So, we finally got to hear from Lance Armstrong’s own lips that he was a systematic cheat who doped his way to victory. It can’t come as a surprise to anyone so what did he hope to get from this interview? Redemption? Forgiveness? A return to his lucrative sponsorship deals or to regain his position as a very real beacon of hope in the eyes of those he inspired?
Commentators often link the rise of therapy through the twentieth century with the corresponding decline of religion; Oprah as America’s mother confessor is the global village priest, hearing a celebrity’s sins and offering public redemption, lesser mortals make do with weekly therapy sessions to offload and receive absolution. But I think the comparison is a lazy one and raises questions about the nature of confession. Do we confess so that we can start over? The caricature of Catholicism is that any transgression is ok as long as confessed to, punishment handed out, absolution given and off you go, free to do it again. Nothing changes, and therefore nothing is gained (the afterlife notwithstanding). Perhaps public humiliation and condemnation are the price to pay before reacceptance into society, in which case being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey becomes the modern day equivalent of sitting in the stocks. But in therapy we don’t seek to punish, humiliate or expose. I guess the real difference is that, (specific conditions aside) as therapists we are most interested in the harm that an individual does to themselves, and this can be the hardest confession to make. When we tell ourselves lies it is because we have to, in order to make sense of the world. Winnicott describes the false self developed by the baby as a defence against the terrifying business of learning to exist. If not appropriately supported in making sense of this scary new world, the baby has to pretend in order to carry on growing and developing, rather than succumbing to his personal terror about the unknown nature of life. A false self becomes the outer persona, whilst the fears and worries churn away inside. We tell ourselves stories to explain away the pain and paint a happier picture than the reality. Facing these lies and confessing to ourselves is the true unburdening, and the realisation that we can be/feel/behave differently is the true absolution, and we grant it to our ourselves in therapy.