The psychological practice of confession

The psychological practice of confession

This post deals with the topic of confession, its psychological and spiritual value, how to understand the idea and purpose of confession in the psychotherapeutic context and the importance of collective or objective context in the act of the confession. In addition to offering some background and theory on the act of confession, I will offer you some ways of thinking about why you might consider adopting it as a personal practice and a structure within which you can frame your own confession, should you choose to do so. Whether or not you do though, I trust you will find this contextualisation of confession and its psychological impact useful.

My own relationship with confession

At the end of 2018, I wrote and published a public confession. I did this for two independent parallel reasons. To provide an example of confession for students embarking on Nigredo[1] that focusses on the encounter with the shadow the first critical step on the journey to individuation and as an act of personal catharsis. Publishing my confession in the public domain naturally inhibited the process to some degree. Despite this, I found the exercise very worthwhile, so much so, that I resolved to make this an annual commitment. I firmly believe the foundational premise that – whilst the road to psychological health is of necessity different for each of us, reflecting our respective individual characters – we all need to begin from a universal starting point of confession.

Before I tackle this year’s confession (my confession circa. 2019), which I will do as a separate post, I want to offer some background and context for this practice and, most importantly, offer you some useful ways to think about and put into action your own psychic housekeeping.

Since my youth I have found meaning in the annual ritual of new year’s resolutions. Like many who indulge in this, my past is littered with the casualties of these good intentions. Nevertheless, it unfailingly offered an opportunity for psychic and spiritual renewal. The marking of a threshold and an annual opportunity, much like the daily offering a new dawn, to commit myself to going beyond the older and soon to be antiquated version of myself. An acknowledgement and simultaneous distancing of myself from the beliefs, practices and desires that held me enthralled the prior year or years. I found the very act of expressing and committing myself to this intention, despite at least as many failures as success in enacting these intentions, was valuable.

Now, with the benefit of some two decades of the study and practice of depth psychology and a considerable amount of time focused on teaching individuation (self-realisation), I have evolved this practice. It is a variation on the theme, but nonetheless one which is quite different in approach, and I have come to believe, of greater psychological value. The focus of the practice is less on the creation of new imperatives, goals or intentions, than on clearing, catharsis, understanding and ultimately the assimilation of what has been the year or years before. This is immensely valuable and echoes the core practice and principle of depth psychology. Confession is the cornerstone and starting point of all psychotherapy and meaningful personal evolution.

The Four steps to Transformation

Carl Gustav Jung[2], uncharacteristically, provided a map and meta-view of the road to psychological health in psychotherapy and the individuation (self-realisation) process.[3] He described four distinct chronological stages in psychotherapy:

  1. Confession or catharsis.
  2. Amplification or illumination.
  3. Education.
  4. Transformation.

Jung’s predecessor and for a time mentor, Sigmund Freud[4] pioneered this secular practice of confession, beyond the historical and spiritual precedent of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church. Freud’s psychotherapeutic method is essentially an act of extended confession, which the physician Joseph Breuer[5] struck upon, almost by accident but nonetheless quickly realising its therapeutic efficacy. Breuer transmitted it to his younger colleague, Freud, who devoted his life and not inconsiderable genius to understanding, elaborating and formalising this psychotherapeutic method, under the name “psychoanalysis”.

The world and the psychological health of those fortunate enough to have benefited from psychotherapy within or inspired by these traditions are immeasurably better off for this formalisation and secularisation of confession. That acknowledged, it must also be said that it has also to a degree put what should be universally available, at a distance for those unable or resistant to seeking professional psychotherapy. It is a large part of our focus at the Centre (CAJS) through programmes such as Magnum opus and other courses we offer, to reclaim these practices and democratise access to this knowledge. [6]

The uniquely psychological use and utility of confession

With that bit of background given, let me layout for you the way to understand and interpret the practice of confession and provide you with some useful principles to apply should you choose to undertake such a practice, which I hope you will seriously consider.

