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June 23, 2022 40 mins

In this bonus episode, Dani speaks with psychoanalyst and author Dr. Galit Atlas about her new book Emotional Inheritance and the role of secrecy in families—all families.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of I Heart Radio. I'm
Danny Shapiro and this is a special bonus episode of
Family Secrets. As we prepare the new season with ten
brand new episodes. From time to time we're able to

drop a really powerful conversation with a great thinker, an
illuminating voice, especially for Family Secrets listeners. So it is
my great pleasure to share with you today's bonus conversation
with esteemed psychoanalyst Dr Galit Atlas. Galt's latest book is
the brilliant Emotional Inheritance A Therapist, Her Patience and the

Legacy of Trauma. How did you come to become a psychoanalyst?
I think I was born a psychronost, but I think
it starts for many people. We we are first patients

and we get from that chair into the world of
therapy or psychoanalysis, and then slowly, you know, we moved
to the other chair of the therapist. And I think
for me, I became a patient when I was twenty
years old, and I still remember the first time when

I came to psychoanalysis and my therapist asks, so why
are you here? As we all ask, and I looked
at her and I said, I don't know. I really
had no idea, And so as you can imagine, years later,
I understand in retrospect why I was there, and I
help other people also why they're there. Yeah, gosh, that

makes so much sense. And I would imagine it's just
as you were speaking, I was almost picturing like a
lock and a key, that feeling, that feeling of something
being unlocked, or like a light getting switched on, and
something that was sort of unknown to you becomes a
little bit more knowable. Yeah, this this thing that you

you feel but you don't know, and you don't even
know if it's real. It's a feeling that you have,
and I think that's how I entered in my therapy.
But it's true for for any anything, right, and especially
for secrets, right, and something we feel but but we
don't really understand what that feeling is. Well, and what

you just said of like we don't even know if
it's real. I think that that is so universal. Um,
you know that that that feeling, And you know, one
of the things about family secrets is that, UM, so
often with my guests there was a period of time
where they were haunted by something myself included without even

knowing what it was that was haunting them, which of
course makes the haunting that much more haunting. You write
in your book at one point, you know, demons tend
to vanish when we turn on the lights, and you know,
if we're if we're stumbling around in the darkness. Um,
we just don't know what it is that is forming

our behavior, in our in our inner lives, right right.
And I think that I really call it ghosts, the
ghosts of the unsaid and the unspeakable. It's those things
that actually haunt us. So the tagline for for family
Secrets is, and I thought about it often when I
first read your book, the secrets that are kept from us,

the secrets we keep from others, and the secrets we
keep from ourselves. Um, so let's let's start with the
secrets that are kept from us. What is you know?
This is such a I mean, that's a question you
could probably spend two hours answering, But like, what what
is a legacy emotionally of the secrets that are kept
from us? Do you know the secrets that are kept

from us? Are are could be very very different, right,
I really focus on secrets that are purposely kept from
us and secrets that we are you know, we're kept
from us, but it's there there, but we just never
are not allowed to talk about them. And and of

course those are things that happened sometimes before we were
even born or very early in our lives, and times
when we cannot even remember and know anything about, and
that there is a decision that made that this is,
this might hurt us, this might hurt the children, or

this might this is something too shameful to share. And
I think when we talk about legacy is how those
secrets are actually alive inside our minds and how we
hold them as our own material, as if there were
they belong to us. Yeah, you you write in your book,

um you quote the psychoanalysts Maria Torrek and Nicholas Abraham
saying what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps
left within us by the secrets of others. I think
this is the second kind of secrets, that are six
things that we consciously are aware of. Right you know

where you where your family came from, or in the book,
I talk about my my own family trauma that I
know that my mother lost her brother and he drowned
when she was a child, and he was fourteen years old.
And this information is known to me. It's not a secret,
and yet it is kept as a secret, which change

that I'm not allowed to talk about it. This is
an emotional material or you know that is not almost
there's no permission to discuss and therefore you have to
keep it in an isolated place in your own mind
and kind of dissociated, right it didn't forget about it

