How Therapy Changed My Experience of Confession

I sat down at my first therapy appointment and felt so uncomfortable. Things had come up that I couldn’t ignore anymore, things surrounding my previous pregnancies and births that hung over me and were affecting my daily living. To my surprise, I spilled out one of the most painful memories from my second pregnancy in that first session. It was a memory I was deeply ashamed of and had never told anyone (and won’t tell here). 

My therapist looked at me as I shared my feelings about this memory and said, “It makes total sense that that’s how you felt. You just wanted the pain to go away.” I was in shock. I had expected to be further shamed and told I was a horrible mother for thinking and feeling what I did. Instead, she saw me and mirrored me. She understood and explained the feelings I had beneath that memory without me having to do so. 

It was immediately the most liberating experience I have ever had. I felt a million ton weight lifted off my shoulder, and had the courage to come home and tell Nick about that memory, purely to be transparent. 

I learned something that day, and would again and again over the next 7 months in therapy. Stating the truth out loud, no matter how ashamed I was or how painful it felt to do so, and then being seen and loved right where I was, was always the first step to feeling and being free. 

As a Catholic, it was not hard for me to make the leap from my experience in therapy to the sacrament of confession. In fact, having the experiences I have had in therapy have given me a new appreciation of this sacrament that I once dreaded and avoided like the plague. 

Mindset Shift. 

Waiting in the line for confession was always a source of deep anxiety. My heart rate would go through the roof, and I would sweat like the proverbial whore in Church. I always attributed my physical response to the recognition of the horror of my sin, and therefore thought it to be a good thing. I should sweat, I should feel horrible. I’m a filthy sinner. I knew what I did and did it anyway. I deserve to be ashamed. I deserve to be crushed by guilt. But the longer I have been in therapy, the more I’ve realized this is not what God wants for me at all. 

Few of us have the experience of telling another person something we are deeply ashamed of and having the response be one of love and understanding. Consequently, whether we are aware of it or not, most of us believe that Love shames and affirms our own self-condemnation. Nothing could be more contradictory from the reality of the Cross. Would a God who shed every last drop of his blood so that we would no longer have to be bound by the consequences of our sin shame and condemn us when we made the move to repent? It doesn’t make sense. Jesus gave us the parable of the prodigal son for a reason. He is that father who throws a feast for the one who admits their sin. Stating the truth always provokes tenderness in our God. 

What I feared about confession was to state the deepest darkest parts of myself and be judged and shamed. It was the belief that once I said what I had done out loud, I would lose love. It was always expressed as, oh my gosh, what will the priest think of me? Before confession, I always believed without realizing it that admitting my sin would only deepen the rift between me and God, even though that was never my actual experience. After several months in therapy, I began to see the opposite. 

Stating the truth of what I have done is the first step to repair my relationship with God. God requires me to be honest, or in a better word humble, and as soon as I am, he responds as a loving father. He doesn’t give his love once I’ve changed, merely once I’m willing to receive it. Confession is called the sacrament of Reconciliation for a reason. 

My experience in therapy showed me the power and the necessity of stating things out loud to another physical person, of having that person see me without judging me, to propel me to change from the inside out. It made me realize there is something profoundly respectful of human psychology and the way we heal that is found in confession. 

Love Always Changes.

We human beings are excellent at self-deception, especially when it comes to what is good about us. We need the experience of relationships where we can be totally ourselves and loved for it in order to be whole. That includes our sin. 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. True love does not permit sin. Love never permits anything but the good of the other. But shame is not love. Shame paralyzes. It doesn’t call forth, it merely affirms what the sinner already knows about themselves and says they’re right for feeling like dirt. It condemns when condemnation comes after our death, never before. So long as we breathe, we can always turn. 

While it may seem contradictory to some, it is the very experience of being seen and known just as we are with all our failings, and to be loved and forgiven right there rather than shamed or condemned, that makes it possible for us to change. Jesus showed this countless times in the gospels, and one of my favorite examples is the woman and the well.

Understanding this, I began to approach confession in a totally new way. I tuned in to my physical reactions more, also a product of therapy, and got curious about them. No longer were they a torture I deserved, rather they were my body’s way of telling me I was going into a place that wasn’t safe, a place where I would be judged and rejected. Now I could begin to challenge that belief, and change it to the reality that confession is the safest place for a sinner. It is the place where I cease to be a slave and become free. 

However, I still found myself struggling to go. I was reading and learning about the interconnectedness of our minds, bodies and souls, and how if one is wounded, it impacts the other parts. Through fertility awareness and therapy, I knew that I needed to focus just as much on my soul’s health in order to keep both my mind and body healthy as well. To treat any part of myself as isolated was self-defeating. 

I got curious about this contradiction between what I knew and how I acted, and didn’t like what I found. I realized the reason it was hard for me to go to confession now was because I didn’t want to change. 

Sin, as bad as it is, is comfortable and familiar. To no small degree, sinful behavior can develop as unhealthy coping mechanisms for deep wounds. Some sins are even situations or experiences that offer connection with others. Some are such deep habits we may not even be aware of them as sinful. Breaking out of those habits requires courage and the will to change – and a lot of support and love. It means upending our life. It is uncomfortable, painful and impossible on our own.

An encounter with love doesn’t allow us to remain as we are. Love sees our sin and says, That is not all that is there, nor does that sin have the final word if you say so. Being seen, known and loved where we are is precisely what makes us capable of becoming better. This is what confession offers us, and the reason we both need it and avoid it like the plague. 

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5: 6-11