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The Elephant in the Living Room

I recently worked with a family who had a “big white elephant sitting in their living room”. The husband was an alcoholic and his wife was covering up the problem by making excuses for him. The children knew there was a problem, but knew that they were not allowed to talk about it openly because it would make Dad mad and it would make Mom upset. Everyone in the family walked around the elephant and tried to live a normal existence. The “big white elephant sitting in the living room” is a saying that commonly refers to a situation that is occurring, yet no one is talking about it or consciously dealing with it.

The husband’s alcoholism became a family secret and each member of the family supported his drinking by keeping it quiet and not talking about it. Too often this pattern is repeated when the children grow up. They end up marrying spouses who have a family secret. As you can imagine, they raise children who learn to stay quiet or live in the world of denial, which reinforces that the next generation will live with a “big white elephant”.

Alcoholism, drug abuse, adultery, mental illness, and sexual abuse are all conditions that frequently get minimized, avoided, or denied in families.

Sometimes the secret is not about an illness. Instead, it is about a life circumstance like unwed pregnancy or homosexuality. I have worked with several families where there was a child who was gay, yet the gay child was afraid to discuss his sexuality because of the potential fear or rejection from his parents or siblings.

When there is a “big white elephant sitting in the living room”, each family member is affected. Communication is generally poor and relationships suffer. A condition called shame occurs whereby family members feel that there is something wrong with them. This affects their self-esteem and their ability to get what they want out of life.

What you can do if you live with a “big white elephant sitting in your living room”:

Is there someone in the family who is a safe person to share your innermost feelings?
Ideally, it would be best if you could talk to a family member about the issues or secrets in your family. Unfortunately, there may not be a family member who is able to talk about the problem openly or honestly. Often times, family members do not know how to cope, so it’s easier to ignore it.
Find a supportive person to discuss the issue.
This may be a minister, mentor, friend, or counselor. If the person is condemning or rejecting, find a professional who can help you to talk about the situation and reflect on your feelings. It will help you to release the shame, break old patterns, and live your life without the burden of living with a secret.
Participate in a support group.
I often refer to groups where people learn how to cope with their problems within the context of others who have experienced the same issues.

Remember, it is not healthy for you to keep the secret. It is absolutely essential that you find a support person to talk to, to normalize and validate your feelings and to provide a resource for coping with the issue.

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