When family secrets come out: How to work through your feelings and find a way forwardWritten by Focus on the Family
What's inside this article
Question: How do I handle the family secret that just came to light? I feel like my whole life has been a lie.
We don’t know the details of your story, but we do know you’re not alone. Maybe an at-home genetics test showed that you have an unknown biological parent. Maybe a stranger emailed out of the blue to say you’re their sibling. Maybe Mom confessed that Dad’s angry, abusive alcoholism was due to his own childhood abuse. Maybe Grandma always said Grandpa was a “good” Christian man who died in combat, then her old diaries reveal that he left the family for another woman . . .
Family secrets have been around as long as there have been families. So, forever. And people’s reasons for keeping those secrets haven’t changed much, either: to cover up broken rules and lies and shame, and to try to protect themselves or others from embarrassment and judgment and possible punishment.
But no matter the secret, no matter who already knows, no matter how you find out, it’s a bombshell. And how you choose to process the information can mean the difference between a healed heart and a bitter one. So let’s look at:
- What emotions you can expect
- How to process feelings in healthy ways
- How betrayal can get in the way of forgiveness
- The truth about your identity
- What to do next
Let yourself feel
There’s no getting around the fact that you were thrown a huge curveball and probably have some level of shock and trauma. (Psychological shock is a rush of emotions in response to an unexpected, stressful event. Psychological trauma happens when we can’t cope with the overwhelming stress of that experience, or when we can’t accept our emotions and integrate new information into our personal story.)
You might feel discomfort, disgust, anger, pain, denial, rejection, grief, apathy . . . maybe even excitement. It’s all normal, and you have permission to fall anywhere along that full range of human emotion. In fact, you might not even be able to put your finger on how you feel.
The information you’ve found out has set you on a journey you didn’t necessarily ask for or want, and it’s not unusual to feel disoriented. Your identity – how you defined yourself, your family, your world and your place in it all – got knocked off its axis. Everything seems to be reeling, and you’ve lost your balance.
The good news is that north is still north. But you have to give the compass time to settle down; don’t try to move forward while it’s still spinning. As with any trauma, you need to drain off strong emotions before making decisions, and you need handrails to keep you steady while you regain equilibrium.
Process your emotions in healthy ways
Do you have an early memory of learning that the world is broken? Whether or not this experience is your first taste of being let down in a huge and hurtful way, here’s the truth: humanity is not harmonious. And understanding that is key to moving forward in healing and wholeness.
Maybe you only have negative thoughts right now – you can only focus on how this news has hurt you. That’s OK! Maybe you feel excited at the thought of meeting family you never knew you had. Also OK! Or maybe you’re not really feeling anything; you don’t care one way or another about what you’ve learned, you dismiss it, you avoid reacting. That’s OK, too – for now.
Again, all your feelings are normal. Being an imperfect person in an imperfect world with other imperfect people is hard! However, no matter what you feel in this moment, you must make time to sit with what you discovered.
Don’t ignore the impact of this family secret. If you suppress or bury your thoughts about new information instead of figuring out how to incorporate it into your mindset, you risk emotions sneaking up on you later and in worse ways.
Emotionally processing your discovery has two parts: Letting yourself feel, and objectively working through how the secret and its revelation has affected you. (Feelings are subjective; they’re open to personal interpretation. But an objective perspective isn’t influenced by emotions or opinions.) And the best ways to do that are by talking and journaling:
Talk with a safe, trustworthy person. This person won’t feed your reaction; instead, they will be a witness to your pain. In other words, they’ll help you process this new reality and think about what to do with the information, but they won’t let you spiral endlessly in negative thoughts.
We also encourage you to get input about how to disclose what you’ve learned if someone else would be truly affected and therefore needs to know. (Depending on the safety of family or individuals you’d potentially be sharing with, keeping the information to yourself – or limiting it to a few individuals who can support you – could be wiser. This is why experienced, objective counsel is a huge help.)
If you’re not sure who to talk to, call our professional counsellors for a free over-the-phone consultation.
Journal your experience. Write down your emotions. Affirm them; they’re real and valid. But they don’t get to control you. Acknowledge them without giving them the run of your mind or letting them spark sinful or destructive actions.
Also, write down the possible consequences of the information. Ask yourself, What's the source of the information? Is it even reliable and correct? Does anything need to change or is legal action required?
Then, explore how this experience can be life-giving in the long run (we’ll talk more about that later).
During this reflection, you may face questions about the secret that are painful to ask and tough to answer. They won’t make for lighthearted conversation with a friend, and they won’t fit neatly between the covers of a notebook. They’ll challenge your assumptions about family and love and loyalty.
Nevertheless, fight the temptation to turn away from the mess. What seems beyond fixing has become part of your story – wanted or not. Don’t let chaos and confusion threaten your healing. Press in, speak truth, and choose hope.
Understand how betrayal can get in the way of forgiveness
One of the greatest struggles when secrets come out is feeling betrayed. We all suffer the wounds of betrayal at some point in life. But when family betrays us – loved ones who know us intimately and who we thought we could trust with our safety and well-being – the pain can be indescribable.
These are people you’ve relied on, looked up to. So it’s not odd to wonder, Why would they have kept this from me? Why did other family members keep this to themselves? Didn't they care enough to tell me the truth? What else have they lied to me about?
As with other emotions, don’t gloss over feelings of betrayal. Whatever the secret took from you – trust, confidence, security, peace of mind – let yourself grieve. Then, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Consider, Why would they have done what they did at that time in their life? Why would they have kept the secret this long (or to their grave)?
You’re not excusing their behaviour. You’re not saying that their rationale for keeping the secret was healthy. You’re simply looking for the bigger picture. You’re making peace with the fact that they’re human, too.
