Holistic Divorce Counseling

Holistic Divorce Counseling Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM. Free support, resources, and comfort for all life's issues and transitions.

Family Secrets: How to Overcome their Toxic Legacy  December 14, 2015


Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.

Paul Tournier


We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.

Robert Frost, The Secret Sits



In families where there is addiction, abuse, criminal behavior, or mental illness, there is usually a code of silence that dictates the actions of the whole tribe. This unstated but powerful family trope has the potential for creating an internal shame-based environment that perpetuates a sense of worthlessness and can leave a legacy of self-destructive behaviors and difficult relationships.


What motivates people to keep family secrets? Fear of social rejection, fear of rejection and criticism from the family, fear that articulating these truths will somehow make them more real and demanding of attention (whether by oneself, other family members, or the authorities). Yet, the path to releasing shame, cultivating self-acceptance, and creating a new life paradigm is through speaking one’s truth. By openly acknowledging the challenges of your unique childhood you unlock much of the power those secrets had over you, and can connect with everyone else who faced similar issues. Instead of feeling isolated and unfit for human company, you can re-join the human race.


Of course, after years of denial and keeping secrets, it is not easy to start speaking honestly. Thankfully, there are ways to heal from these patterns and their fall-out. 12 Step programs provide support as you navigate unfamiliar emotional seas. Therapy bolsters you as you become your authentic self and learn to speak your truth, while shedding light on family dynamics inculcated at a very impressionable age. Therapy can also help you deal with the parts of you that feel disloyal when choosing a different path from the one you were taught at home. In addition, it can assist you with the emotional, physical, and behavioral reactions that come from unleashing a boat load of family secrets. These consequences can be very hard to handle as they often include outright denial of events, and pushback from people who have known you one way and resist your changing. (A therapist can also help you with the cascade of feelings these reactions might trigger.)


If you grew up in a family with big secrets you were trained to deny your reality. If your childhood included abuse you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Luckily, there are a number of incredibly helpful ways to heal through much of that trauma.


The more people refuse to keep family secrets and open the gates to their truth, both past and present, the more likely everyone will realize: we all suffer, we all feel rejected, we all face physical, emotional, and social difficulties. The sooner that happens, the greater the likelihood we can create a compassionate world for ourselves and others.


Copyright Nicole S. Urdang


What we reveal can heal January 21, 2013

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

“What you didn’t tell someone was just as debilitating as what you did.”
Jodi Picoult, Handle With Care

“Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret.”
Jean de La Fontaine

“If I only had three words of advice, they would be, Tell the truth. If got three more words, I’d add, all the time.”
Randy Pausch

While it is exhausting to keep secrets, especially from oneself, it is a ubiquitous human endeavor. Whether the alcoholic’s denial, secret trysts of a cheating spouse, or yearnings so easily shelved into one’s unconscious, secrets are part of our human currency.

What drives people to withhold the truth; especially, when keeping secrets is so exhausting and stultifying? Often it’s a combination of shame, wanting to avoid criticism, or fear of seeming imperfect, stupid, wrong, or vulnerable.

If you find yourself loath to tell the truth, you may want to do a little self inquiry.

Are you afraid of retribution or blame?
Are you concerned you won’t be able to handle the fall-out emotionally?
Do perfectionism and fear of criticism rule your behavior?
Perhaps, you believe everyone must think highly of you or love you for you to feel worthwhile.
Is it threatening to even think of making a mistake? If so, you may want to read the chapter on this site: No Mistakes, Only Lessons, to disabuse yourself of that cognitive straight jacket. Hard as it may be to believe, fear of being criticized can be changed to welcoming criticism by retraining your mind to see it as an opportunity to change and grow, even if the growing comes from an inner knowledge that someone’s comments are not valid.

