Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Family Sharing vs. Family Secrets

When it comes to families, it is not what happens that levels the greatest blow-it’s not talking about what happens.

Be it loss, traumatic events, or illness etc., research suggests that stress reactions to painful life events are buffered by networks of support. The family for many is the closest network of support.

Is there room to speak about unexpected life events in your family? Is it safe to share your physical pain, diagnosis, divorce, failing grades or job crisis with family members?

Whether you live with and have your closest ties with the tribe you were born into; the nuclear family you have created with a partner and children; or the second chance family of close friends who feel more like family than anyone else…keeping secrets is emotionally and interpersonally costly.

The definition of a secret is something kept hidden or unexplained. Often the motivation behind a secret is fear of negative reactions or fear of hurting, disturbing, or burdening someone we care about.

I didn’t want to worry you with the diagnosis.

 What am I going to tell the kids about a migraine?…I feel guilty enough that I keep disappointing them.

 I can’t tell my parents about the bullying – it would kill them.

Secrets are often far more damaging personally and interpersonally, than the information being withheld.

Personally- Secrets Impair Our Sense Of Well-Being.

Recent research finds that secrets have a damaging impact on the well being of the secret holder. The reason is actually surprising.

In a series of experiments, Michael Slepian and colleagues asked people who were keeping a secret how often they felt they had to avoid telling the secret to someone they were hiding it from and how often they thought about the information they were keeping secret.

As it turned out across the studies, people think about the information they are withholding three times more than they think about the fact that they are hiding it from someone.

This was even true when they studied romantic partners keeping secrets. More than “ the hiding” of the secret from the partner was the problem of thinking too much about what they were hiding.

Accordingly the studies found that it was the tendency to think often about information being held kept secret that was associated with decreases in happiness.

The mind is an interesting thing. Whereas research points to the benefits of mindfulness, of freeing our thoughts and just observing where they happen to land in the moment, our decision to withhold information, to keep a secret, seems to clog the airways. –

As C.G. Jung suggests- “What you resist, persists.”

Interpersonally- Secrets Impair Our Relationships With Others.

Hiding the painful reality of a lost job, an illness, or a traumatic event etc. is isolating. It leaves us alone with something difficult to process or bear. Because there is no option to dilute, dissipate, or change the intensity by sharing it, the painful feelings we carry are often conveyed without words to those around us.

Yael Danieli tells us of the “ Code of Silence” of Holocaust survivors whose disavowed horror was nonetheless passed on in the conscious and unconscious of the children they struggled to protect.

The hiding of a secret, jeopardizes our connection with others because it makes authenticity impossible. It is difficult to be spontaneous when you are hiding something painful or worrisome. When we can’t be authentic, connection becomes work and the unfortunate solution is distance- which adds to misperceptions and false assumptions.

Many years ago a man came to me with anxiety and despair. His wife who had been diagnosed with cancer asked him not to tell his best friend at work. In addition to the anxiety and concern he felt for her, he was bereft of his friend who he had to avoid.

Often we believe that it is better not to upset children with adult worries. The reality is that children have radar for the state of being of their lifelines – their parents. On some level, they always know and feel it when something is happening. The unknown, the lack of explanation, is far more terrifying for them then hearing an explanation presented at their level of comprehension with a chance to ask questions.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

-Maya Angelou


Listen in to Dr. Dawn Buse “Living Well With Migraine”( how to speak to children) on Psych Up Live