Family Secrets, Betrayal, and the Holidays: Tips for Self-care : Kate Murphy Therapy
Kate Murphy, LCSW specializes in working with people suffering from anxiety and depression, and provides couples therapy including premarital counseling in the Atlanta metro area of Norcross, GA at the Pathway Center for Psychotherapy.
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Family Secrets, Betrayal, and the Holidays: Tips for Self-care

Family Secrets, Betrayal, and the Holidays: Tips for Self-care

The big holiday month is here. If you have discovered a family secret that impacts you, the holiday season presents an extra challenge. Will you be able to fake happiness or act polite with people close to you that have betrayed your trust? Or will you avoid family gatherings altogether?

First, it is important to understand what you are going through. Second, to make time to care for yourself during this busy season. Lastly, to decide what healing may look like for you. It is a process that will take time, more than a holiday season.

Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal amongst family members or intimate partners takes many forms. For example, child sexual abuse, an affair between partners, addiction, or discovering that you were adopted as an adult. These examples represent betrayal trauma.

Late Discovery AdopteeEssentially, an event where your trust is deeply violated. This violation may occur through physical abuse or secret keeping; often both. Jennifer Freyd is the developer of betrayal trauma theory. Dr. Freyd describes betrayal trauma as the trauma that results from betrayal by a trusted person or institution. 

Think about the institutional betrayal that we have all endured throughout 2020 and 2021. A collective experience of betrayal trauma events were plentiful.

Depending on how much a person needs or depends on the betraying person(s) or institution, will make it more or less likely for the betrayed to act unaware of the betrayal. Unfortunately, this blindness may be necessary for survival in the short term.

Long term, it is better for your mental health to process your feelings of pain and loss. If possible, addressing the pain that the betrayal has caused you with the perpetrator is even better for your healing.

Below is a list of symptoms that are common when faced with betrayal by a loved one. Remember, your reactions are normal, the situation is not.

Symptoms of betrayal trauma:

  • Lack of trust; others and self
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Anger
  • Flashbacks and/or nightmares
  • Repression, disassociation
  • Emotional dysregulation 
  • Intrusive thoughts about the betrayal
  • Shame
  • Depression
  • Hypervigilance
  • Irregular eating
  • Disruption to normal sleep patterns
  • Self-doubt



Experiencing grief is painful. It takes time to process loss and accept a new reality with a loved one absent. Losing someone can be traumatic, however, not always. Experiencing a trauma always involves grief. The grief that results from betrayal trauma is complicated and disorienting.

Affair and betrayal traumaThere is the loss of a relationship as it was prior to the betrayal. Additionally, there is identity loss. For example, you may not have been suspicious, but after an affair, you become the type of person who checks your partner’s texts.

If one or both of your birth certificate parents are actually someone else, you’ve lost many parts of your identity through this type of secret keeping. Parts such as genetic heritage, medical history, and being a member of another family.

There are many other examples that represent grief from betrayal. They are all ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is the grief of losing someone or something not dead. It is normal to feel angry and sad when you are grieving. Further, it is more stressful when the loss is ambiguous. Even more so when unrecognized by those close to you.

Physical manifestations of grief:

It is also normal to have physical manifestations of grief. Because we talk about physical signs less, it is hard to recognize. Get familiar with the physical signs of grief to gain clarity.

  • depression and grievingDecrease in concentration
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue, energy loss
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Driving issues – directions, missed turns
  • Sleep issues – too much or not enough
  • Weight gain or loss 
  • Sensitive to temperature – too hot or cold
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Joint pain – aches in back, neck, legs
  • More illnesses, stressed immune system 


Self Care

When you have experienced betrayal, especially in the early stages, it is challenging to get through the day. Healing can be complicated if the person who betrayed you was previously the person you depended on for support.

Putting aside time for self-care is crucial. Taking care of yourself, showing yourself compassion and loyalty, does not have to take a lot of time. Setting clear boundaries about what you are willing to commit to and the secrets that you are not willing to keep is self-care too. Your feelings along with physical and emotional safety matter.

Examples of self-care:

  • Drink water.Stay healthyStay hydrated
  • Sleep 
  • Eat enough
  • Grounding exercises like deep breathing
  • Shower or bath
  • Connection w/partner, friends & safe family members
  • Reading, writing, research 
  • Music, movie, TV
  • View beautiful scenery, sit/walk in sunlight
  • Therapy  & support groups


GriefTake heart, safe and trustworthy relationships can be developed or repaired if these traumas are confronted and healed. Although, the offender must have the capability to listen and offer sincere apologies. Often, the betrayer is shameless or blind to the betrayal themselves. In this case, reconciliation may not be possible.

This can be a lonely time. Being able to identify what you are experiencing and having a safe person to process the experience with is an important part of healing. If you would like to talk about therapy with me feel free to call or email.


For more: 

  • What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry
  • Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell 
  • Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Lewis Herman
  • Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief  by Pauline Boss
  • Right to Know Website: It is a fundamental human right to know your genetic identity. 



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