Telling Secrets Knows No Limits

Article excerpt

YOU can probably relate to this.

Ginger Allen of Maitland, Fla., was standing in line at the tag office one day minding her own business.

"I'm not one of these people who start conversations with strangers," says Allen, an advertising and marketing executive.

The most she'll offer strangers, she says, is a polite smile.

"But when I smiled at this person in line," she recalls, "it was like an opening for her to tell me her life story!"

The woman's story included the tribulations of her son and daughter-in-law and all the associated family trauma.

"It was just real uncomfortable," Allen says.

She didn't know what to say to avoid being rude while still conveying her discomfort. She finally escaped by butting into another line.

So how do we make gut-spillers stop the wanton "sharing" of their private lives?

We'll count the ways.

But first let's look at what makes people spill their guts to complete strangers in the first place.

One impetus is safety.

The gut-spiller "won't be held accountable," says Vicki O'Grady, a licensed mental health counselor in Maitland.

He or she can trash friends and relatives left and right. Odds are good that you won't say, "Hey, wait a minute! What was your role in all of these problems?"

In addition, gut-spillers may be lonely and seeking a shoulder to whine on.

"They've probably burned out their support system," O'Grady says. Their unwillingness to make changes in their lives may have frustrated their friends into indifference.

But gut-spilling also can be traced to the pairing of media and therapy, two authors contend.

"In Secrets To Tell, Secrets To Keep" (Warner Books, $10), Terry Hunt and Karen Paine-Gernee say that the tell-all atmosphere pervading Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo, etc., has misled the public "about the difficult nature of therapeutic work."

"These shows have therapy `experts' who, along with the host, encourage this kind of soul-baring," Hunt and Paine-Gernee write. "The expert's presence conveys that telling secrets is good, and that real change is possible for the participants and the audience."

Not so, they say.

Instead of the therapeutic sharing that is crucial to overcoming pain and trauma, "everyone - guest, expert, host, audience - is part of a spectacle," they write. "Unaware of appropriate psychological self-disclosure, guests discuss aspects of their private lives that should only be shared in a sacred space."

Where's that?

"Alone in the wilderness, at a therapist's office, in self-help groups or in the privacy of their own homes," Hunt and Paine-Gernee suggest. A "sacred space" also exists when you talk to a trusted friend.

Misguided "pseudotherapy" practiced on talk shows isn't the only problem, Hunt and Paine-Gernee say. …