and and not not remember and keep it almost as
a secret from yourself. I imagine that must come up
for you a lot in your practice. You know, that
feeling of people coming to therapy not quite knowing why
something just doesn't add up, or something doesn't make sense,
or there's a kind of pervasive or general feeling of
unhappiness or or anxiety or whatever it might be. How

do people get at that? What is that kind of
untangling process? Like, I'm sure it's different in every in
every instance, but what, um, how do we explore that
which we don't even know we're trying to explore. It's
a good question because, as you said, people come to
therapy with what we call the presented problem, and that

is the problem that anyone who comes to therapist as
I come to therapy because I suffered from or because
like when when my therapist asked me, why are you
here right? What is the presented problem? And and I
actually think in retrospect that for me, the presented problem
was that I didn't know right. That was the problem

that I presented right away in the first session. I
think that that is that is true for most people.
We come with some something that we want to explore,
and the secrets are actually and they find their own
way into this room and the secret keep themselves, but

they also explore themselves at some point and things come up,
you know. And I think that's part of it, is
that in the process of therapy, part of what I
listened to is the gaps. The gap, Those gaps the
things that somebody tells you something and you follow them

and you listen to what they say, but she also
listen to what they don't say, where some some moment
there is something that goes somewhere else and you feel
it's almost in your body, do you know what I mean?
That something is missing there, and that listening to the
gaps is where we look for the secrets. We look

for the secrets where where there are gaps. M hmm.
I love that. Um. That makes so much sense. So
what about you? You're you're talking about the kind of
secret that maybe is within a family UM that is known,
known but not known, there's no permission to talk about it,
what not? The kind of secret that really is um buried, like,

is not not visible, really unknown? What does that do
to people? Mm? Hm? You know those secrets and are
the secrets that are on purposely are kept us right
with with the fantasy, I would say that people can

actually keep secrets from each other. And we know that
we communicate with each other in so many ways detachment
and unconscious communication and the way that we live inside
each other and and really feel each other. And so
if I go back to the gaps, that is something

that we we feel and we don't always know where
it comes from. We have that feeling that you describe
and we don't know what it is. And I think
that that is something that you see even in therapy.
It's something that we talk about. But but those secrets

are are not visible even even to the therapists and
the patients until they appear on their own, until something happens.
And and you know, in the book, I talk a
lot about about our own investigation. People go and ask
family members, for example, and they have a theory about

what happened, and they go to their mother or their
father and discibling, and suddenly new information appears. But in
order to be ready to know, for us to know,
to go ask and actually be ready to hear the answer,
and very often there should be some process that leads

us there two to the right question and to the
capacity to know the answer. I think many times we don't.
Even One very common example that I can give you
is that people tell me that very quickly they have
what we call a her moment. And I think that

that is actually about those family experiences that they knew
about but never put them together, never actually made the
link between two things. And so I think that's another
way of secrets to come up, because some of the
work on secrets is about making connections. It's about about

listening to something and saying, oh, actually I know something
from my history, and now I can link it to
something that is happening in my life now. And that
requires a couple of things, right. The idea of distrusting
one's own stealings like distrusting one's own reality and and thinking, well,

maybe that's not real, you know, the denying that feeling.
So there's there's that, and then there's also readiness. I've
now had these deep conversations I think seventy of them
at this point for for this podcast with people who
have you know, contended with really intense secrets in in
all different kinds of ways. And one of the things

that I've seen because I'm always looking for in a way,
what what the threat is between you know, all of
the stories, because all the stories are so different. But
one of them is that when we find out feels
at least as critical as what we find exactly exactly,
and I think we need to be ready for that

because sometimes this is it is it is too traumatic
to find out a secret. So I think when we
find out is very crucial. And of course in the
process of therapy, a lot of what we do is
preparing ourselves to finding out the the unknown and being

ready to make to make those links that that into
some degree open our eyes. Elly. Do you think that
every family has secrets? Yeah, I do think that secrets,
the siccrets could be very different from each other. Right,
It could be because you anything we can't face becomes

the secret, and from others an altar from ourselves, but
anything that is shameful. And therefore many secrets are about
sex and sexuality, affairs and sexual identity, and of course
trauma often becomes a secret. And so many families actually

have secrets that are related to a history of trauma.
You know that the parents do not want to talk
about it. I mean, we have a lot of material
that we cannot face and don't feel comfortable with, and
that material, emotional material, is pushed, you know, to to
some secretive parts of our mind and and become the secret.

