Shhh—Don’t Tell – Managing Family Secrets During the Holiday Season

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers […]

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“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
All families have collective secrets such as shared rituals, traditions, or practices that they do not wish to share with the world. Siblings hold secrets from their parents, while parents may choose to withhold some aspects of their adult lives from their children. These are not the secrets that will be discussed here.

1. The hard conversation – A client, let’s call him Billy, came to me because of his procrastination. I asked Billy if he could recall when it started. He told me that as a teenager he suspected that his father was an alcoholic. Billy began avoiding his father, his friends, and even his schoolwork. As we talked further, he revealed that to this day, now with a wife and two small sons, he still avoided his father. He shared his sense of unease, even dread when he visited his father and mother with his wife and children. Billy told me that his father had a drinking problem, and when drunk, his father teased him relentlessly. “To this day,” he related, “he still rags on me without mercy when he’s intoxicated.” This resulted in Billy packing up his family in a huff when they visited his intoxicated father. But Billy was torn; with two growing sons, he expressed a desire for his boys to know their grandparents. Yet he could not bear to be in the presence of his father and avoided his calls, and visits to the family home were sparse.

No one in Billy’s family discussed his father’s drinking problem. Billy’s mother and two younger sisters all played along with the lie and laughed uncomfortably when their father was drunk and verbally cruel. Billy worried that he would hurt his mother and two sisters if he told the truth. Nevertheless, Billy agreed to have a hard conversation with his dad. He told his father that he loved him very much and wanted him to be a part of his life, but he would not visit if he drank. Billy felt a tremendous release after speaking with his father. As a result, he was more focused and productive at home and at work. Billy’s honesty not only liberated him from the procrastination he suffered it served as an invitation to his father and the rest of his family to heal. While Billy’s father declined his son’s invitation and berated him for the suggestion that he may have a drinking problem, the mere fact that Billy broke free from the secret brought him back to a sense of wholeness. 

2. Self-love – The emotional cage the keeps families hidden behind secrets is constructed by the mighty monster of shame. Author Brenè Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly: “Shame derives its power by being unspeakable.” The more fearful Billy become of speaking the truth, the more that monster grew in his life. Shame tells us we deserve punishment. It tells us that we are not worthy and to keep our shameful family deeds hidden behind the shield of our secrets. Shame tells us we are responsible for other people and how they feel. And the most damaging of all, shame tells us that we must not ever tell anyone. When we are silenced, our sense of self is diminished because every aspect of our being must be acknowledged in order to grow. Self-love is the most powerful way toward wholeness. When we deny any aspect of the self, we suffer. Shame cannot co-exist with self-love.

3. Banishing the false constructs of “good” and “bad” – Culture within western society sets a value system of “good” and “bad.” Within this construct, we judge all aspects of our humanity. However, our divine nature is to accept both the shadow and light of our being. Children who experience behaviors that are painful by the hands of a parent may numb those painful emotions with alcohol, drugs, anger, self-sabotaging behaviors, co-dependent relationships and more in order to protect their parent from the feared societal label of being “bad.” I encourage my clients to reframe “good” and “bad” as “empty” and “full.” We wouldn’t dare judge and shame our hunger. We would not deem we are “bad” when the pangs of hunger remind us to eat. We can learn not to judge and shame ourselves or those who may have hurt us when we understand that their emotional pain may be a reminder of where they are broken. With that simple shift, we can examine our lives and the actions of those we love without judgment and move toward true healing as easily as we fill our empty stomachs. Billy did not tell his father he needed to change, he simply expressed his own needs and how he planned to take care of himself.

4. Embracing the value of our family shadow – Our shadow self is a loving barometer that directs us to pay attention to our wounded parts. Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.” When we love ourselves enough to tell our familial truths, we crack the shell of shame and open a space for light to flood into our being in the form of awareness. Living in that truthful space, as Billy discovered, brings us back to a state of peacefulness.

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