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.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.