If you find yourself lying to stem the tide of criticism, you may want to try a few things:

1. Watch your inner dialogue. Ferret out thoughts leading to short term relief and choose those that redound to your long term benefit. If you typically pick momentary comfort over long term resolution, ask yourself how you could think or act differently. Yes, in the short run, telling the truth may create some discomfort, but in the long term it clears a path for more authentic communication and better relationships. You may also want to practice delaying gratification, even if only for a few minutes. This will help you develop emotional muscle so you can withstand unpleasant feelings without catastrophizing about them.

2. Leave your ego outside the door. People rarely criticize all of you. It is your behavior they wish would change, not you. Since you have hundreds, if not thousands, of different behaviors, why get distraught when someone doesn’t like one or two of them? You are far more than the sum of a few of your actions. Furthermore, have you ever had a relationship with anyone where you adored everything they did? Of course not. So, why would your nearest and dearest love every one of your behaviors?

3. Pay attention to your inner critic. What is it telling you? Typically, people who get their psychological knickers in a twist over criticism are those whose inner dialogue is harsh, judgmental, and punitive. If you find that is the case for you, gently, lovingly, and patiently talk with your inner critic. Convince it that the changes it wants for you will come far more swiftly and easily if it uses kindness rather than criticism. You may want to suggest different ways it can talk to you to guide you into, rather than force, change.

Lying in intimate relationships, whether romantic or professional partnerships, is potentially quite corrosive and may have more to do with low frustration tolerance than working towards your greatest long term joy. Low frustration tolerance is the late Albert Ellis’ term for the unhelpful thought that: Everything should be the way I want it to be; life should be easy and fair. Lying, on the face of it, looks as if it will make life easier for you. In the short run, it may save your bacon, but in the long term it will often come back to bite you with a vengeance.

If low frustration tolerance is your motivator, try easing yourself into telling the truth. Start sharing your thoughts, feelings and actions more than you have in the past. In a way, this is also an assertiveness issue, as it takes guts to own up to your truths. If assertiveness has always been difficult for you, read a book on it, take a class, or visit a therapist to learn some new ways of getting what you want out of life and standing up for yourself.

If you find yourself revealing things selectively, understand that telling your truth is just that: your version of things. There is no absolute truth when it comes to emotions, memories of events, and perspectives on the past. Try cultivating respect and understanding when listening to other people’s descriptions of things.

Do all secrets eventually get revealed? No; however, keeping them hidden siphons off psychic, emotional, and even physical energy from you, as it can be exhausting to maintain and juggle them all.

In spite of that, some secrets are best left private. It is important to know when to keep something to yourself. A general rule of thumb is to exercise extreme caution when revealing a secret will only harm everyone involved. By honestly looking at the potential fall-out, you may decide that not saying something trumps honesty. If the best case scenario would be your unburdening, while causing irreparable harm to someone else, you may want to consider talking with a therapist or close friend before unveiling your truth. If you decide to carry your secret to the grave, the next step is making peace with your decision and resisting the urge to revisit your behavior. Ruminating over it will probably amp up your guilt and create deep feelings of resentment for the person you are trying to protect. (See Guilt: The Useless Emotion chapter.)

When it comes to telling the truth to yourself, be gentle and patient. The truth is often divulged over time. Sometimes, you may just not be ready to see something in your life, whether it is a personal pattern, or someone else’s behavior. Furthermore, if you are looking back at the past and thinking you should have been more aware, give yourself a break. Please. You simply were not ready to face whatever it was that in retrospect seems so obvious. Even if it was toxic and caused you pain, be emotionally generous to yourself and let go of any self-blame. You weren’t consciously keeping a secret from yourself, you simply were not able to face the ramifications of the truth.

If you want some extra motivation, just remind yourself of some of the benefits of revealing your truth: a greater sense of inner congruency, self-respect, less anxiety about life and relationships because you are being your authentic self, greater joy as you unshackle yourself from the burden of keeping secrets, and knowing you set an example for others to be more transparent and open.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang


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