Maybe they never learned the difference between loving protection and harmful deceit, between healthy privacy and damaging secrets. That doesn’t mean your entire relationship with them is a lie.
Work through feelings of betrayal with a counsellor. The effects of betrayal can be agonizing. And a counsellor can help you get to the bottom of your emotions, learn what forgiveness is and isn’t, and move to a place of acceptance.
Whether or not you and your counsellor decide you need to directly confront those who lied to you, working toward forgiveness is a critical step in your healing. The one who betrayed you might never own up to what happened or how their actions hurt you, but forgiving them is the only way you’ll be able to move forward in wholeness.
It can be hard to forgive – extremely hard. Many of us are afraid because we think that by letting go we will lose control. In reality, the longer we allow unforgiveness to grow inside us, the more we let others dictate our moods – and that can be damaging to our souls. (“Avoiding Bitterness, Finding Forgiveness”)
Remember: You’re not defined by other people’s secrets
Another common struggle with revealed secrets is that they can make you doubt your identity – they can make you second-guess everything you thought was true.
Yes, some things about your life may have changed because of new information. But who you are is rooted in something deeper than other people’s choices. The one true God who created you also authored every day of your life. The disclosure you’re wrestling with didn’t take Him by surprise.
Do you know this God? He has always known you and loved you — and when you have a personal relationship with His son, Jesus, your identity is secure. That’s why it’s important to pursue a solid sense of self beyond the details you’ve learned. As Jon Bloom writes, “We cannot really be true to ourselves until our selves derive their identity, purpose, and destiny from the Father through Jesus.”
Does that mean the details of your story don’t matter? Far from it! As Christians, we are confident that God will redeem everything that has gone wrong because of sin. Until then, though, we know He has compassion for our frailty and that He sees our tears. In fact, the Bible is filled with stories about dysfunctional families and how God restored them. Even Jesus’ lineage has some bad apples – but God didn’t hide them away.
The undesirables in Jesus' ancestry are included to show us that no sinner is beyond the saving reach of Jesus. . . . All of us, without exception, are depraved, corrupt, and full of wickedness. . . . Thanks be to God, Jesus broke the repeating cycle of human sin by identifying with and saving wretched sinners like us. Jesus is not ashamed to have Rahab or Manasseh or any other sinners in His family tree. Likewise, He is not ashamed to receive us into His family. (“Jesus’ Family Tree”)
An exposed secret doesn’t erase the good you’ve experienced, and it doesn’t mean that everything has been, or is now, a non-reality. Your whole life has not been a lie. You’re not being asked to scrap your entire narrative and start from scratch.
Rather, you can acknowledge the impact of new information (what it does and doesn’t change about you) and mentally amend your story. This struggle can become a strength:
It can rightly highlight the limits of your personal control. “There’s no nearness to God without dependence on God. And nothing makes us more dependent on him than when the bottom drops out.” (“The Good We Never Ask For”)
It can open your eyes to the wounds of others. “As we look to God for comfort and hope in suffering, he means to spur us on to comfort others who are being afflicted with the same comfort we’ve received from God.” (“God Brings Us Suffering for Others’ Sake”)
It can increase your gratitude – your appreciation for your life and for God’s presence. “Because we know the Lord is keeping us and being gracious to us, our sense of security and peace won’t be so tied to our circumstances.” (“Blessed Even in the Worst”)
It can help you build resilience. “Resilience isn’t merely surviving. And it’s not about denying the depth of pain and its ongoing impact. Instead, it’s about learning from and growing through adversity – about becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. (“How to Develop a Resilient Mindset”)
- It can refocus your outlook. You’ve been given a chance to know yourself and your loved ones on a deeper, more honest level. “What may be most needed is for our family to be a crucible of grace, a place where the heat of pressure forces sin to surface providing opportunities for the gospel to be understood and applied. And when this happens the messes become mercies.” (“God’s Mercy in Messed Up Families”)
Decide where to go from here
When it comes to difficult family dynamics – and that includes secrets – one of the wisest choices we can make is to grieve imperfections well. We can admit that our loved ones let us down, and we can face the truth that we also let people down.
What does that mean for you going forward?
Ask yourself if there are any secrets you're keeping. You can be a person of integrity – live truthfully – and not repeat the family cycle. Remember, there’s a difference between appropriate privacy and harmful secret-keeping:
- Confidential info: When the people who need to know do, and others rightly don’t.
- Secret: When the people who need to know don’t.
- Gossip: When the people who don’t need to know do.
Don’t give up on the possibility of reconciliation. In your immediate shock and hurt, you might feel like your relationship with those who lied to you could never be restored. That’s OK! It’s part of the spectrum of emotions. But don’t make any drastic decisions right now such as cutting someone out of your life.
Move through the steps we’ve talked about here and give God room to work. Your relationship with some people might be strained for a while – or completely different going forward. Still, you want to be able to look back and know you’ve done everything you could to live in peace.
Would you let us help? We know that navigating all of this can be complicated and sensitive. Our professional counsellors would welcome the chance to hear your story and talk with you in more detail. Call us for a free over-the-phone consultation. The team can also give you referrals to qualified therapists in your area.
Above all, be hopeful. What you’ve discovered may have thrown you for a loop. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, and He’ll hold you steady while you find your next foothold.
If your family tree has bruised fruit, Jesus wants you to know, “I've been there.” The phrase I've been there is in the chorus of Christ's theme song. To the lonely Jesus whispers “I've been there.” To the discouraged, Christ nods his head and sighs, “I've been there.” When you turn to him for help, he runs to you to help! Why? He knows how you feel. He's been there! (Next Door Savior)
Letting God Redeem Your Broken Life (broadcast)
Becoming a Family That Heals
Identity in Christ (series)
© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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