advice

What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘I Have a Secret That’s Torturing Me!’

Dear Therapist,

I’ve been engaged for six months now. My fiancé and I have been together for six years. We’ve built an amazing life together, but I have a really dark secret I’ve kept from him.

Three years ago, I had too much to drink and made out with a former professor in a bar. Ever since, I feel taken advantage of. I was drunk to the point that I wasn’t thinking clearly but looking back, I wish I had told him no. I never told anyone about this incident but am currently working through this with a therapist.

I’m confident that revealing this to others would cause a lot of chaos in my life. This guy is a big-deal professor at a big-deal university. He is married and has kids. I feel strong in my ability to deal with this by not burdening others with this information. This is the first “adult” problem in my life, but it’s hard for me to move through life knowing how scary and complicated the future will be and how there are so many shades of gray in a world that is dictated by black-and-whiteness. My guilt is all-consuming, and I feel like I need to shout from the mountaintops that I’m a bad person and need to be punished.

I guess I’d just like some reassurance that good people can do bad things and can come back from them. But is believing that a cop-out for bad people?

Holding a Secret

Dear Holding a Secret,

When people come into my office with a situation like yours — what therapists call the “presenting problem” — the first thing I think about is how the story they’ve come in with might differ from the story they’ll leave with. I’m not saying that the plot points will be different. It’s that the telling — the interpretation — will. The A story might become the B story. A detail may thread its way into a main narrative. The protagonists and villains may not be as they first appear and require some fleshing out.

In other words, the story often needs some editing.

I’d like to help you edit your story, HS, though if we were face-to-face it would be different. I might know, for instance — from your body language, your facial expressions, or other details you’d include — how this incident affected you beyond the all-consuming guilt. I might know more about your relationship with this professor, about your past experiences with drinking too much (How often? In what context?), and about whether it’s hard for you to say no to people more generally. We’d likely end up talking about how you formed your ideas about “bad” and “good.” What did you do as a child when you felt you’d done something “wrong”? Did you keep it a secret? Beat yourself up? Were other people forgiving or punitive? In other words, how does this particular chapter with the professor fit into the larger narrative of your life?

Though it’s obvious that a letter is more limited than a conversation, I mention it here because parts of your telling — the question of consent, the feeling of being taken advantage of — are both tremendously important and tremendously delicate, and I want you to know three things upfront:

First, I take your account of the events seriously.

Second, I may not have all the pertinent information.

Third, I’m going to risk being misunderstood in my response, because only by taking this risk will I be able to share with you how I think about your situation, and how you might find some peace.

So, back to editing your story …

What you present is a story of secrecy and shame, but what I hear is a story of self-imprisonment with a bit of denial. The crime: You drank too much and then made out with your professor. The punishment: chronic self-flagellation. The appeal: extenuating circumstances (alcohol). The prosecution: you.

Often when I see people who are eaten alive by their actions and can’t let go, I’ll ask: “How long should the prison sentence be for this crime?” A month? A year? Life without parole?

Without even realizing it, most of them have chosen life without parole. It sounds like you have too, HS.

Like all humans, you made a mistake. You got drunk one night and kissed your professor while in a committed relationship. So far, you’ve served three years — three years — for this crime. The sentence has included “all consuming” guilt, and a pervasive urge to “shout from the mountaintops” that you’re a “bad person.” Does that seem reasonable?

As you consider your answer, it might help to take yourself out of this: If your closest friend were given this harrowing three-year sentence for the same mistake, would it seem unduly harsh?

Take a minute to really think about this. Would you condemn her to your fate?

Let’s assume that you come to see how extreme this sentence is. Now what? Are you free? Will you feel exonerated? Well, not quite.

If what you want is freedom — freedom from guilt, freedom from obsession, freedom from assurance-seeking — then you’re going to have to look at the events of that night more closely. If what you want is to transcend this experience, you’re going to have to muster as much compassion for yourself as possible and reexamine your story. Which means, I have some questions for you to reflect on.

I want to pause here and remind you that I’m posing these questions not to place blame or add to your shame — not for you to crack the guilt whip even harder — but instead to facilitate an honest reckoning with yourself so that you can finally put the whip away. I have a feeling that you’re telling the story one way — it was out of my control — so that you don’t have to deal with the pain of what was in your control. You may believe (unconsciously, of course) that this version of events will protect you, make you feel better, but as you can see from your three years of self-flagellation, it only exacerbates the guilt.