And I think, I think we're hardwired not to want
to hurt our children, have our children know things that
might be painful. We're hardwired to protect our children. And
I think so often parents when they when they keep
a secret, are keeping that secret because they think that

they're doing their children, they're doing the right thing for
their for their children, you know, in the name of love,
when in fact there's really secret seep. There's there's no
such thing as a kept secret. Ultimately, they they have
an impact act even when we don't, even if even
if we can't kind of see them or name them

or apprehend them. Yeah. Absolutely, I think that that is
really the main thing that I hear from patients, those
who find out about the secrets and those who keep secrets,
is that they frame it around protection. I think. I
think people usually don't tell themselves that they try to

protect themselves actually, And you know, I think remembering, for example,
a trauma is very painful, so you don't only want
to protect your children from your trauma, you also want
to protect yourself from remembering. And you prefer to forget
and even shameful things, right, There are things from people's

history that that they prefer to forget and they prefer
to not tell anybody, and that becomes a secret, which
means also not to themselves. But I totally agree with
you that one of the main reasons, at least the
rationalization around it, secrets between parents and children is meant

originally to protect the child from a knowledge that the
parent thinks might be too complicated. And think about it,
I mean, there's a lot of efferent when we think
about reproduction, right and these days, how children are born.
There are a lot of things that people don't know

and we'll never know, you know, about ideas idea for example,
for many many people, that's the secret. Many many children
do not know that they were born through ideas, and
the parents prefer to keep it as a secret. And
I think there are many other ways that you know,

even you know what things that happened early in life
when when we were babies, we will we might never know, right,
but those times really impact our lives. They shape our lives.
We'll be right back. What do you see as the

cost of secret keeping? You know? One of one of
the things that um, it's heartbreaking that I hear often
it's sort of a two fer. It's a double whammy. Um.
Someone makes a discovery that a secret has been kept
from them, and then perhaps they they explore that or
they go to someone in their family and say I

found this out. And then they're asked then to keep
the secret from others. They're they're asked to hold it.
So they have a combination of of having it been
kept from them and um, the conundrum or the dilemma
of whether they can speak it. Yeah, and the burden

right of keeping it's keeping a secret and asking right,
but they're having that responsibility. Something really interesting that you
said is that sometimes people tell themselves what I'm doing.
I'm doing this, I'm keeping the secret to protect you know,
X person or why person, when in fact that's very
noble and you know, kind and loving and of course

the way that we all want to think about ourselves.
But um, often it's really that they're keeping it because
they're protecting themselves because they don't want to They don't
want to think about they don't they don't want to
feel it again, they don't want to re traumatize themselves. Yeah,
and they don't want to define themselves around that, right,

if you think about right, many many secrets are about
infidelity and affairs and and things that happening marriages. If
you don't define yourself as a cheater, you would and
if you and if you cheat it you want to
forget it. She don't want to remember that you have
done that. So I think that that is one reason

that we want to forget. We want to keep secrets
because it's kind of attacks are identity and the way
we think of ourselves. If something terrible happened to you
on the street, right and you were you know, you
were attacked, you know, many people keep those things as
a secret. And I think some of it is the

shame and the embarrassment of being a victim, especially in
the past. And if you think about Holocaust survivors, there
was many years where people didn't talk about it. It
was it was it was shameful to be a victim,
because being a victim is being so helpless, and and
there is something deeply shameful about feeling helpless and to

be defined that way, or to be afraid of being
defined that way. Yeah, even by yourself. It's about identity.
It's about who who I am. And I think often
those things that happened to us are those that are
so to speak, and not me experience. Right, they're outside
of the way I define myself. And then and then

