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Family Dynamics

To Tell or Not to Tell?

A holiday guide for sensitive conversations with friends or family.

Actina / Pixabay
Source: Actina / Pixabay

The holidays are approaching; ads show perfect parties with friends and happy family reunions.

Still, many of us have mixed feelings about the holidays because real-life families and friends are not perfect, and we often try to catch up by asking insensitive or inconvenient questions. If you are dealing with changes like a divorce, a job problem, or a health concern, you may be torn between wanting to get support and not wanting to get advice you don't desire or need.

This is especially true if you are dealing with infertility because you are struggling to start or grow your family just when your family surrounds you.

Although there's no firm rules about when and who to tell about your personal life, here are some do's and don'ts that have worked for my patients:

DO be clear about who your friends and family are rather than who you want them to be. Before you tell them about personal information or answer intimate questions, ask yourself if they are cautious or intruding. Do they ask "well-meaning questions" that actually make you squirm? Base your decision to tell or not to tell on reality, not wishful thinking.

Don't assume you owe anyone your personal information, even your family or close friends. Tell others only what you want to share and only when and if you decide to share it.

DO know in your mind that you are not to blame for your problems and that losses and disappointments are a fact of life, not personal punishments. if anyone suggests you are to blame for your fertility problems, for example, you will be able to say, "You will be so happy to know that I am not." Hopefully, they will take the hint and agree.

Don't over-share. You can always tell more later but you can't "un-tell" later. If you are wondering whether or not to tell, don't. Share only when you are no longer wondering and are sure you want to share the information and that you want to share it with them.

DO choose your listeners carefully. Try to share with those who have been through something similar so when they say, "I understand," you know they do. Suppose you consider sharing with friends who have not been through the same money, job, family, or fertility issues. In that case, you may get cliches or a synopsis of their problems in return, so choose carefully among those who have been empathetic and helpful before.

Don't think your secrets are safe. Even if you swear someone to secrecy, they often tell others and swear them to secrecy, and so on. So, if you decide to tell someone, the odds that others will likely find out increases. If that matters to you, it's probably not the right time to speak.

DO take control before you share with a friend or family member by asking them if they will accept the "burden" of private dialogue. Their active acceptance usually ensures their commitment to keeping your personal life private.

Don't reveal something private for a momentary catharsis or the feeling that you're "doing" something. All problems seem less ominous when they are said aloud in the light of day than when we worry about them at night. But assess the potential for emotional support after you tell. Ask yourself if you are telling someone you would want to speak to if you were not thrown together for the holidays.

DO take control after you tell friends or family about a personal matter like infertility, a health issue, or job hunting. If you are getting unhelpful advice, try saying something like, "Thanks, but I'm on advice overload." If you are getting more questions, and it's a close friend or family, try "I'll keep you posted so you don't have to ask for updates," "I'll let you know when I know," or just "Thanks for asking. How sweet that you care."

Don't tell if you are beginning to digest changes or news yourself. If you are in the middle of a fertility journey, for example, and the combination of holiday nostalgia, the side effects of the treatment hormones, and your sister-in-law's pregnancy are overwhelming you, catch your breath before turning to others. Even the most caring and helpful words may not be enough to counteract your holiday stress.

DO ask what you need from those who say, "What can I do to help"? We may think that our partner, sister, brother, or dear friend is supposed to know exactly how to act when we are going through hard times, like trying to start a family. Still, they may be confused, feel awkward about approaching us, or worry about saying the wrong thing. Help them out. Don't wait for ESP or telepathy. Ask for what you need: "Please plan a game night, I need a distraction"; "Please reassure me that I am strong"; or "What I need right now is…"

Don't forget to be your own best friend and treat yourself with the same support you give to others you love. If dealing with holiday parties is too stressful for you this year, give yourself permission to bow out and create a new ritual or upbeat tradition with others who need a time-out from the holidays, too. If you need time alone, take it and fill it with self-care as your holiday gift to yourself.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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