Have you ever been an audience to someone who tells you something that has been causing them great distress - perhaps something they’re ashamed of - and seen the relief they experience in getting that information off their chest? This impulse to confession was exhaustively explored by Robert Jay Lifton in his study of Chinese totalism in the 1950s. Lifton coined the phrase “cults of confession” to describe how terribly twisted our instincts to unburden ourselves and understand ourselves can become in the hands of the wrong audiences to those confessions.
As discussed in the last post, vulnerability is a double-edged sword. Whether our vulnerability leads us to meaning and healing or to damage and despair depends to a large extent on where and how we choose to land our secrets. Those who conclude that sharing secrets with no one is the best option ultimately find themselves in self-referential gordian knots, trying to make meaning without the benefit of the creative, perspective-giving power that comes from being listened to with respectful attention. Those who leak their secrets to everyone they meet eventually discover the untrustworthiness of many of their audiences, and harm that ranges from vicious gossip to irreparably damaged lives.
Organizations intent on using personal information to their benefit either don’t want people to think about what they’re sharing (the NSA reading our e-mails, Google/Amazon/Facebook algorithmically targeting us to turn higher profits), or, in the cases that Lifton studied, want to deceive us into thinking they’re a trustworthy source because their ideology will unburden you of the pressure a person with a powerful secret experiences in containing it.
All of this puts a premium on an individual’s capacity to discern who is trustworthy and who isn’t: one of the hardest psychological skills for a person to develop. Why is it so hard? Because our striving for meaning, our desire for healing, and our nature as a social species are all so incredibly strong. They all prompt us to confess at times, and the result is usually mixed: sometimes it leads to lifelong friendships, sometimes it ends what you thought were lifelong friendships.
The wedge used by high influence organizations to get people to confess are the promises they offer: promises of purging, purity, and healing. Because the initial experience of unburdening one’s self of a pressurized secret can feel so physically and emotionally good, people can quickly conclude they’ve landed in a safe harbor where those promises are being kept. What they haven’t understood is that revealing private information always carries with it a component of risk, and that risk often appears much later down the road. As discerning a person as you may think you are, determining that risk with 100% certainty simply isn’t possible.
The “urge to purge” is particularly risky, whether done publicly or in seemingly contained environments. When those environments don’t turn out to be safe, a psychological cycle is initiated that begins with confusion: why has the invitation to disclose resulted in an untrustworthy reaction to the private information? Confusion gives way to suspicion. That suspicion usually grows to an generalized mistrust about who to trust when, and builds up extraordinary internal pressure to not tell anyone anything. Totalist organizations know, however, that this pressure competes with the isolation a person is also feeling from the expectation of relief and belonging they thought confession would bring, and that they can appeal to their promises of community to encourage more confession. They apply more pressure in a variety of ways, as Lifton notes:
“There is a demand to confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed.”
By then, the train has left the station. Small, incremental and seemingly innocuous invasions of privacy are expanded, used as leverage points to increase the influence and control of the organization, and to encourage the passivity of the confessor. These invasions are based on the highly immoral position that no individual needs to retain his own ideas or emotions: a sentiment Lifton referred to as a desire on the part of an organization to have “private ownership of the mind.”
What, then, are we to do to honor our inner experience - including the secrets we hold - in ways that don’t lead to us compromising our sovereignty? How do we find that magical and powerful zone of experience where confession actually does unburden us, allow us to heal, and move forward beyond any shame or guilt that might be associated with the confession?
This age-old question has captivated us for centuries without providing a uniform prescription for how to proceed - and it truly is an individual matter. We need to learn from our experience who to trust and when; what is appropriate to share and what is not. This arena of life is complicated when technology gets involved, because we can mistake inviting language on social networking sites as a surrogate for respectful listening so easily. We do the same thing in person, however, so it’s not just the technology.
What matters is how fined tuned our ability to know when we’re in a place where healing is truly valued, or where meaning can be genuinely and respectfully sought. Our social nature will always push us to find such places, but if we’re to avoid “cults of confession” we’d be well-advised to pay close attention to who has the privilege of knowing about our innermost secrets.