Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

Avoid Family Secrets

Guard Your Kids Against
 Shame and Fear

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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Updated 03/25/2015

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/secrets.htm

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      This brief YouTube video previews key ideas you'll find in this article:

      This is one of a series of articles on evolving and enjoying high-nurturance (functiomal) families (Lesson 5). The series exists because the wide range of current social problems suggests that most families don't fill the primary needs of (nurture) their members very well. That suggests the epidemic effects of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle proposed in this nonprofit, ad-free site .

      Are there important secrets in your family? In your partner's and/or ex-mate's family trees? If so, they may signify shame-based or fear-based ancestors and inherited psychological wounds. This article explores...

  • What is a "family secret?"

  • What can cause them?

  • Secrets about what?

  • What's the problem with family secrets?

  • What can family members do about them?

The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5 here

  • perspective on honesty and trust


      Many adults seem to come from low-nurturance (dysfunctional) childhoods. So did their parents and ancestors. In such dysfunctional family trees, secrets are common - information about family members or events that someone feels should be withheld from kids, in-laws, strangers, or everyone.

      Family secrets are different than unawareness of information about members and ancestors. They're conscious decisions to withhold details of a shameful, scary, or illegal event or relationship (like a crime, abortion, an affair, or desertion), or a shameful personal trait (like an addiction or perversion). Some family secrets stand alone. Others are part of an inherited family distrust-policy that says "We don't tell outsiders our family's business."

      Pause and reflect: are there things your parents or relatives made clear they didn't want disclosed to you, certain other people, or anyone? Are you promoting selective or general secrecy among family members about something? Is your partner (if any)? Is there a "We don't talk about that." rule among your family members?

 The Roots of a Secret       

      Premise: you're a liar! I'll bet there have been times you've chosen to hide the truth from someone about something. (Notice how different "lying" feels compared to "keeping a secret.") At the least, most people prefer to keep their sex lives, some fantasies, and (some) financial information secret from most others. I suspect you've (probably) chosen to lie at times because you feared...

  • shame, loss, embarrassment, guilt; criticism, and/or...

  • upsetting or harming someone you cared about; and/or...

  • you wanted to cause someone discomfort (revenge); or...

  • to gain an advantage over a competitor; or. to..

  • honor a pledge of secrecy (avoid the shame of betrayal), or to

  • preserve intimacy or to keep something "special"  ("Only you and I know this."); or to...

  • gain someone's interest, respect, or admiration.

Can you think of other reasons we all "keep secrets"? 

      Starting in early childhood, we learn to lie to ourselves (e.g. denials, repression, and distortions) and to others, when telling the full truth feels too unsafe. Do you agree? Would you rather be called "a liar" or "too scared to tell the truth"? Did it feel safe to tell the truth in your childhood family? If not, what made it unsafe?

 Secrets About What?

      Think of your favorite private information, and imagine what would happen if you were honest about it with people who matter to you. See if your withholding fits either of these two groups...

1)  events, actions, or personal traits that your busy Inner Critic (or someone else's Critic) says are shameful (typical adjectives: immoral, perverse, disgusting, horrifying, unethical, dishonest, sinful, heinous, unspeakable, criminal, depraved...).

      Examples: our culture is slowly relaxing the ancestral view that divorce was a sin, and deserved personal shame and public disdain, scorn, and pity. We're slower to release the ancestral condemnation that addiction is caused by a shameful "weak will" - hence the "Anonymous" in current 12-step groups. Paradoxically, that label promotes shame and secrecy.

And adults and kids often withhold...

2)  information that could cause the loss of something valuable to someone, like approval, acceptance, assets, physical comfort, a job (i.e. security), opportunity, freedom, dignity, trust, hope, or respect.

      Both groups of secrets exist because someone feared discomfort, and saw no better way to avoid it than to withhold or distort the truth. Paradoxically, that often causes discomfort: shame, guilts, and anxiety ("What if 'they' find out?).

