Secrets keep you sick.
Have you ever heard that well-known phrase? It's widely used to describe the insidious nature of withholding your truth or avoiding vulnerability.
Keeping secrets is often the core of addictive behavior. Someone who struggles with addiction relies on deceit to ensure their needs are met. They often avoid honesty because it has uncomfortable consequences, and it can lead to severe relationship problems.
But secrets don't usually start in the addiction. They often start in one's family-of-origin. Recognizing the secrets you have with your loved ones can be incredibly uncomfortable, but it's an important part of your recovery work.
Let's get into what you need to know.
Types of Family Secrets
Family secrets can consist of anything that's kept concealed from outsiders. These secrets may implicit or explicit, but family members feel they must preserve their feelings from the rest of the world.
Physical or Sexual Abuse
Physical or sexual abuse, especially when the perpetrator is another family member, is one of the most devastating types of family secrets. The abuse itself is already horrific. But feeling the pressure to keep it inside only exacerbates the problem.
If you experienced abuse as a child, you may feel immense guilt and assume you somehow caused the treatment. Your family may reinforce these internalized feelings by continuing to blame you or acting as if nothing happened.
Children who grow up with parents struggling with addiction often learn to keep secrets to protect their families. They may lie about the reality of what's really happening or downplay the situation to others.
This cycle typically creates a dissonance. Individual family members typically grow resentful of one another, yet they feel the immense need to protect the family unit at all costs.
Mental Health Issues
Like addiction, mental health issues can also become family secrets. From a young age, some children learn to keep up with appearances, especially when it comes to protecting their parents and looking after their families.
Likewise, parents may try to conceal a child's mental health issues from the rest of the world. They might deny that the child has any struggles or shame them for their experiences. With this, they send a strong message that the child needs to act in a specific way- and that their mental health behavior is unacceptable.
Poverty or financial insecurity often brings forth a sense of familial shame. Parents may try to hide the situation from the child, but children pick up on subtle changes quickly.
Children often try to pretend like everything is okay to the outside world. They might mask having any needs and attempt to present themselves as dignified as possible.
Secret Keeping and Addiction: What's The Real Connection?
Addiction is a complex issue. Family secrets aren't entirely responsible for this phenomenon, but such taboo topics likely play a role in maintaining addictive behavior.
Secrets Trigger Shame
Holding a family secret gets heavy, and the longer you carry it, the more burdensome it may feel.
Harmful secret-keeping can make you feel like something is fundamentally wrong with you. Over time, this can lead to a social isolation effect (even if you consider yourself to have many friends). You might fear that another person will catch onto your situation and that will reveal your truth.
Shame Coincides With Poor Self-Esteem
The longer you carry shame, the more likely you are to feel badly about yourself. To cope with this distress, you might turn to mood-altering substances to numb your feelings.
Over time, the pattern gets stronger. When you feel upset or anxious- or you're dealing with other emotions that feel uncomfortable- you turn to your drug of choice. Over time, those cycles build tolerance, increasing your chance for developing a dependence.
Telling the Truth May Cause Ostrasization
Many people avoid airing family secrets because they worry about the repercussions. They may have observed other family members breaking their silence- only to be shunned, criticized, or completely written off from the family unit.
And so, you might assume that maintaining family secrets is easier than telling the truth. But carrying that discomfort can lead to severe distress, which may aggravate substance use.
How Do You Heal From Your Family Secrets?
Recovering from family secrets takes time, and it isn't a straightforward process. No matter your relationship with your biological parents or other family members, it's so important to honor your recovery.
Here are some ways to cope:
Talk About the Family Secrets
Honest conversation starts with honest conversation. That sounds simple in theory, but it's obviously challenging to execute it.
The first step is finding people where you can talk about the secret. Who's a safe person? Is it a close friend or sponsor or therapist? Is it someone you've connected with online?
How does it feel to reveal that secret? How can you sit with the possible consequences of someone knowing what you've had to hold onto for so many years?
Set Healthy Boundaries
You have a right to your own limits, but in dynamics where family secrecy is rampant, individuals often feel guilty for asserting their needs. You may have sacrificed your well-being from a young age.
Boundaries start by recognizing your needs. What does healthy privacy mean to you? What do you value in your relationships? If someone can't respect your boundaries, how will you manage those broken rules?
Build Appropriate Adult Relationships
Many people who grew up in dysfunctional homes struggle in adult dynamics, particularly with intimate relationships. They often operate in extremes- you might be overly clingy to others, or you might be completely detached and aloof.
Appropriate adult relationships take time. You'll need to consider what you value in your life, and you'll need to work through the very real trust issues that often stunt connection.
Seek Professional Support
Keeping a secret, even if it feels like the right thing to do, can have devastating effects on your self-esteem. If you're recovering from an addiction- or trying to strengthen your mental health- living honestly and authentically is essential.
Secret-keeping only maintains a sense of distance in your relationships. And even if you feel like you're protecting your family members, you're often doing so at the expense of your own emotional wellness.
At Resurface Group, we work with individuals and their families to build closer relationships. Over time, our family members learn they can rely on one another, despite past circumstances. Family therapy can be an integral part in your recovery and healing journey.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.