Everyone tells a lie at some point or other in their life, no one is perfect. There is no one reason why someone might tell a lie as he/she might tell a lie to escape an uncomfortable situation, shame, guilt, cover up something that occurred, spare someone elses feelings, or in an attempt to hide or mislead. Generational lies can be particularly distressing for family members as the lie may have been told and maintained over several generations making it hard to trust other family members and get to the truth. Every person and every family have their own secrets; however, the content and significance of the secret varies.
One thing that is typically true of all lies involves intent, purpose, and lack of notification of the other party or group. In other words, liars make a conscious choice to provide misleading information and fabricate the truth. He or she hides the correct information from others allowing deception to occur. Although, we often hear “a lie is a lie”, some lies are more harmful than others. Some people lie to spare the feelings of others, for example, if you are asked if the meal tastes good and the individual is waiting excitedly for your response you may agree the meal tastes good when it does not. This type of lie is done to avoid hurting other persons feelings. However, there are other lies that can create harm, leading to distress. These types of lies can include making false reports, denying something occurred, or creating a fabrication that isn’t based on anything real.
Telling a lie is not the worst part of lying, it is maintenance of the lie, telling another lie to support the first and convincing others including ourselves that the lie is the truth. By telling lie after lie, we eventually suffer from building a false version of reality that increasingly distances us from our real selves. Lies can also be damaging if we pretend something didn’t occur or is not occurring. This type of lie can be damaging for several reasons, such as, it creates confusion for others, he/she she begins to question what they believe they saw, heard, or felt. For individuals that are lied to in this particular situation self-doubt can quickly become an ongoing theme in their life. If deception is allowed to continue without correction, rather they are maintained, than harmful family legacies can develop.
Harmful family legacies consist of a pattern of hurtful, painful and/or damaging behaviors that have been passed down from one generation to the next through a process called modeling. When adults or caregivers repeatedly interact in a family system in an unhealthy way, they are imprinting this behavior on their children. Many children that have been exposed to a harmful or toxic environment often repeat or mimic the behaviors in adulthood, in their own personal relationships. Interestingly, some adults raised in a harmful environment that do not repeat the toxic behaviors of their caregivers will often marry someone that may share some or most of the toxic characteristics of their childhood caregivers.
Traumatic, painful, or life-changing secrets and lies can potentially damage an entire family’s mental health and well-being for generations. The most frequently kept secrets within a family include, but are not limited to, finances, serious physical and mental health conditions, infidelities, incest and other abuses, addictions, and parentage. While maintaining privacy from the outside world is important, maintaining deception within the context of the family can create distrust within the family, often, turning family member against family member. Distrust within our families can negatively color how we perceive the word around us, making up more suspicious of the intentions of others.
Secrets within the Family can lead to the following challenges:
• Distrust within the family
• Inability to bond or maintain relationships
• Can destroy a relationship
• Can impact how we see ourselves and our place in the world
• Lead to self-doubt and a second guessing of what we feel we saw, heard, or felt.
• Lead to feelings of resentment
• Create a false sense of reality
• Lead to incomplete inventory of self and family
• Increased anxiety
• The need to provide false or misleading information
• Tell additional lies to maintain and secure the secret
• Somatic issues
• On going generational pass down of lies and secrets
• Lead to distorted or fabricated family history
A few years ago, a teenager was referred to me because of behavioral concerns in school and at home. The child initially was flourishing in school, exemplary grades, engaged in sports, and actively volunteered in multiple community activities. However, in recent months prior to the referral the teen had begun to exhibit signs of withdrawal, easily angered, experienced a decline in grades, and had been suspended from sports due to aggressive behavior. The teen’s parents were at a loss for what was causing the sudden shift in his behavior. However, it was later discovered the teen had received a visitor while spending time with friends at the local park. The teen was told the person that he had been led to believe was his father was actually not his biological father. For the teen, this created intense feeling of self-doubt, feelings of betrayal, and an incomplete perception of self.
By maintaining, thus, reinforcing the lie for more than 15 years family members participated in multiple lies and deception to support the initial lie. Some family members were aware of the lie, others suspected there was a lie, but there was an unspoken agreement to never discuss or acknowledge the infidelity that led to the child’s birth. Although, Infidelity is never an easy topic to discuss, as children become adolescents and move closer to adulthood, it is important to have conversations surrounding issues that are pertinent to his/her well-being. It is also important to break negative family legacies and promote healthy functioning. Remember, behaviors that are modeled are often repeated. Therefore, as responsible adults we want to model behaviors that encourage informed decision making, endless opportunities for children, and healthy functioning.