“Did Liz ever take a breath?” Sarah thought.

The woman talking at Sarah had been trying to befriend her ever since Sarah started working for the company two weeks ago. Liz apparently thought that sharing office gossip and trying to set Sarah up with various men in the building was the way to go about building a friendship.

“…and I can tell, Sarah, that you’ve probably had your share of experiences with romance in the workplace,” Liz said confidently. “You’ll do fine around here.”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. She was definitely not experienced in the ways Liz thought she was. She didn’t like to date coworkers. The whole situation was uncomfortable for her. She appreciated that Liz was trying to be friendly but was uneasy about her assumptions about her dating history.

How should she respond? Sarah took a beat and decided that there was no way she was going to open up about her love life with Liz, who appeared to have no filter. Sarah did not want to lie, however, either, even though it seemed like Liz was eager to hear about her “experiences.”

“Well if I have or I haven’t, I’m totally not going to get into that here, Liz. I’m still the new girl. Are you trying to get me in trouble around here?” she said lightly with a smile. “Now, please tell me where you got that top, though, it is incredible.”

“Oh, I see, first impressions and all,” Liz said wryly with a wink. “This top is my latest find! I got it for only seven dollars at…” Liz went on delightedly to tell Sarah about her favorite places to shop in the area.

We’ve all had conversations where our personal boundaries are tested. Deciding how to respond to these situations is not always straightforward and requires us to guard our privacy while maintaining our integrity.

Honesty and Privacy

When I meet with clients for a first session, we talk about the importance of being honest throughout the therapeutic process. We acknowledge that if we are dealing with anything but the truth in therapy, it is a waste of all of our time and their money. Being honest does not mean that we cannot keep some things private, however.

My clients and I identify the difference between being a private person and being dishonest. We recognize a lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive whereas keeping something private is simply refusing to share certain information. We define boundaries in our relationship that require honesty and preserve the right to privacy. We do this by agreeing to say “I don’t want to answer that,” or “I’m not ready to talk about that now,” when we are not comfortable answering a question we may ask each other. This keeps us from having to reluctantly disclose personal information or, even worse, from making up a lie. I tell my clients that I value my privacy by letting them know that most aspects of my personal life won’t be talked about in their therapy and I encourage clients to reveal details of their personal life only when they believe it is safe to do so.

Not Correcting Wrong Impressions

In order to guard our privacy, we must be able to make peace with others’ faulty assumptions about us. For example, I once worked with a client struggling with sex addiction who made it clear to me that he thought that I shared some of his sexual tastes. His assumptions made me uncomfortable because I happened to have no experience with or any interest in taking part in the particular sexual activities he was talking about. Even so, in that moment I decided to guard my privacy and not correct his misconceptions about my sex life. Correcting his impression of me would have required me to talk about my sexual interests and experiences. Had I done this, I may have felt relieved for a moment, but I also would have violated a healthy boundary in our relationship (i.e., therapy should be focused on the client’s life and needs, not the therapist’s). I believe that by protecting my privacy, I was able to preserve a healthy working relationship with my client.

Who are You Talking to?

It is unwise to be careless with the personal details of our life. It is important to remember that we can’t unsay something once it has been shared and that some people may misuse information about our private life. We should therefore exercise restraint and consideration before we reveal the intimate details of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others.

When You’re Alone

We can learn a great deal about our character by examining our private life. What do we watch, read, and listen to when we are by ourselves? What does our thought life say about us as a person? How would we behave if we knew that our actions would remain private? The answers to these questions tell us much about who we are as a person. The most satisfied and confident people are those who behave in honest, healthy, loving, and self-controlled ways in both their public and private lives.