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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Toxic Family Secrets

Did you grow up in a home where there were toxic family secrets?


Toxic Family Secrets
Here are a few examples of typical secrets in a dysfunctional family:

Susan's family's toxic secret
It's morning and dad is passed out in bed again from his prior night of binge drinking. Susan, who is nine, overhears her mother calling dad's boss to say that dad is sick and won't be going to work. Even though the mom knows that Susan has seen dad drunk many times, she tells Susan that dad has "the flu" and tells her not to talk to anyone about what she saw the night before. In doing this, she gives Susan a mixed message about what they both know to be true. Susan grows up resenting her mother and father and feeling that she can't trust men and she never wants to get married.

George's family's toxic family secret
George is 15 years old. His father just died. At his father's funeral, to his shock and amazement, he overhears people whispering that the man that he knew and loved was not really his biological father. When he confronts his mother about this a few weeks later, she turns away from him, refusing to talk about it, and only says, "Your real father was no good." George feels overwhelmed, angry and betrayed. He has so many questions, but no one to talk to about it. He doesn't want to upset his mother, so he never brings it up again, but he grows up feeling lost and confused and he has difficulty trusting in his intimate relationships.

Mary grows up feeling ashamed of toxic family secret
Mary is 10 years old. Every night her mother's boyfriend comes into her room and touches her in ways that make her feel uncomfortable. When Mary finally summons up enough courage to tell her mother, her mother gets angry with her and accuses Mary of making up lies. She tells Mary that if she ever mentions this to anyone else, she'll send her away. But later that night, Mary hears her mother and the boyfriend arguing about his going into Mary's room. The next day Mary's mother and the boyfriend act as if nothing has changed and go on with their daily routine. The nightly visits stop, and the subject is never brought up again, leaving Mary deeply confused: Did her mother believe her or not? She grows up feeling ashamed-- she must have done something wrong to cause the mother's boyfriend to behave in this way and for her mother to get angry with her. She also learns not to trust her own feelings. Whenever her romantic relationships start to become serious, she shuts down emotionally and her boyfriends leave her.

John's family's toxic secret about father's gambling
John is 13. He knows that his father earns a good living and should be able to support the family. And yet, there is constant tension and anxiety in the house because his parents are continually struggling to pay the bills. They're unable to give him money for class trips or his football uniform. One day he sees his father going over a horse racing form which he quickly puts away when John walks into the room. Later on, John asks his mother if dad has a gambling problem, and she changes the subject, telling him to go clean his room. John feels hurt and confused. He grows up with anxiety about money and wonders if he'll be able to take care of himself when he grows up.

The Consequences of Toxic Family Secrets:
From these few examples, you begin to see how damaging family secrets can be. Maybe you've identified with one or two of them or they might have brought to mind secrets that your family kept and might still be keeping.

These kinds of family secrets are emotionally toxic. The consequences far exceed what the parents ever could have imagined: hurt, mistrust, shame, guilt, self doubt, anger, resentment, and sometimes an inability to enter into or maintain intimate relationships. Sometimes, people who grew up with toxic family secrets don't realize how they've been affected by them. They might perpetuate these dynamics when they get married with their own children because this way of relating is familiar to them. Toxic family secrets have been known to be a contributing factor to alcohol and drug abuse, sexual addiction, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, codependence, and other problems.

What to Do?
Ask yourself if you grew up with toxic family secrets and, if so, ask yourself how it is affecting you and your current relationships. If you sense that family secrets are adversely affecting you now--maybe they're getting in the way of your having or maintaining relationships or you feel you can't trust your own feelings because you don't always know what they are (from years of doubting what you know versus what you were told by your family), it's time to see a mental health professional so that you can learn to overcome the consequences of family secrets and have a fulfilling life.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individual adults and families.  I have helped many clients to overcome the affects of toxic family secrets.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006.

Also, see my article:  Overcoming Shame


photo credit: Auntie P via photopin cc

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