The Therapist’s Experience and Understanding of Their Client’s Secrets: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Inquiry
Wilkinson, Joanne Mary
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Secrets and secrecy are ubiquitous phenomena that are also encountered in therapeutic relationships, with some studies indicating that over half of all clients have kept secrets from their psychological therapists. Despite psychoanalytic literature theorizing about the client’s secrets and secrecy, I found little was written from the experiential perspectives of psychotherapists. To address this gap in the literature the study explored how psychotherapists experienced and understood their client’s secrets. Hermeneutic phenomenological methodology/methods were utilized and I interviewed three psychotherapists and one psychologist. These participants discussed their clinical experiences and meaning makings when working with client secrets that had involved sexual abuses. An analysis of the interview transcripts found two experiential themes. Firstly, the Black Hole theme involved the therapists’ inability to make meanings or know their clients’ concealed secrets. Secondly, the Penumbrae involved a collection of obscure sensate and bodily experiences that gave these therapists an experiential knowing of aspects of their client’s secrets and secrecy, whilst the secret paradoxically remained concealed and untold (until later in the work). I found that the therapists thought that secrets were, 1) hidden and buried in parts of the client’s self, 2) both protective and threatening, and 3) aspects of their selves had an influence on their clients’ secret telling and secret withholding. These subthemes comprised a theme of the therapists’ understandings of client secrets. Analysis of the interview transcripts and a deeper level of interpretation across the texts gave rise to a theme of predation and innocence, and I called this relational configuration the ‘wolf and the lamb.’ This study suggests that the therapists’ emotional, sensate and visceral responses may indicate the presence of concealed secrets. I hope this study contributes to future research on this complex and intriguing topic.