Confession and Psychotherapy

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An old Woody Allen joke goes something like this. The comedian is talking about problems in deducting the cost of therapy on his income tax return. He wanted to make it a business expense, but the government insisted it was “entertainment.”

They compromised by making it a religious contribution.

Therapy is a little like that, no joke.

Carl Gustav Jung, one of Freud’s disciples, wrote about the likeness between therapy’s confessional function and Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church. For those who aren’t Catholic, the faithful individual is expected to enter a small partitioned booth, where a priest will hear his confession of sins without being able to see who is speaking to him. If the penitent is thought to have fully disclosed his wrong doing, shown sincere remorse for the transgression, and if he performs whatever acts of penance are required by the priest to make amends, he is absolved of his sins.

Although I am not Catholic, I’ve long thought the Catholic Church was on to something therapeutically important here. That is, the human need to admit to another human being, out loud, something of which one is ashamed, in order to cleanse the metaphorical stain this person carries inside. Other religions handle this differently, often permitting and encouraging confession in the form of prayer directly to a supreme being.

But for therapists, the human interaction is essential — the telling and the listening and the seeing eye to eye — even if your ultimate, otherworldly reward according to religious doctrine doesn’t require it.

Why?

In part because, while heaven can wait, the guilt-ridden mortal is troubled right now — here on earth — in his relationships with other people; troubled by the secret that stands between him and a need for acceptance by someone who knows, really knows him. An intimacy he does not think he can risk.

Even if he believes the gods will forgive him, his problem is lower on the food chain: he fears the disapproval of the creatures made of flesh and blood.

We learn the lesson “not to tell” early.

We make mistakes, lots of them. And especially when you are young, there is the potential for an enormous amount of painful judgment being rendered concerning those “mistakes,” some justified, some not.

Kids are prone to feeling guilty. When we are small, we are entirely dependent upon the good will of our parents. Without them, we are at the world’s mercy, unable to fend for ourselves. Equally important, they inform us of our value to them — by their words to us, physical expressions of affection or violence, the time they spend (or don’t spend) in play or attention to our needs, in angry outbursts or self-sacrifice; and in looks that display tenderness, disappointment, rage, understanding, or indifference.

Some amount of parental disapproval is inevitable and necessary. Indeed, it is required to civilize us. But since there is no competing panel of experts to counter any misplaced verdict rendered by the parent (who is the child’s judge, jury, and headsman) even enormous miscarriages of justice by a cruel and abusive elder tend to stand without refutation.

You are guilty!

You are bad!

Off with your head!

Case closed.

Most children do not have anywhere to go with this. There is not only no court of appeals, but since they have been made to feel ashamed, kids are unlikely to turn to anyone else to recount their alleged misdeeds and risk the possibility of further painful disapproval, not to mention the sense of having betrayed the parent by reporting out what has happened. Moreover, the child continues to need the parent’s good will. Carrying a grudge against the parent, expressing it directly to that parent (at least when one is very young) is dangerous — likely to produce more disapproval still.

Better to accept the parent’s condemnation. At least that way, the little one may still hold on to the hope that by changing for the better he can achieve the love and approval that has been wanting.

Even for rebellious youth, there tends to be a portion of the parent’s negative opinion that is indelible. Sort of like a tattoo, it is written on the personality, the sense of self. This metaphorical image of the tattoo overlays and alters the self-image. And like the tattoo, it is the product of a painful engraving; not easily removed, but still present long after the moment of imprint, reminding you of your iniquity.

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Whether the child does his best to “behave” or knowingly misbehaves, he will disappoint a parent who cannot be satisfied even by perfection, who undermines self-esteem; the kind of parent who tells you to “run fast, get ahead,” and then finds ways to trip you up or tie you in knots that make any forward movement difficult.

Almost certainly, the young one will do some things that are less than admirable: perhaps raging, stealing, lying to avoid more disapproval, or violating curfew; as well as forgetting something the parent wanted him to remember, day dreaming, performing poorly in school, withdrawing from contact with the family, and acts of alleged ingratitude; or visits to a sexual or drug-involved dark-side in a search for acceptance and love or a simple self-distracting escape from inner misery. There is no end to the list of things that can be considered offensive, real or imagined. Perhaps just as troubling, the youth will think contaminating, “bad” thoughts.

