The Psychology of Confession (or, a cure for the blues)

 

The other day, a colleague and I were having a philosophical discussion (in other words, we were talking about religion). As we contemplated various religious practices, wondering about their purpose and benefit, we of course, hit upon the practice of confession. I mentioned that when I lived in south Texas, I would sometimes attend church with my Catholic friends – there were a good number of Catholics in that part of Texas, partly due to the large Hispanic population. Many told me that they rarely took communion, because they couldn’t keep up with confession. At the time, I was a practicing Christian, and it saddened me that they were not “allowed” to participate in this sacred, celebratory ritual unless they jumped through the hoops of the Church.

Even then, I internally rebelled against the multitude of seemingly arbitrary rules that saturate mainstream religion. Looking back at it now, however, from a perspective outside of Christianity, I view confession from a totally different angle. In this blog, I want to explore it from a psychological standpoint.

Let’s pretend you are a good Catholic, and being a good Catholic, you want to do “right” so that you can participate in communion on Sunday. With that, comes the expectation that you will confess every single sin that you commit throughout the week. You are to write down, in your mental notebook, each thing you have done wrong – the driver you flipped off, the money you kept when the WalMart cashier gave you too much change back, the squirrel you ran over, the thoughts you had about wringing the neck of your annoying coworker…

While I understand the point – confess (or at least recognize) our “sins” and ask for forgiveness so that we can make an effort to behave in a more loving manner – I wonder about the process of focusing, all week, on the sins we commit (in other words, the negative stuff). How beneficial is that for our mental health?

From a purely psychological perspective, keeping a record of wrongs – whether they be ours or someone else’s – is not best practice! Go to a therapist seeking a cure for the blues and part of your homework will be:

“Practice positive self-talk!”

“Keep a gratitude journal.”

“Smile!”

“Give out compliments!”

“Engage in random acts of kindness.”

My guess is you will also be asked to come back with some examples. In other words, try to remain upbeat and positive…focus on the good things! Keeping a tally of all the ways in which we are BAD, or all of the mistakes we have made, destroys our self-esteem. Is it a good idea to sincerely apologize and ask for forgiveness when we have hurt someone? Of course!

My concern, however, is that we, as human beings, don’t practice enough self-love. We don’t value ourselves, we rebel against our humanity, rail against our mistakes and our shortcomings. It’s no wonder, really, given the society in which we live, with a media that constantly pumps out messages of inferiority. And, sadly, our religious upbringing often reinforces the idea that we are sinners who constantly need to overcome our sinful nature.

How can we truly love others when we don’t even like ourselves?

The Conversations With God series relates a different story. A much more upbeat story. One that resonates with my inner knowingness. Not only are we not “sinners,” we were created in God’s image – each of us is an individuation of Divinity – an expression of God on Earth! What we learn in church, the part about God’s unconditional love, IS ACCURATE! There are no expectations, no strings attached. “There is nothing you are required to do to receive God’s love – God wants nothing, needs nothing, demands nothing, commands nothing.”

Internationally known speaker and best-selling author, Dr. Christiane Northrop, believes that if we could only practice a little more self-love, healthcare costs would drop dramatically. She says that self-love “improves your hearing, your eyesight, lowers your blood pressure, increases pulmonary function, cardiac output, and helps wiring the musculature. This isn’t just some little frou-frou new age notion…this is hardcore science!”

Let’s flip the narrative and increase the self-love. As you go through your week, remember that you are Love, you are Compassion, you are Holy. When you operate from this place, from a place of self-love, it is much easier to express this love in the world!