. If at any moment, we are able to keep our own wounds aside and hear the other person's secret life with understanding and appreciation, we create bonding beyond words. If we develop this ability, it will not only save our marriages and parental bonds but will enormously enrich us. To hear, accept and appreciate the secret life of someone close to us is the greatest gift we can give!