Firstly, let me deal with the religious and legal associations of confession as a practice exclusively devoted to the confession of sin or wrongdoing, that cast a shadow over and is in contrast with the practice of confession as intended here and in depth psychology. The psychological use of the term is broader and more generous than this narrow definition. That is not to say our use of confession does not include in its ambit the confession of sin, (although even they way we understand “sin” psychologically is quite different from the way it is understood and used in religion), but it is also far more than that. To once again borrow from the Catholic tradition, it is closer to the Augustinian tradition from his Confessions, the making explicit or conscious of the inner implicit or unconscious life of the subject. Sir Larry Alan Siedentop, political philosopher and author, put this very well,  

“So, for Augustine, the inwardness of the individual is by no means a sphere of silence. It is a sphere of dialogue, of conversation with God [or in psychoanalytic terms, the unconscious]. No wonder that the Confessions take the form of an extended prayer. Inventing the individual – in the sense of acknowledging the equality of humans in the face of their maker – is not an exercise leading to isolation. Instead it is the creation of a self-consciousness…The deepest struggles of the self are pre-linguistic. They are struggles to find the words that do justice to our feelings both of freedom and of dependence.” [7]

In other words, what we intend by the practice of confession here is more sweeping and ambitious than the narrower “confession of sins” or “legal confession”. It is an attempt to give expression to that which troubles my soul, both virtue and vice. It is painting the picture and creating the narrative that gives form to my individuality. It would not be an overstatement to say it is through this confessional that I give birth to myself.  It is a bringing out into the light of day that which was previously secret and hidden from view.

Method and practice

This scope of confession is best circumscribed. It should ideally focus on a reasonably clearly defined area of your life or time period or relationship or any specific issue. It is both natural and psychologically healthy to meander into associations and tributaries during the process of the confession, but the utility of the practice is best served by always returning to the topic/area/time/relationship/desire et al. being confessed.

It is, critically, an attempt to give expression not only to events in the outer world but to your inner life. To bring to the light of consciousness and make explicit the movements of the soul, the inner being, in parallel with the external. This is the art of confession. It is finding the language, images, associations to give form to your inner life. It is in that sense a creative and artistic endeavour. Simultaneously, do not be tyrannised or paralysed by the demand for perfection, completeness, beauty or any other virtuous expression. There is only one overarching imperative you should not ignore and that is honesty! I cannot over emphasise how important honesty is to the process. The value of the confession is directly proportionate to the degree to which the confession is honest. This value, above all others, should be your guiding principle in the endeavour.

The above said, honesty and honest expression, are more challenging than they might seem. Every browbeaten artist in the world is only trying to “express herself honestly”! The advantage the confessor has over the artist is the endeavour should not have as its focus public expression. It is not essentially a performance piece; it is closer to the Augustinian form of a prayer. You, in this act of confession, are both penitent confessing her sins and priest offering absolution. This is not to say you should never share your confession if there is an opportunity for you to do so, the sharing of which is also an aspect of the healing offered by the practice. However, I hope it is self-evident, but I will nevertheless emphasize, such sharing should be guided by a high degree of discretion. This is the value of having a psychotherapist, you have a master confessor available to you weekly to hear your confession. However, for those not fortunate enough to have access to such a resource there are other ways and opportunities to share your confession. Even if the nature of your confession is such that you either choose to or are unable to confess it to another, the very act of giving it a definite form is already a powerful act of catharsis, meaning making and redemption.

Structure and context

Something I want to emphasise is context. The psychological difficulty with sin and suffering (notwithstanding my earlier comments to the effect that your confession should not be limited to such Catholic focus ) is, in addition to the actual suffering, one is typically alienated and persecuted or more accurately one feels alienated and persecuted, by such experiences. It is natural and human to ask, “why me?”, and psychologically this is an invaluable question.  It is through this question in its various forms, that one has the possibility of taking personal responsibility and being empowered, individuated and morally elevated by doing so. It is at the core of the psychological approach that we look to ourselves first and foremost before pointing a finger at another.

However, simultaneously, it is naïve and inflated to think we are the causal source of all that occurs, we are not. We are players in a system, members of a society and our experience is of being part of something bigger than any single individual. I would encourage you to keep this context in mind in your confession. This is possibly best illustrated by an example, which I provide below. Before I do though, let me offer a possible structure you might borrow from in your own confession. The danger of such a didactic approach is that it unhelpfully constrains and impedes the originality of an alternate form better suited to your individual purpose. Jung was himself, anti any formulaic approach to psychology – nevertheless, ironically, providing us with a formula of sorts, all be it one with a lot of psychic elbow room!

Nevertheless, with this cautionary note in mind, I do wish to offer you a structure that I have found useful in the belief you may find some value in it as well.

Confession at different levels:

  • The archetypal (universal)
  • The collective: the world, country, community, family and friends.
  • The personal.