Here’s why: Sometimes we can’t get past our guilt because we haven’t completely come clean to ourselves. By revisiting our choices — getting the internal accounting in order — we regain a sense of agency. As long as you feel guilty over the ways you might be massaging the story, you’ll remain your own jailer.

So let’s go back to that night. I’m curious about how you ended up at a bar with your professor. In a sober moment, did you chose to meet there as opposed to, say, the typical places somebody might meet a professor, such as a Starbucks, his office, or somewhere on campus? If, on the other hand, you happened to run into him at the bar, did you ask yourself where his friends were, or why a married man might be alone at a bar? Were your friends at the bar, and if so, what happened to them? Before you got drunk, did you tell them it was okay to leave? Did a part of you want to be alone with your professor, not to make out with him, but to enjoy his attention? (I imagine that once you were drunk, your friends would have stayed no matter what, because what kind of friends leave their inebriated pal to get home on her own?)

You say that you feel taken advantage of, and perhaps there’s more to the story that you didn’t include in your letter. But based on what you shared, if you were both at a bar drinking, and there was no Bill Cosby–ness going on, it’s equally possible that he was drunk, too, and also not completely aware of what he was doing, also failing to make good decisions. Maybe the next day he was as mortified by what had happened as you were. And even if he wasn’t, I’m going to go so far as to say it’s possible that you admired him, were drawn to his brilliance and power and felt a vague attraction to him that you had absolutely no intention of acting on, ever — until alcohol loosened your inhibitions. Maybe you had the normal feelings that most humans — even (or especially) those in committed relationships — have around especially charismatic people, feelings that were unclear or unacceptable to you and still are. Maybe on that particular night, in that particular setting, the events that occurred were partly in and partly out of your control, his control, or a little of both.

There are so many reasons, HS, that might have led to the fact that one night three years ago you and your professor ended up kissing. But there’s no reason to shut them away in a vault that you wish you could bury but can’t. Because — and here’s the crucial part — not one of them merits condemning yourself to a life sentence.

This is where the very thing you say you’re afraid of is the very thing that will set you free: those shades of gray. The beauty of the adult world is that, unlike a child’s concrete one, this more mature universe isn’t at all “dictated by black-and-whiteness.” Adulthood allows for nuance. Everything you’ll encounter as an adult requires flexibility in one form or another — love, self-worth, the definition of success. All the big questions do, too: Who am I? What do I want? What do I believe in?

Often what you do is ultimately less important to your well-being than how you navigate your choices. That’s what adults do with “adult problems.”

Should you learn something from this experience? Absolutely.
But even if you’d been completely sober and initiated the make-out session, you still wouldn’t be a “bad” person. We all make mistakes. Taking responsibility for them ensures that we don’t layer more mistakes on top of the original one. The lesson here isn’t, I’m a bad person. The lesson is: I need to be more aware of how much alcohol I can drink — and why I’m drinking — so that I can take good care of myself. The lesson is: I need to be more aware of the feelings that guide my decisions. The lesson is also: The adult world is a forgiving place, not one confined by absolutes, and if I’m to live peacefully in this adult world, I’ll need to be more forgiving and less confined by absolutes, too.

You seem to have decided to keep this experience a secret from everyone but your therapist, though there’s no absolute answer for that either. I had a patient who had a one-night stand on a business trip. She, too, had been drinking, and she, too, was initially wracked by guilt. But for her, the incident was a wake-up call, a reminder of how important her marriage was. In her mind, this seemingly unfortunate experience saved her marriage. It made her all the more invested, made her examine why she was drinking so heavily that night in the first place (anxiety? depression? boredom? escape?), made her face the ways she needed to change in her own life, and motivated her to do just that. Would telling her husband be useful to him? Would it be useful to their marriage? Or would the most useful thing be for her to make the changes she needed to make, so that their marriage could thrive and she wouldn’t act out that way again?

Another patient made the opposite decision, releasing his paralyzing secret and telling his wife what had happened. They ultimately became closer, more trusting and connected, instead of less. But his taking responsibility for his part in the “mistake” — instead of presenting the story he first brought to therapy: She came on to me; I didn’t know what I was doing (which was partly, but not completely, true) — is what allowed them both to forgive him and move forward.

Neither of these people were the scum they at first believed they were. Both came to that conclusion by letting go of the fixed stories they came in with.

Don’t be so sure, HS, that your stories in life are the only versions to be told, to yourself or to others. When you treat yourself with integrity and open yourself up to those shades of gray, you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to unlock the door to your self-made prison.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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The information provided by What Your Therapist Really Thinks is for entertainment and educational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘I Have a Guilty Secret.’