I have to struggle with that. The best emotional way
for me to do that is to erase it from
the right, from my memory, I would say, to dissociated,
to deny it, to use to use defense mechanisms to
really push it away and not even remember it, right,
and definitely keep it as a secret to nobody else

will ever see me that way and know that I
am back because it's it's and not me experience. What
is the mechanism um with which someone can really tuck
a piece of knowledge, a secret away, to the extent
that they really don't consciously hold it anymore. They could

pass so lie detector test. Where does it go and
how does it act in that kind of situation. That's
a good question. You know. We have we have a
line of defense mechanisms, right of defenses that service in
that way from dissociation. Really, and I think the dissociation

is a big one when it comes to trauma, for example,
to repression and denial, and those are really you know,
those are very effective mechanisms that allows us to forget
anything that feels threatening to our psyche anything. And you know,

it's very interesting because our mind will basically attack any
information that makes us anxious or or too afraid or
two or too threatened if especially if it threatens the
the you know, if if if it could cause us

some kind of fragmentation or breakdown, our mind will really
help us in that way. I think the problem with
that is that many of those secret go go into
our body and are expressed through our body. Right, So
I like to think about it or describe it as
like a secret contract that our unconscious has with our body,

to say, you know what, let's make sure that she
doesn't know that. So let's let's keep it, you know,
let's keep it away from her consciousness, and then some
of the material is expressed through the body. That's fascinating.
How does that manifest itself when our minds remembers our
bodies are we have to forget because otherwise our bodies

have to remember what our minds cannot remember. And in
what and what kind of ways does that express itself
in the body of the mind has shut it down.
I think that what it's what we call symptoms, right,
headaches and all all those somatic symptoms that are real.

We don't make them up. That really our body will
express for our back pain, headaches, is even obsessions and
all of those things that we know that are the
symptoms that are either held through the body or we
don't understand in other ways emotional symptoms and the understanding
it really when that is when that when the mind remembers,

the body is allowed to forget. But as long as
the mind cannot remember, and that's what you were talking about,
the defense mechanism, right, as long as the mind is
not allowed to remember this because it's too threatening, then
the body has to do some of that work right
of remembering. It plays itself in the body. And I
didn't know that the body keeps the score right. The

body is there is a system there, and the body
is there to help the system survive. So I would
imagine that's where symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks come from,
like a big red flashing light warning warning. Yeah, panic attacks, anxiety.

And I think I'm talking even about things that are
even less less obvious than like wright and back pain,
eggs Ama. You know all of these things that have
that are connected to our right, that express our mind,
on our skin, on our in our bones, in our

many many kind of illness and physical illness. That is
the burden of the the unknown and the unspeakable on
our body. I'm going to quote you back to yourself.
There's um from the from the introduction of your book.
These are your words. The secrets we keep from ourselves
are meant to protect us by distorting reality and to

help us hold unpleasant information far from our consciousness. In
order to do that, we use our defense mechanisms. We
idealize those we don't want to feel ambivalent about. Identify
with the parent who abused us split the world into
good and bad. In order to organize the world as
safe and predictable. We project into the other what we

don't want to feel or what makes us too anxious
to know about ourselves. Yeah, so could you talk a
little bit about this idea of projection which I think
people so often you know here and don't really understand.
And you know, this way we have of organizing the

world so that, you know, so that we can tolerate it. Yeah,
you know, the secrets well keep from our selves and
our defense mechanism that is so effectively helps us with
that is based on the really the the idea that
of surviving, right, we need to feel safe, We need
to survive. We need to think that the world is

not so scary, that our impulses are not so overwhelming,
that people are not so dangerous, and that we could
differentiate between good and bad that we will. And I
think these days when the world, you know, after this
really intends a few years, the world became even to

some degree or even more chaotic, and aggression is everywhere,
and you know, and I think we use even more
of our defenses because we want to make sure that
we're safe that and that we could differentiate. For example,
splitting is one defense mechanism, right between good and bad.
I want to know, like in the fairy tale, who's

the good mother, who's the bad mother? Where is it
safe and where where the danger is? And if it's
too mixed then you know, like Children's fairy tale for
children's right, they are they help the children organize the world,