Your confession should encompass both the objective and subjective elements of your life and identity. Acknowledging who you are from the objective and collective or social perspectives, in addition to the subjective and personal, is essential to understanding what you’re a product of and consequently what you are dealing with. Without this, your confession runs the risk of being hubris:

 I am poor because I have a poverty complex,

I am alienated because I am unlikable or don’t know how to socialise,

 I am lonely/single/divorced because I am unlovable and so on.

All these things may well be true, you may indeed have certain neuroses that are inhibiting you, however, simultaneously, these things are occurring within a social and archetypal context. The appreciation of this context will deepen your understanding and broaden the vista of your vision. This is one of Jung’s unique and important contributions to depth psychology, the discovery of the collective or objective layer of the psyche as an essential element of psychology. Whilst Jung remains to a large degree marginalised from mainstream psychotherapy, as does the entire stream of depth psychology, any psychotherapeutic practice today that is not taking into account the political, social and economic factors of the subject, is myopic and likely to do more harm than good.[8]

A (very) short vignette

Recently whilst working with a couple whose passion frequently spiled over from the bedroom into a fiery and often stormy relationship, I advocated this method. They claimed to love each other deeply but were often at odds with each other. Seemingly minor issues could escalate into major rows and these in turn could become nasty and destructive.

Now the first thing I want to ask you here is: what immediately strikes you about this scenario?

Take a moment to think about it before reading on.

You have heard this story before, have you not?!

This story of a fiery relationship between young lovers is hardly new!

I mean, if one went to Hollywood tomorrow and secured a meeting with the head of one of the big production houses, and once the opportunity presented itself for your big reveal, your moment to shine with your unique and original narrative plot, and this was the nutshell – the essence – of your storyline, how might, do you imagine, the producer respond? I think we can agree it is improbable they would be won over by the blazing originality of the storyline.

In other words, this is archetypal. It has a universality to it. It occurs with sufficient frequency in just such relationships as reported in the arts, the annals of literature, film and in the disciplines of sociology and psychology, that we can recognise this as a typical rather than atypical experience. This is important for the couple to consider prior to assuming full personal responsibility for their conflict. Intimate and passionate relationships between lovers, will often involve a degree of conflict and such conflict may well be amplified beyond where it would in a cooler Platonic union.

This does not mean the couple would not be advised to work with their personal (subjective) experience of the conflict and through the shared confessional, hopefully, reach a better understanding of themselves and each other. But, not to recognise the archetypal dimension of their dynamic is to form an impoverished and inflated view[9] of what is actually going on. Romeo and Juliet would not have had their sublime moment of literary tragedy were they not also members of the houses Montague and Capulet. Whilst their story is theirs, it also not just theirs.

In the case of this young couple I encouraged them in their confession to look at the archetypal social, collective and familial factors that were at play in their discord.

As though for the first time, they spoke of and realised the challenges created by their respective cultural differences, different upbringings and the prejudices they had unconsciously assimilated through this cultural and familial transmission. They confessed their anxiety about the instability of the political and social conditions they were living in and the impact of trauma they had individually and as a couple experienced in the past and how this had affected them.

Recognising these dimensions to what they were busy grappling and trying to come to terms with in their relationship and giving voice to them[10] had a salutary and liberating effect. It allowed them to become conscious of and gain a deeper perspective on their personal issues and the challenges they faced in their relationship.

Now the confession by no means stops there, to stop there would be to stop short. Naturally it needs to go on into giving expression to the subject’s inner world. But it was this objective element that I wanted to highlight for you in this post today. I will in the course of the next week be taking my own medicine and making good on my own commitment to an annual (and very public!) confession, wherein I will hopefully provide a second example[11] of sorts as to what this might look like.

By way of conclusion, I hope you will consider trying this as a formal and annual practice. I believe you will find it worthwhile and cathartic. Confession is not only an excellent way of clearing your psychic space to make room for what will come in the new year, it is also an act of high psychic culture. You will benefit greatly, both short and long term, from its regular practice on your personal individuation journey.

I wish you a conscious, meaningful and individuating 2020.

Season’s greetings,

Stephen

PS. My 2019 confession has now been published, Confession: secundus

Nigredo 2020 is open for registration!


[1] Part of The Centre for Applied Jungian Studies signature online programme Magnum Opus.