      The Christian Bible has been a solace and inspiration to millions of people around the world for well over a thousand years. Church leaders have used it to preach love, charity, and forgiveness - and also use shame ("sin") and fear (of "eternal damnation") to promote obedience to "God's Word" and the church hierarchy. Has veneration of a Holy Book and/or religious creed promoted secrets in your family?

      In many cultures, questioning or disobeying prevailing social or religious beliefs was and is heresy, treason, and scandalous. Public or proclaimed disagreement caused righteous social ridicule and rejection, religious excommunication, and even death.

         Premise - religious, political, and ethnic beliefs about (a) personal superiority and (b) the value of judging each other's worth are psychologically and socially harmful. Nourished by ignorance and unawareness, such beliefs have fostered bequests of ancestral blame and shame, fear of truth-telling, and related family secrets to many people living today. Has "inferiority" and related shame, guilt, and fear significantly promoted secrecy among your family members? How about fear of criminal prosecution, jail, and public humiliation?

      Take a moment to think of social behaviors and traits that you and others regard with contempt and/or pity, vs. compassion. How about these:











occult acts


child neglect

being fired






rage, swearing

crying in public






mental illness










being "selfish"




hurting the Earth



child porn

      What did your parents and grandparents model and teach you about these? What are you teaching your family's young people?

 Inheriting Secrets

      Family secrets and the beliefs and ignorances that spawn them may pass to the next generation in several ways...

omission and example - "Mom never talked about her childhood - specially her mother's father."; and...

intention - "I prefer that you don't tell your friends / children / spouse... (because it might embarrass or hurt me or someone else)"; and...

tradition - e.g. children being taught to not ask questions in general, or about certain things or family members - "Jackie, asking Aunt Maria questions about why she never married makes her uncomfortable (so don't ask, or you're bad)." Seeking approval, a naive child without adult guidance can generalize that into "I'm bad if I ask older people personal questions."; and...

unawareness - parents and "experts" not valuing or "seeing" secrets and their impacts on people and relationships. Paradoxically, dispelling or avoiding toxic family secrets requires your awareness of your unawareness and its effects. Do you know what you don't know about ancestral shames and fears?

      In her useful book It Will Never Happen To Me, recovery pioneer Claudia Black observes that kids from low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") families are often taught in/directly "don't feel, don't talk, and don't trust" - or you'll get shamed and hurt. Were you raised in a family that inherited the belief that "children should be seen and not heard"?

      Fear-based and shame-based family rules like these often add a fourth prohibition: "...and don't ask." The folk tale The Emperor's New Clothes probably endures and delights each generation because it pokes fun at our human foible of covertly agreeing  to "not see" and publicly discuss something shocking, shameful, or titillating, and an innocent child's question shattering a mass deception.

      As memories fade and social values evolve, the original reasons for secrecy can get lost or distorted over several generations. Talking now about your great-grandmother's "shocking" (shameful) illegitimate child is only taboo from habit, tradition, and unawareness.

      So what?

 What's Wrong with Family Secrets?

      Depending on many factors, ancestral lies and withholdings can range from hilarious and silly to tragic. In low-nurturance families, secrets - and the beliefs and values that sustain them - promote psychological wounds.

      These hinder personal serenity, healing, and healthy bonding with others - which lower family-nurturance levels. This has many harmful personal and social effects now and in the next generations. These all contribute to psychological and legal divorce and family dis-integration.

Premise: "significant" personal and family secrets held by any adult suggests significant psychological wounds, toxic (health-hindering) values, and low family nurturance.

      Major secrets add justification for doing Lesson 1 - assessing for such wounds, and guarding your descendents by committing to recover from any you find. Reflect: would you be uneasy or reluctant (fearful) to show this article to any blood or legal relative and/or discuss it with them? If so - why? Is your true Self answering?