organize it and divide it into good and bad so
the child can really feel safe. And that's where it
comes from, right there, This is what the goal of
that making sure that we feel safe in the world.
And so when we talk about projection, projection also supposed

to help us feel safe in the world and and
supposed to help us deal with our own unpleasant feelings
about and things that we don't want to know about ourselves.
So I don't want to know that I am a
very jealous person, let's say. And so I look at

you and I say, oh, Jenny is so jealous. She's
always jealous. She's jealous of me, right, and and that's
how I get rid of that feeling, and I basically
put it on another person. The beauty of that mechanism
is that it is sometimes so effective that I will
choose somebody who actually can take it on and will

start behaving the way I would like them to behave
those those emotional mechanisms are are really profound, you know.
And it is based on the understanding that people actually
know each other more than we think they do and
communicate with each other unconsciously, you know, communicate with each

other unconsciously, and that communication she can go from one
person to another without passing through consciousness and without awareness
or or even intention, and so I could communicate with
you something. And with couples, you see, that's the most
how couples are actually giving each other where you see

these couples that one person is so gentle and sweet
and the other person is the aggressive one. And you
see how the person that is afraid of aggression, well
activate the person that is less afraid of aggression to
express aggression for them. You know, these couples that one
is the good and one is the bad, right, and

it is based on how much each of people feel comfortable.
For example, if you're talking about aggression, if I'm really
really afraid of aggression, I can and I cannot be
I can't have confrontations. I know how to how to
recruit my partner and and you know, and do something

that they will unconsciously take that aggression for me, express
it for both of us. Is that what happens in
an unhealthy relationship or do you think that to some
degree that happens in all relationships. I think it happens
in all relationships, and to some degree it happens in
healthy relationships, right, because I think about how how productive

that is in a good, good couple will allow each
other to to use each other in productive ways. Right,
And I think good or a bad couple if we're
splitting here, right, if there is a good or a
bad right, part of it is really about how productive
things are or how destructive they are. It's all on

the spectrum of of productive or destructive. And and I
think that that is one way to evaluate if something
works or not, or how much there is And you
see that there are couples where there is a lot
of power struggle and a lot of a lot of them,
you know, negotiation about no, you're bad, No you're bad,
No you did this? Then you right? Then they throw

it back on each other because imagine what happens when
both people cannot do something, cannot they cannot afford feeling something,
and nobody wants to hold it. So I think, to
your question, sometimes it is actually productive that we hold
things for each other. It's almost inevitable. I have twins,
you know, my twins are. It's amazing to see it,

how they hold things for each other. One of them
is always this, and the other is that, and then
they split. And when they used to be baby, is
only one of them used to cry when they're hungry.
They always they always shared the responsibility and so, and
what you're describing is also this kind of um switching,
like switching of roles, right, like sometimes it's you, sometimes

it's me. Right, then that is more healthy, usually right
when there is more when there is more flexibility when
we could switch. But you know, in some cases, when,
for example, when somebody is really afraid that that will
they become overwhelmed when they feel angry, sometimes they choose
unconsciously somebody who knows how to do it for them

and represent them in the world, and they kind of
the kind of and that is not necessarily unhealthy. You know.
It really depends, it really depends how productive it isn't
how much it works for both people, and that they
don't write that it just works for them. We'll be
back in a moment with more family secrets. There's this

passage in your book, Um, an important question comes to
the surface. Is it better for the next generation of
trauma survivors, the inheritors, to know or not know? Does
it even matter assuming our ancestors trauma finds its way
into our minds anyway? And you know I found that
a really Trenchian, you know, kind of provocative question. UM.

There's a phrase a little bit later in your book,
the phrases raw wordless form. Um. You know, when it
comes to talking about trauma, we always walk the delicate
line between too much and not enough, between what is
too explicit and what is secretive, what is traumatizing, and
what is repressed, and thus remains in its raw wordless form.

