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.

Why Therapists Want to Talk about Your Childhood

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Why do we have to talk about my childhood? Shouldn’t I be over that? What difference does that make now?

Sometimes, it makes all the difference.

Not everyone requires an in-depth therapeutic look at their childhood. Many people can benefit from short-term treatment to get over a crisis, a recent loss, or current relationship issues.

Others will profit from a cognitive-behavioral approach (CBT) that works to change present day action, thought, and emotion.

But there are times when the past is a dead-weight on one’s life, preventing any kind of lift-off into a more productive, joyous, lofty, airborne, less anxious and guilty way of being; one that is not grounded by a gravity — an invisible force — that seems to pull one back to a repetitive cycle of sadness, regret, and chronic avoidance of challenges.

An example:

Take an intelligent young woman in her 20s — movie-star beautiful — with a quirky sense of humor, and more than average intelligence. Her parents praised only her beauty, but derided everything else about her. From an early time their constant criticism made her worried about displeasing friends; and later on, lovers.

She learned that she could make a dazzling first impression while hiding her anticipation that others would find out what she offered was only skin deep.

This woman’s super-model exterior and surface gaiety belied her belief that there was nothing inside of her that was really valuable. She hid the thoughts and feelings that her parents had always put down, so as to prevent people from discovering her vulnerabilities.

But even when she was successful at “fooling them into thinking” that she was better than she really was, the praise and approval she received only persuaded her that she was a good actress — that beneath the stage makeup she was nothing — just nothing but an empty, worthless shell.

Her anxiety about being “exposed” for the fraud she felt herself to be was combined with a depression that grew out of her failure to win her parents’ love. And, in order to achieve that love, she continued to try to extend herself and prove herself to them, only to be rejected or neglected or taken advantage of once again, thus confirming her sense of worthlessness.

Unfortunately, she was also drawn to potential boyfriends and platonic companions who resembled her parents in their mistreatment of her — as if the only love worth having was one that would allow her to triumph over rejection and win the affection of someone who resembled her parents in their lack of affection for her.

Our heroine succeeded in graduating from college and getting a good job. But none of this filled her up more than temporarily, just as a new purchase of an attractive dress might make her feel good for a few hours or days until she sank back into her default state of sadness and misgiving.

Now imagine that you are her therapist. What would you do?

Tell her that she is beautiful, talented, and accomplished (as evidenced by her academic and vocational success)?

She has already tried to tell herself this, she has already heard this from others, and she still feels bad.

Work with her to improve her social skills?

She is already skilled socially; “a good actress,” as she would characterize it. She is able to be assertive professionally and put-up a good front; until, of course, it involves a personal relationship about which she feels strongly.

Send her to a psychiatrist for anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Perhaps, but this does not guarantee that she won’t continue to have the same self-doubts and make the same bad relationship choices of people who treat her poorly.

Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help her “talk back” to her negative self-attributions (put-downs of herself) and help her to evaluate herself more objectively.

This is not likely to be sufficiently helpful by itself if she continues to favor people who reject her, caught in some version of the old Groucho Marx joke: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.”

Use CBT to help her gradually stand-up to the people who are treating her badly.

Again, this might be somewhat useful, but will be countered by her belief that there is something wrong with her, and that she deserves the mistreatment she receives. Moreover, it will be hard to be assertive because of her terror that she will lose these same people if she pushes back against them.

What then is left?

In my opinion, this lovely young woman will have to begin to see (really see) and feel what has happened in her life, going back as far as necessary to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents: their failure to give more than lip-service to loving her, their cruelty, their inattention when she did something that should have been praised, their criticism, and their tendency to make her feel deficient and guilty.

If she does not see them for who they are, she is likely to continue to believe that it was largely her own inadequacy that caused her to fail in her quest for their love. And, if she continues to place them even on a relatively low pedestal, she will also keep reaching out for love from all the wrong people — the people who remind her of those parents; those who possess the only kind of love she wants because it is unconsciously associated with her parents.

It is not enough that this patient becomes intellectually aware of all that I’ve described.

For therapy of this kind to be successful, she will have to feel it, not just know it.

Feel it intensely.

Why?

Early life is a “hot” moment in virtually any life. Emotions are highly charged in children. We have not yet learned how to regulate those feelings, and so we are very, very vulnerable to injury. Nor do we have any of the defenses or the intellectual understanding of things and of people that will help us later to navigate the choppy waters of life.