I wish he (she) were dead.

I wish I had a different father (mother).

I wish I were dead.

Some few will grow out of this desperate experience and achieve a gift of self-cleansing and self-soothing that requires neither confessor nor therapist; others will be able to rationalize their early life misbehavior into benign disappearance. But for too many, by hook or by crook, by word or by deed or by thought or by feeling, there will be guilt under the surface, however bright and shiny the surface may seem.

That is where psychotherapy and the psychotherapist’s role as a confessor comes in.

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The “confession” usually doesn’t happen at the beginning of therapy. Trust in the therapist must be earned by the counselor.

But come it does, often in the middle of a course of therapy, but sometimes very late.

It goes something like this:

There is something I haven’t told you. (Eyes now looking down). I haven’t told anyone. Ever.

No small amount of courage is required to tell the things that cannot be told. Until this point the patient has carried his secrets inside — these awful, disqualifying, contaminating things that make him unworthy — the history of thought and action he believes would cause everyone and anyone to reject him, “if only they knew.”

Unlike the priest in the confessional, it is important the patient knows the therapist and the therapist knows the patient’s identity. Otherwise, any absolution is too generic, too cheaply won, not specific enough in its application to the “sinner.”

The therapist must be non-judgmental. The counselor’s office is not a court of law. The purpose is healing, not retribution. There is no automatic amends to be made, although sometimes it will be therapeutic to do so. If needed, the patient may discover that writing a letter (even an apology that is never sent) can be helpful; sometimes the grave site of a deceased parent can be visited. Atonement can also be found in acts of future kindness or projects dedicated to improving the human condition.

But often, no atonement is required because the patient comes to realize he was the victim, not the victimizer. And that his failure…

  • was being born a boy when the parent wanted a girl
  • or an intellectual when dad wanted an athlete
  • or a tom boy when mom wanted a little lady
  • or an introvert when the parents hoped for an extrovert
  • or simply that one of the elders was threatened by the growing child for reasons defying explanation.

And that with enough poking and prodding, resentment and ridicule, the authority figures triggered and tripped the child into behavior that could be used as further cause, if any was needed, for affixing guilt; as if the guardians were unsatisfied until they could create flaws to justify their history of disapproval.

The therapist will help the patient look at the “guilty” acts or thoughts from many sides. The therapist is a witness of sorts, someone who has to hear you (however horrible your action might have been or seems to have been), meet your gaze and see the guilt in your eyes, and still accept you, even then.

One or more others might need to be told the same story now revealed to the healer, again face-to-face,  so that the patient (in telling it and observing the reaction of the person being told)  comes to know he is acceptable and forgivable, not only in the eyes of the counselor, but also by a select soul whose love and respect outside the consulting room are important. Great care must be taken if others are to be told, however, for some of the potential listeners will only add to the accumulation of negative judgments that already burden the patient, while a few people will be unnecessarily injured by the knowledge and should be spared.

What then might be the result of such therapeutic exposure for the patient who has chosen his therapist well, and made no unfortunate choices of disclosure to family or friends?

In the best cases, the light and air that are allowed into the room holding the dark secret can transform it, making it seem less terrible, less disqualifying. Internal repugnance diminishes. The weight or responsibility attached to the transgression is shifted and reduced. You feel purified.

There is freedom and grace in this, as in the confessional booth. An unburdening.

The simple act of another human being listening to you — still caring for you and about you. Believing in you and your value.

You are no longer alone — alone with a secret that makes you feel like a pariah; disqualifies you — only you, however irrational that thought is — from membership in the human community.

Now, at last, it is possible for you to reevaluate and affirm yourself.

And life — a better life — goes on.

The top image is The Confession by Pietro Longhi, thought to have been painted in the 1750s. The photo that follows is called Blinded by the Lights, authored by Suicide Girls from Los Angeles, CA, USA. The last image is the work of Reytan. It shows a number of confessional booths. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Confession and Psychotherapy

  1. Wow, Dr. Stein. No other comments? This story resonates with me and you parallel my story exactly. I told my psychologist my story at our intake appt but it took a year for me to complete the last nagging bit of self-blame. I may have read 20 posts between yesterday and today. 😊

    Like

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