The Culture of Confession, one of Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform, flows naturally from his Demand for Purity. Following the rules of a group that demands only “the best” behavior can lead organically to confession – one must “wipe the slate clean” to start the new life required by a high-pressure group or relationship.

It feels good to put things out in the open. Seeking absolution through confession of past misdeeds is a powerful act, and simply saying “I’m sorry” for when one has done wrong can be a healing experience. But when does confession become an instrument of coercion?

As with all of Robert Lifton’s criteria, it is a matter of degree. First, we must take a critical look at how the confession is given. Is it a heartfelt apology made by someone intent on unburdening themselves to a sympathetic ear, or has it been demanded by a process involving mental and emotional blackmail? Are the misdeeds confessed in secret, or announced in front of a condemning group, as part of a “hot seat” exercise? Most importantly: will your past misdeeds remain secret, or will they be used against you later?

An abusive romantic partner will pretend to be supportive, even sympathetic, as you bring up old sins and rehash former mistakes. But these peccadilloes can be dredged up later in the relationship, exaggerated into major crimes, and used to show how you have “never” been worth the trouble. Similarly, coercion through confession can be used in unethical drug rehabilitation programs, where past mistakes become a tool to beat down participants, stripping them of their dignity.

The secret behind the culture of confession is the implicit authority granted to those hearing the confession. When telling another person about our mistakes, we often put that person “above” us, especially if that person pulls out their “toolkit” to “fix” us.

Those who hear people’s secrets for a living – such as therapists and doctors – have strict rules forbidding them from sharing those secrets, and they have gone through years of training before they are granted the authority to listen. It is always wise to check the certification of anyone before unburdening yourself. And remember that the person listening is every bit as human as you.

Confession, as the saying goes, might be good for the soul, but a critical thinker will think twice before telling all.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about confession that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!