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In recent years, I found confession with a priest to be similar to openly sharing about your traumas or your faults with a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I thought it was about being vulnerable and being as transparent and honest as possible from your own perspective. But recently as I was reading Feeling Good Together by David D. Burns, I came across another idea of confession that I hadn’t thought of before. That is, admitting to something that we might not even fully agree to or believe, especially when it comes to others accusing us of doing some wrong.
The idea is this: Everyone has their own perspective, and every perspective is valid. When it comes to conflict, that is no different. People may accuse you of all sorts of things. Rather than fighting against what we are accused of, what if we accept it and try to find some truth in it? It’d be similar to when people in customer service put their customers first. Or, when a parent is trying to console their child.
I’ll give an example based on what I was learning in reading this book. If someone were to yell at you and accuse you of being a jerk or selfish, you could use what’s called the disarming technique. That is, you admit that what you’ve done or said may have come across as selfish or not that considerate at all. And then, you offer a resolution, such as asking them to share more about what bothered them or saying that you want to do better. Now of course, this only works if you want to maintain a good relationship with the person, and it requires a lot of pushing past your ego and pride. But, it’s in line with confession. Confession is sometimes admitting that you contributed to the problem and want to use your efforts to resolve it, even if your role was minor or seemingly had nothing to do with it. That’s what therapy often times does too. A lot of therapists will try to work with the person to help them have better interpersonal skills or better boundaries vs. trying to get the other people to improve themselves, especially when they don’t want to or don’t see the need to.
What happens when you agree with someone who is accusing you of something is that the accuser then feels that you are listening to them and is more likely to calm down and find you to be the opposite of what they’ve said. In the example of being called a jerk, when you admit that your behaviors do seem jerkish and that you would like to do better, they perceive you as less of a jerk. They feel as if you are listening and start to speak more respectfully to you. But if you were to say something like, “No, I’m not being a jerk”, you’ll seem more like one because you are defending yourself. That’s the paradox. If you have to defend yourself, then something about that statement has to be true.
Now it’s easy to think, “No way, there are moments when I’m accused of doing something I never did.” Even in those moments, you can find some truth in what the other person is saying. When someone is accused of cheating for example, often times that person, even if they’re not cheating, is doing something else such as ignoring their partner, belittling their partner, sweeping things under the rug, etc. that makes their partner feel insecure or small. The partner can feel it, and so they formulate stories in their mind of what could be wrong. The person could pause for a moment from defending themselves and say, “You’re right, I’ve been neglecting to pay attention to you and I’ve been keeping myself busy with work. I’m sorry that you’ve been feeling this way. I’d like to repair our relationship and make you feel supported and loved. How can I do that?” Then they’re steps closer to resolving relationship conflict vs. further exasperating the issue. And the truth is, what the accusation was in the first place didn’t really matter. It was more about being heard. And once you help the other person to feel heard, they’re more likely to respect you or even take back some of the harsh things they’ve said.
When you confess, you’re pushing aside your need to be right and focusing inwards. You’re asking yourself what you can do to make the situation better. You cultivate and tend to existing relationships, and try to understand the other person. You care. You display maturity and you grow. It’s easy to cut people off and to try to prove that you’re right. It takes patience and practice to lower your defenses and to admit that you played a role in the conflict, especially if you are the first one to “give in” so to speak. But it’s less about giving in, and more about accepting and living with more ease, less tension.
It’s so easy to “know”; it takes practice to admit, maybe we don’t know. Maybe it’s better to ask more questions. Or maybe this person is trying to communicate an important message to us, and we just have to dig a little deeper to hear it. Most people don’t really know what good communication is like. A lot of people come from dysfunctional families or were brought up in dysfunctional communities. We can’t expect everyone to know how to communicate “properly”, that’s unrealistic. It’s better to meet people where they are at, and learn how to be more effective communicators ourselves. We have to decide, are we going to hurt others they same way we perceived them to hurt us? Or are we going to find ways to uplift others, by making them feel heard/respected? To not take things personally, but to recognize that we all make mistakes or do things unintentionally, and it’s more important to practice kindness?
If you do confession properly, you feel more ease and lightness at the end. You no longer carry the heaviness of negative comments such as when a person calls you ugly or a client leaves a bad review or a parent won’t stop asking you when you’re gonna get married already. You leave with, “You might actually be right about that. I do look unconventional, and I’m glad that my friends/family accept me for who I am.” Or, “You’re right, my service isn’t perfect, but it’s reviews like these that help me to improve it. Thank you for the feedback. I’ll consider what you’ve shared with me.” Or, “I am getting older, and I can see that you’re concerned about my overall wellbeing. I’m okay with being single though and am doing well, though I appreciate your concern. Thank you for caring about me.” It takes practice, and there’s many different ways you can respond when you get negative feedback or criticism, but the idea is all the same. What can you find right about what the person is sharing with you? How can you help them feel heard and respected?
I’ve been practicing this idea with my driving. It had been a few years since I’ve driven, so I was completely out of practice. At first, I used to get frustrated when my father suggested that I drive daily, especially when I would stop for a few days because of being busy with other things. But eventually, I saw some truth in what he was saying. If I were to practice driving daily, even if I had other things going on, I’d get more comfortable with it sooner and I’d be able to go places myself. Now, I’ve been practicing driving almost daily for the past 2 weeks or so, and I’m comfortable driving to places and through streets that I thought I couldn’t before. But not only that, when he makes a comment about a turn I made too fast or going too slow uphill, I try to consider it and improve upon it next time rather than defend my poor driving skills or lack of.
This could easily apply to school or work as well. When your teacher gives you a low grade or your boss criticizes you during your performance review, you could take that as feedback to improve upon. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person or that you’re supposed to be flawless. It just means you’re human. But being human is not an excuse for continuing to do things the same way. It means that you have the power to change things if given the opportunity. You can still maintain self-respect while considering what the other person is saying.
I think the biggest benefit to confessing in this way is that you change any negative feeling such as resentment, anger, frustration, sadness, bitterness, etc. into something more pleasant. You transmute the heaviness into something light. It’s not about a quick fix, but a different approach and a willingness to take full responsibility for anything life throws at you. Of course, this is not to say that you should be a doormat for anyone; some people are so selfish and entitled that you might not find this approach valuable in those cases. However, for relationships you highly value and care about (or even just anything that bothers you about life in general), this “confession” approach to life is one that you may consider.