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Sharing Secrets, and Keeping Them

The Friendship Refresher Course

The hardest part about being the mother of two teenage girls is that I’m not allowed to tell my friends everything about them.

This is a big shift from when they were toddlers. If I was struggling with their behavior or my own limitations, I felt completely within my rights to get on the phone with a friend for full-disclosure conversations and advice. The great thing about babies is they have no objection to you discussing their sleeping and pooping habits. When they are teenagers, they object to that a lot.

This has also been the hardest thing about being a friend with other mothers as our kids grow up. We have supported each other all these years, and now in some of the ways we most need support, our kids have asked us not to disclose. Add to this difficulty the shift in intimacy this causes in our friendships – and what can feel like an imbalance of vulnerability when some of our kids are more private than others.

In this post-pandemic age, when so many families are struggling with mental health issues, this seems like an important issue to address. For years, I’ve been teaching that big secrets break relationships, but I’ve only just learned to walk the line of transparency: understanding healthy privacy boundaries, versus secret-keeping. Healthy friends tolerate emotional space, and don’t demand to know every detail of each other’s lives.

I was not one of those friends for many years. I grew up in an extended family that kept secrets better than the C.I.A., but the energy it took to keep them shut down open communication, and discouraged family members to be curious about each other and do any deep emotional work. When some of our big secrets came out, they were extremely hurtful. So, I became hyper-sensitive to people wanting privacy as an adult. I assumed if you didn’t tell me everything, that you were lying to me, didn’t trust me, or were about to leave me. I’ve dealt with this wound with counselors and Jesus, and it has made life much better.

So, let’s take a look at this issue of privacy vs. secrecy with some discernment:

I learned this illustration in Twelve Step groups: When we have a big secret we are trying to keep, it’s like holding a beachball under water. The nature of truth/reality is that it wants to rise to the surface, so both arms are required to hold down the beachball, and they aren’t available for loving others. Try to get close to someone and give them a hug? The ball pops right up and punches you both in the face. So, you can’t let people close to you, and you don’t have energy to reach out. You’ll also be threatened by people who ask questions, seek truth, and tell the truth.

Now, a big secret isn’t that you got into a tiff with your spouse last night, or that your daughter was sassy to you on the way to school. It’s not being in a bad mood for a week and needing some space to figure out what’s really bothering you. It’s good to keep some of your family interactions within the family and not broadcast every little thing to your tribe; it’s great to have some self-regulation and not need to externalize every feeling you have by hashing it out on the phone. You can be a kind and supportive friend in the midst of these common trials; you can set those things aside and be a good listener, go shopping, take a hike – basically be present to life.

Secret-keeping is different.

A damaging secret is one that is taking a lot of your emotional energy over a long period of time: a major ongoing conflict with your spouse, serious financial issues, a chemical dependency, chronic pain that limits your activities, past abuse that keeps triggering you, a major amount of job stress, your own depression and anxiety, or a child with a developmental diagnosis or mental health challenge. These kinds of issues engage our whole being, and those close to us will feel the effects. We will fail to be emotionally present; we will be busy with doctor’s appointments/second jobs/therapy sessions; we will be tired and cranky; or we will be prickly about certain subjects they bring up if they happen to get too close to an issue we’re dealing with that they know nothing about.

For all these reasons, the people you most love and who most love you must be allowed to know about these major issues for you to have authentic relationships. This is a moment to send out an SOS, not lock your secrets in your diary. Otherwise, your loved ones will tell themselves stories about your withdrawal, which hurts them. And, they won’t be able to offer encouragement and support, which hurts you. But sometimes, like when our spouses or older kids are really processing something hard, we still have to honor their privacy.

So here are some principles to hold on to.

1. Just because you are a trustworthy and interested friend doesn’t mean your friends have to tell you everything. Don’t take it as an insult when they aren’t always ready to self-disclose. If this is really difficult for you, consider what may be at the root of you being unable to tolerate space.

2. Being a trustworthy friend means letting people know when you have a big issue going on. But! You can say it like this: “Look, there’s some stuff going on with my kids. I can’t tell you what it is right now, but it’s affecting me emotionally, we are busy with problem-solving, so I don’t have a lot of bandwidth right now. I could really use some prayer.” Now, there’s no beach ball!

3. Being a trustworthy friend means accepting the boundary set in Number Two, above. In general, don’t push people to share until they are ready.

There are exceptions to all of these rules of course.

If someone is abusing you, don’t hide it. If your kids are in such dire straits that you are afraid for them, get support for yourself; a teenager with serious mental health problems doesn’t get to set boundaries for you. Just be cautious: share to only your most trusted friends who will stay private and pray for you, and share to a professional counselor.

And if you believe your friend is in serious physical danger, push with all your might to get her to tell you the truth. Push to save her life.

And pray, my lovelies. Pray for discernment. Because relationships are the best thing we have, and the hardest thing to do well and authentically. I have great hope that God wants them for us, and is ready to assist with wisdom when we ask.

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