And you know, I think that that is like such
a powerful idea for for people. The whole question of um,
you know, is it like I remember when my book
Inheritance was out and I was UM speaking to audiences
a lot. At one point during the question and answer period, UM,
people put questions, they wrote them down, and they were

all handed to me on index cards, and there was
this one question that was written down in this sort
of shaky hand, and the question was what good is knowing?
I kept that. I kept that index card. I still
have it um like somewhere on my desk because it
was such a powerful question and if I felt like
such a plaintive question, almost an angry question, like what

good is knowing? So I would pose I would pose
that to you as as my final question for you,
what good is knowing? It is a fantastic question, you know,
you know in emotional inhert sence, I present the conclusion
that we inherit even family traumas that we were not
told about. And I think that the question what's good

in knowing is a complicated one because it brings us
back to the issue of regulation. How do we regulate?
How do we regulate in general, and how do we
regulate trauma and traumatic experience and emotions? And I think

that knowing and what is too much and what is
not enough? Right? And I think that on one hand,
the fact that we know anyway so many things, and
we often think that something is wrong with us when
it is not confirmed in reality. And there's a lot

of gas lighting around it. I mean in one of
the stories in the book, I really talked about Nowell
for example, that he feels like he headed brother and
his mother always stop with this, you know, with these
crazy fantasies. You have enough. And so these kids, these
sensitive kids that actually sense things are often called crazy

and irrational. And you know, so there is something about
that when things are very close to consciousness, it is
such a relief. People that are they are so relieved
by awful information that they learned, right, and you're thinking like,
oh my god, this is like I'm so happy to
know that actually my father committed as died by suicide, right,

And it is like this is such a relief for me.
And I think about that piece too, and of course
the other it's very it's a very very relevant idea
of the issue and about you know it, can it
be too much to know for us even or why knowing?

If it could really overwhelm us? And and is there
is there too muchness in knowing? And I think the
answer is yes, because anything, any secrets, any secret that
is we knew as a way that is thrown on

us right in a way that the other person we
talked before about getting rid of something information as a
way it is not fully processed, that is not fully
thought through, and it's just alrone on the other person.
It could be pretty devastating. And so I think when

we talk our regulation, and maybe that's the conclusion of
this answer, we have to go back to processing. Processing. Processing.
You know, when you get a processed secrets, it's usually
a gift. You know, it is packed, it is you
know what I mean. Yeah, that's so interesting. I mean
it goes both ways, doesn't it Like a processed secret

and the capacity to process a secret, Yes, it's yes, exactly.
A processed secret is packed and wrapped and delivered in
a way that is very different than if somebody gets
you something and just say and just throws it on you,
even if it's the most precious thing thing, it is
too much. It's like throwing up on you. And I

think the processing and our own and our own processing.
I always ask my guests if they're coming on the show,
they're coming on the show because they have processed something. Um,
they've already I'm not here to process it with them.
They've processed it and we're here to unpack it. And
and I always ask my guests, and it doesn't always

end up on the show. Most of the time it doesn't,
but I always at the end ask are you do
you wish? Do you wish you didn't know? And in
seventy people, not one person has said, yes, I wish
I didn't know? Um And I think that that in
large parts that that doesn't mean that no one would
ever feel that way. I think it has to do

with exactly what you're talking about, that that sense of
something having been worked through on on on both sides,
so that what it ends up feeling is illuminating and liberating. Yeah,
you know, I think those people who feel that they
wish they didn't know, which I believe some people feel
that the majority of people don't, but some people feel

that way, and I think that is because they have
no way to process that thing that they knew that
they know. Again, it's about process, and they cannot process it,
and they're then they're stuck with it, you know what
I mean? Like processing is digesting, it's suggesting, it comes
one way and and goes another way, and there is
a movement in it. When you're stuck with something, it's

like swallowing something that you cannot digest. And I guess
I mean, is that available to all of us, that
capacity to process over time? You know, I think that
it is part of our capacity, is humans to process,
but we we I think that it is very difficult

to process things on our own, and so I think
the it is much much easier to do it with
another mind. I would say that that that is a
witness to our process, and that helps us digest it
and and sits with us. It's very it's very difficult
to do it alone, you know. Yeah, that's sometimes right.

That's part of why secrets are not processed, because the
secret they've kept along in the dark. As you said before,
quoting that, you know, turning on the lights. For more

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