Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Family Secrets

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 3, 2011

   Jenny, thirty, opens the session, “my dad told me not to talk about his family, so there are things I can’t tell you.” “Your dad told you there are things you cannot tell your therapist?” I ask, with wonder and amazement. “Why would your dad want you to withhold information from me?” I repeat. “Well, it is very personal information, and it is not for the public,” she says. “Am I the public?” I ask, knowing that we both know the answer. “Secrets can create terrible anxiety, so I wonder if that partly contributes to why life can be so hard for you.” I say, trying to help Jenny examine the impact of keeping a family secret from her therapist. “I know. I feel terrible about it, but I do not want to betray my dad,” Jenny says, as if loyalty to her dad trumps her mental health. “I suspect there are many secrets in your family and this is just one of many examples in which you were told to hold things inside.” I say, suspecting that Jenny’s family is filled with shame. “Well, maybe” Jenny says, “but I love my family.” “You can love your family and you can understand how they cause you grief, all at the same time,” I respond. “Let’s change the subject,” Jenny says, losing her patience with me. “I want to talk about my new boyfriend,” she says with glee and lightheartedness. “Sure, I want to hear about him. New people in your life may be less complicated than your more longstanding relationships,” I say, explaining that it takes a while to see how people roll. I am still thinking about the family secrets, not the content, but the nature of secrecy and how it relates to shame. For Jenny’s sake, I follow her transition, but my mind is active in both the present story, and her opening statement.

2 Responses to “Family Secrets”

  1. Shelly said

    Interesting blog. If something is being held secret, or not talked about, can it usually be associated with shame? (Or like in another of your blogs, you described it as a means of controlling information: witholding it from some and telling it to others to show who is “in” and who is “out” in the family, etc…)

    • Yes, secrets and shame are often linked. Of course, as you mention, secrets also suggest control, so this is another aspect. Secrets can also protect people, so there can be a positive aspect to withholding information, but in general secrets cause greater problems down the line.

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