      Common questions:

how can I / we tell if our family has inherited any significant family secrets?

are our family adults promoting major secrets now?

if either of these are true, who should do what about them?

Research Your Families

      Help answer the first two questions by inviting each adult to draw a multi-generation family map. If you're in a stepfamily, include all three or more co-parents' family trees.

      Then use the maps to fill out this family-tree checklist from Lesson 1. Stay clear that your aim is not to blame or "expose" anyone. You're trying to discover if someone's ancestors had to protect their safety and dignity by camouflaging or hiding some shameful event or person from their society and descendents.

      Note the paradox: You're hunting for some family history or information that few or none of your generation may have been told about. This implies that if you fill out the worksheet and conclude "No, none of these items is true in our case," that's not proof that the items didn't exist.

      Another option is for your adults to study your genogram/s (maps) together and discuss whether you were told, or you have concluded, that some ancestor/s were "bad" people in some way. You may want to ask other relatives or older family friends to add their memories and perspective.

      A variation is to notice with interest if one or more relatives are "ghosts" - i.e. little is known about them. That's not proof of secrets, but it is cause to wonder why no one passed on mementos and memories about them.

      Another option is to discuss this article with all your family adults and older kids, and see what "comes up." If you do, consider asking everyone to bring any family photos, archives, and letters and pass them around. If any relatives are notably resistant to this, ponder what that may mean...

      Another interesting way to do some ancestral "research" is to invite family members to play The Ungame or LifeStories. These safe, non-competitive board games encourage people of any age to think and talk about themselves in ways they may not have before.

      The Internet provides a powerful new way of unearthing information about our ancestors. To expand the options above, search the Web on "ancestors," "family tree," or "genealogy" and watch what happens! Another option is to search on an ancestor's full name.

      As you research your family, notice the process. Is anyone "embarrassed" or "uneasy" about focusing on ancestors' or current secrecy? Note that embarrassment and humiliation are normal human reactions to having personal shame made public.

      In any family gathering, note your option to ask questions like...

"Do we have any major family secrets or secret keepers?"

"If so, who originated the secrets, and why - what were they guarding against?"

"Are we teaching our kids to keep any family secrets?"

"If so, what are they, who originated them, and why?"

"What is our family's unspoken "policy" about disclosing family affairs to 'outsiders'? Who made this policy, when, and why? Is it outdated, or relevant to us all now?"

"Is anyone among us promoting the 'don't talk, don't trust, don't feel, and don't ask' rules? If so, who and why?"

"In your childhood home, what was the rule about revealing family problems to other people? Who made and enforced the rules, and how? What happened to people who broke them?"

"How does it feel to discuss these questions together?"

Act on Your Findings

      The ideas above all aim to help you assess whether you've inherited - and/or are generating - significant family secrets. Any secrets you discover are secondary. The real target is to assess whether any of your family members are significantly ruled by false selves and may be accidentally transmitting psychological  wounds + unawareness to your descendents like their ancestors did.

Premise: family secrets are usually (always?) signs of ancestral shame, guilt, fear, ignorance, and unawareness. If you see it differently, what's your view?

      If there are young people in your family, teach them what shame and guilt are, and why people keep secrets. Help them learn and accept their personal rights as worthy individuals. One right us "I don't have to protect other people from their shame, guilt, and fear by keeping secrets."


Lesson-1 options for...

Also see...

Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John C. Friel Ph.D., Linda D. Friel M.A.

Family Secrets: The Path to Self-Acceptance and Reunion by John Bradshaw; and...

Secrets of Your Family Tree: Healing for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Dave Carder, et. al.


      This article offers perspective on family secrets. It proposes why secrets occur (shame, guilt, fear, and ignorance) and how they're transmitted down the generations. It suggests ways of identifying family secrets and why they exist. Doing this is part of self-improvement Lesson 5, which focuses on building and enjoying high-nurturance family relationships. The article closes with links to several resources.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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