[2] (1875 – 1961), the founder of analytical or Jungian psychology, and among the greatest psychological theorists of all time

[3] Jung, C. G, 1954/1966, ‘The Practice of Psychotherapy’, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 16. 2nd edition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, edt. Read, Fordham and Adler, Routledge: England.

[4] (1856 – 1939), founder of psychoanalysis.

[5] (1842 – 1925), with patient zero, “Anna o”, actually Betha Pappenheim. 

[6] These efforts are no doubt imperfect, corrigible and subject to much criticism. However, based on the feedback of the many students who have passed through the school this is not without value. The tools and method contained in this body of knowledge for improved psychological health, wholeness, consciousness, meaning and ultimately, from the Jungian perspective, individuation are, simply expressed, invaluable. 

[7] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism ,(2014), p. 105

[8] A salutary practice of the founder of post-Jungian studies and prolific author – including The Political Psyche, Andrew Samuels, would on occasion start workshop with the question: what is your first political memory?  The other psychological theorist that much be mentioned in this regard, for emphasising the collective element, is the founder of the Imaginal School, James Hillman.

[9] Inflated because it assumes an excessive causal role, this is me, it is my folly, misery, lot, suffering et al

[10] This is another critical factor in the confessional the act of expression, be it spoken, as it traditionally is in psychotherapy, or written in one’s journal, is part of the alchemy of the process. This too cannot be overstated: it is not a confession unless one actually actively confesses!

[11] I have already provided an example with my confession last year.

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Comments (9)

  • Nancy J Goff Reply

    Thank you for the unique view of confession. I had long ago given up the idea of writing New Year’s resolutions, due to my lack of real follow-through. After years of “confessing” to a therapist, I will give an effort to this annual confession process on my own in place of the resolutions.

    December 25, 2019 at 16:43
  • James Reply

    So I have had extensive experience with this and contend that it is true although discretion is imparitive especially at the prospect of harming others …the reality of it for myself is about being fearless and being real with myself and the nature of my intentions for doing this…obviously it is a way of acknowledging the truth within that only I could possibly know and finding the capacity to embrace it in its entirety which may involve amendment as well as making right on wrongs I feel need to be addressed… again this may involve others and discretion might be carefully considered as to not cause further harm…sometimes we must find other ways to make good by amending our behavior by helping others with sincere intentions etc…it is freeing and also has allowed myself to further my own personal growth and gain perspective earning the all important internal honors that shape my own integrity and understanding as an empathic being creating a meaningful perspective and purpose in today’s world as well finding the patience required to cope with where others might be at and finding that gentle care and concern even when the experience contradicts my core beliefs…my new path isn’t any easier but it isn’t the same one that used to consume my sanity…peace

    December 26, 2019 at 03:02
  • Max Frank Reply

    Hello.

    The couple “working through their shared confessional” would be them speaking together to a therapist or do you mean confessing to each other? Anything else that bears mentioning with that scenario?

    Can you point me to your public confessional from last year or to some sort of outline as to form?

    Thank you.

    December 26, 2019 at 12:37
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Max in this instance the couple were speaking and confessing in a therapeutic context. They were respectively confessing what they were individually and jointly dealing with.

      Here is a link to my confession from last year https://appliedjung.com/confession/

      I will be tackling my 2019 confession within the next week and will publish it as a public post on this site then.

      December 26, 2019 at 15:26
  • Noreen Bailey Reply

    Carl Jung played a part in the early development is the Alcoholics Anonymous program. As a long time member I am often surprised that spiritual leaders consider this practice as you have laid it out is our way of life. I am happy that you have also found this practice so beneficial.

    December 27, 2019 at 09:25
  • Rina Raath Reply

    I find this interesting and rewarding. Thank you for sharing.

    December 27, 2019 at 15:56
  • Karen Sparks Reply

    I agree that it is vital to consider who we are confessing to (I learned that lesson the hard way). I really like your idea of integrating the year and reflecting as compared to making resolutions.

    December 29, 2019 at 15:33
  • Loose Leaf Notes » Blog Archive » 13: Stay Write Where You Are Reply

    […] Making New Year resolutions? In the tradition of Jungian Depth Psychology, the focus of that practice would be less on the creation of new imperatives, goals or intentions, […]

    January 8, 2020 at 16:19
  • Lwandle Reply

    Thank you so much for this valuable and “eye opener” informative confessions . Will definitely love to follow this as a growing psychology student.

    January 11, 2020 at 03:52

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