And so, in this “hot” and challenging early time in our existence, we begin to formulate solutions to the difficulties of life.

For example, if voicing opinions different from dad’s beliefs results in his condemnation, many kids will learn to keep their mouths shut and internalize their feelings. Meanwhile, they are likely to feel diminished and less good about themselves if there is too little love and too much criticism.

A parent’s opinion counts enormously in the formation of the child’s self-image.

Time passes and the child perhaps has succeeded in reducing, at least a little, the amount of displeasure, anger, and targeted discontent coming from his mom or dad. So the behavior of keeping a low profile and “acting the part” that the parents expect is reinforced, even though depression and self-loathing are below the surface.

Such choices are made by the child unconsciously, but seem to make the best of a bad situation and become a well-ingrained pattern of behavior.

Eventually the child becomes a teen and soon a young adult, away from a good portion of the daily parental disapproval. Now, having established some defenses and skill in handling life, the crackling tension of early childhood is over. Instead of the ever-present hot moments of early life, existence now consists mostly of many more “cool” moments in which the pattern of behavior becomes solidified and habitual.

Think of it this way. A small child is like a piece of metal in a forge or foundry. The searing affective cauldron of early life is like the super-heated nature of a forge, designed to make the metal malleable so that it can be wrought or cast. Unfortunately, in the childhoods I’ve been describing, the little piece of metal that is this tiny life is shaped by the destructive forces of the household into a form that is warped; not fully serviceable.

With the passage of time and the “cooling down” of the emotional intensity of that life, the newly shaped adult — like the forged or cast piece of metal — is no longer malleable. The pattern and outline he or she is now in — the self-opinions and self-defenses that were established in the forge — have taken on a permanent, fixed form. The same ways of living developed while young continue to be used to some extent, even if they are not all that useful; even if conditions have changed.

Obviously, new learning is still possible, but at the deepest level — the level of self concept and self-love, as well as the tendency to be drawn to certain kinds of people when looking for love — alteration of the shape or form or way of living is much harder to achieve.

What then does therapy do to assist with this much-needed alteration?

The therapist and patient work together to re-enter the “forge” of childhood, that time of “hot” moments when personality was fashioned into its current image.

Once back in the foundry, the emotion generated in recollecting that time can make one malleable again: capable of being reshaped and of reshaping oneself into a less self-critical person who believes in his value and no longer seems so drawn to people who are excessively critical.

Therapists who do this kind of “depth” or “psychodynamic” psychotherapy may well encourage the patient to journal — even to write autobiographical essays. They can be assisted in remembering what seem like incidental details of early life such as their school teachers, the friend who sat next to them in third grade, the path they took to walk home, what TV shows they watched, the time of day that mom or dad came home, the summer vacations that were taken, the sounds present in the home, the aroma of cooked foods, and so forth.

Anything that might be useful to jog emotion and memory is fair game, including old photos and report cards, conversations with siblings or childhood friends, and revisiting the neighborhood in which one was raised.

The process can be painfully difficult. Indeed, it must generate significant emotion to reproduce, as far as possible, the forge-like nature of early life — the conditions which permit a realignment of internal interpretations, understanding, and feelings. Grieving over the losses of the past can only come with openness to whatever is felt and discovered in digging up the psychic “can of worms” that sometimes is to be found in one’s past.

And it is the emotion connected to the early trauma that, when finally re-experienced to at least a partial degree, proves cathartic and informative; allows one to realize that “it wasn’t your fault;” at least not to the disqualifying extent that you have come to believe it.

Sometimes there is a “break through” moment, as in the film Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams. But even without that kind of emotionally generated epiphany, this type of treatment can be transformative.

Of course, not everyone needs to do this. A more cognitive behavioral approach along side this type of exploration may also be helpful in some cases.

But sometimes there is simply no substitute for the hands-in-the-dirt and feet-to-the-fire process that I’ve described.

Take heart.

If your therapist wants to talk to you about your childhood, sometimes it might just be exactly what you need; just exactly the cauterizing instrument that your hurt is waiting for.

Remember — the heat of the forge can be hard to withstand, but upon emerging from it perhaps you will notice that its warmth has healed your lonely heart.

The above image is Metallurgist working by the blast furnaces in Třinec Iron and Steel Works courtesy of Třinecké železárny, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.