Secrets keep us sick

Have you ever been told that you shouldn’t feel a certain way?

As a child I had preferences, feelings and even an opinion or two. This is exactly how children should live in the world - with curiosity and ideas of their own. These ideas often upset the apple cart of our compromised family system. Experts agree that in family systems that are in survival mode, upsets of any kind that do not fit with the family dysfunction are frowned upon.

As a young child I asked questions about my father’s long absences. I began to have nightmares and intruding thoughts about my dad dying or getting arrested. I had no facts to back up my fears but my questions were not being addressed so I made up a story in my head that made sense to a five year old. Where do daddies go? Maybe they die or maybe they get taken away against their will. I could not imagine a world where daddies left because they got a better offer.

In response to these questions and suggested scenarios, I cannot remember the specific response of my mother but I do remember an understanding developing - stop talking, stop asking, stop making stuff up. I stopped asking questions. I stopped asking for help with my fears and anxieties. I stopped trusting that if I asked for help, I would receive it. I felt ashamed and guilty and maybe just a touch of shame for not being “normal”. I thought the problem This became a pattern of coping for me that worked until it didn’t.

One saying we hear in meetings all the time is this: We are as sick as our secrets. This is a decent saying. Excavating our secret fears and frustrations that we buried so long ago can be challenging - we have worked long and hard for many years to not deal with problems we lacked the skills to address. Now we can begin that work.

Where do we begin? One place to start is to grab a blank journal and begin cataloguing all your feelings in chronological order. What was your first feeling? Work your way through your memories and pretty soon, you might notice a pattern to your emotional memories.


Ever watch the movie Inside Out?  It is so good!  I particularly love how the movie beautifully illustrates the concept of “getting triggered”.  We get triggered when someone or something “triggers” an old insecurity, emotion, fear or what have you.  Once triggered we often over-react to the triggering stimuli AS IF it were connected to the old memory.  This usually results in whoever we are in the experience with getting very confused (or worse) by our reaction.  

It can really complicate conflict resolution.  I listened as a couple described a repetitive triggering event in their marriage.  Everyone was A-OK with the idea that the issue was not the issue.  But when the husband “triggered” the wife, her response was so over the top that he was starting to get twitchy.  He was backing up rather than leaning into the relationship.

She felt judged by his response.  Until the day he said this, “I feel like I keep getting beat up for the ghosts of your past and I have decided that it is not just hurtful but destructive and unfair.”  Ghosts.  The image worked for her.  She was living in a dream and fighting against shadowy ghosts but hitting her flesh and blood beloved in the process.  

To work through this both spouses had to take responsibility for their side of the street.  It was hard but they found some fun ways to hold each accountable for reactions that were making the situation more difficult than necessary.  It took a while but today she has coping strategies in place to manage her triggered moments and he has new skills in place for addressing times when his wife trips over one of those traumatic memory wires.  

Whatever side of the equation we are on - triggered or triggering - we can work on improving our response!

Breathing (and other recommendations)

So what does all this have to do with our own work?  Well, quite a lot.  Here are a few ways to apply these principles:


  1.  We are more than the worst problem we face today; there are small and wonderful ways we can love others, receive love, do good, find joy  EVEN as we suffer and struggle with our issues. 
  2. We have more relationships than just our troubling ones.  We must tend to those loving relationships that bring us joy and give us a way to express joy with as much intention as we give our problem relationships.
  3. It is common, easy even, to resort to obsessive worry, blaming others, distractibility.  Breathe. 
  4. Take time to explore more than just the presenting issue.  It’s easy to notice that we our binge eating has resulted in a failure to fit into skinny jeans.  It’s obvious that if we want to get back in shape we will have to deal with the issue of creating a caloric deficit.  But WHY are we bingeing?  Binge eating is a problem and it is worthy work to deal with it.  But what lies underneath the eating will also need to be addressed if sustainable change is one’s desired result.


As you consider your own stage of change, how can you find support to help you clarify your readiness, the primary issue, clarify your core values and implement a plan?

Emotional Sobriety

There is a temptation, I suspect, in any work of self-reflection, to get to a moment when we believe we must overcome our inclination and push forward.  I think of this as courage, and certainly it is a necessary tool for transformation.



But we can mess this up terribly when we push aside our feelings simply because we are afraid they will lead us astray.  Our feelings count.  They aren’t the ONLY thing we count, but to repress them, suppress them or try to deny them is futile work and we can end up sick as a result.


Where do feelings come into play in our work?  We start with recognizing and owning them.  This allows us to start the journey of handling our feelings in ways that are healthy and appropriate.  


In my family of origin, anxious people expressed anxiety and fear as anger.  This was the norm.  I was a grown up with children of my own before I was able to recognize that what I had called rage and anger and frustration all my life were thin veils for a ton of anxiety and fear.  


Much of our work, if we want to grow and change, will require us to come to grips with our own unawareness of our true feelings, learn how to develop healthy and appropriate emotions, and deal responsibly with those that are destructive in ourselves or others.


I hear people in meetings talk about emotional sobriety.  This is no small thing.  


How have your own emotions hindered your relationships?  Have others ever given you feedback about yourself that startled you as it relates to your emotional expressiveness?


Dealing with our emotions may require a supportive team.  Perhaps finding one will be part of many of our “to do” lists as well….