Most families have secrets of some sort. Unwelcome truths are withheld, lies might be told and the burden of information that must not be shared is carried around. Often, as a result, trust is eroded and relationships falter. The weight of keeping such secrets – or a sense that something within the family doesn’t quite add up – can lead to distress leaking out into daily life causing anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms. How can counselling and psychotherapy help?
Common Family Secrets
Common secrets within families include withholding information about:
- paternity e.g. the identity of an absent father
- maternity e.g. a mother turning out to be a grandmother (and a sister a mother)
- children given up for adoption
- serious illness, especially if someone is dying
- criminal activity
Particularly for older generations, secrets might have been kept in an attempt to avoid being abandoned by the family or a community. Often, some members of the family will appear to benefit from secrets being kept and others will not. When such secrets are revealed (or sometimes even when they are not) the people who have been lied to or from whom important information has been concealed, might struggle to trust others or suffer from shame and fear.
Consequences of Family Secrets – Death and Dying
If someone is dying, this fact might be withheld in an effort to protect others from emotional pain. Sometimes not going into too much detail too soon might be appropriate e.g. if we need to tell young children that a parent is dying. Problems occur, however, when information which needs to be communicated is not. People are generally very good at picking up when something is wrong – even if nothing is actually said – and may feel excluded or confused by the situation. Also, if someone is dying and important others are not told when there is an opportunity to do so, there is a risk of having no time to prepare emotionally, to say goodbye or to offer support.
In short, we might be left feeling hurt, helpless and even more fearful of a death that cannot be talked about or grief shared. I have also found that in some families information about someone dying may be withheld in order to avoid having to bear a person’s reaction to the news. If we are someone who struggles to bear other people’s distress, fear or anger without it overwhelming us we may well decide to keep secrets for as long as possible in order to protect ourselves. And, of course, telling others about our own fatal diagnosis requires us to have accepted this reality ourselves.
How Counselling and Psychotherapy Can Help You
Counselling or psychotherapy provides a safe space in which to explore difficult feelings which you might find puzzling or distressing. If your faith in others has been eroded by family secrets, it might also be a chance to have your anger or sadness acknowledged and for trust to be rebuilt. If you need to find a way to tell family members about e.g. something that happened in the past which you feel they should know, how to do this can be explored in confidence and with compassion.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove
Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net