OPINION: Why it’s never been more vital to share our inner feelings
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Columnist Christine Webber says now is not the time to keep things bottled up inside
Are you watching the terrific series called Life? It’s on BBC1 on Tuesdays and has a stellar cast, including the wondrous Alison Steadman.
The writer, Mike Bartlett, has created four powerful storylines, but the most compelling for me is that of Alison Steadman’s character Gail, and her overbearing husband Henry, played by Peter Davison. (Spoiler alert: if you’re planning on watching it on iPlayer, I’m giving away part of the plot.)
Gail and Henry have been married for more years than they care to remember when Henry, for various reasons, decides to unburden himself to Gail and confess that he had an affair, decades previously, with one of their friends.
Should he have told Gail? That’s the question. Many people value honesty above all else and would say that there should be no secrets between man and wife. But is this true?
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Back in the early 90s, when I had my first agony column in a national newspaper, I was lucky enough to meet some of the stars of the problem page business, including Claire Rayner, Marje Proops, Katie Boyle and Virginia Ironside. This was because the nation’s agony aunts used to get together a couple of times a year for lunch. Let me tell you, these were formidable women! But they were also kind, warm and the best possible fun. I remember particularly that Claire often used to enclose money when she wrote back to people in trouble. She was wonderful.
Sometimes at those lunches, we found ourselves discussing the problems we routinely dealt with. And one of those, I remember, was exactly like the Peter and Gail situation. You might be surprised to know that we were almost unanimous in our view that though a confession about a past infidelity can relieve and help the confessor, it can be utterly devastating for the spouse. And we agreed that usually we would advise someone like Peter to offload his guilt and memories on a trusted friend, counsellor or priest rather than his poor wife!
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So, not all secrets are good to share. But what about one that crops up in therapy consulting rooms a lot – the thorny subject of “real” parents. Thousands of women know, or suspect, that at least one of their children is not the offspring of the man known in the family as “dad’”. But what should a mum in that situation do? Should she tell the child? And if so, when?
About 25 years ago, I had the great pleasure of doing a television interview with Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop. During it, she was keen to talk about the fact that when she was 18, her mum revealed that the man she had believed to be her father, was not her parent, and that her biological dad was actually her stepfather. Luckily, Anita didn’t find this traumatic. Quite the reverse; she was thrilled because she adored him. Her view was that every child deserves to know who their father is, and I agree with her.
What about personal secrets though; secrets that may have totally blighted your life and which you’ve never spoken about to anyone?
As a therapist, I’ve often been the first person clients have confided in. It’s quite a moment. And one can feel truly privileged to sit with someone as they finally give voice to their hidden thoughts and experiences. These secrets have included being victims of sexual or domestic abuse, or of being in the grip of a psychological difficulty such as persistent OCD rituals, eating disorders or addictions. I firmly believe that most individuals can only start to deal with their secret, and to change their lives, by summoning the courage to share their situation with someone who can listen to them and hopefully offer help.
As you might have gathered, I’ve been thinking about secrets and when to share them rather a lot recently. In fact, I’ve made a video podcast on the subject.
At the moment, masses of people are keeping secret the fact that the pandemic is making them depressed, panic stricken or even suicidal. There’s never been a time like it. Not in living memory anyway.
Now, we may pride ourselves on being private or independent, but we need to break out of our usual constraints and share our feelings and get help where we can. We have to rid ourselves of the view that this is shameful. So, I ask anyone who is suffering acute worry or distress to share it with someone else: someone safe, sympathetic and trustworthy.
Let’s all remember that we’re connected to many people who love and need us, just as we love and need them. No man is an island. No woman is either. Would you help someone you care about if they were in dire straits? Of course, you would. So, if you’re suffering, please give someone the opportunity to help you.
Further help: Christine’s podcast on sharing secrets is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TY0FK9Ug6ME Mind have an infoline. It operates Monday to Friday from 9am till 6pm on 0300 123 3393. Samaritans are open 24/7 on 116 123