Confession Syndrome

There’s a tendency that I have when I’ve done something cruel to myself to want to blurt it out at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes when I first meet people I have to tell them about the times when I went a week without eating, or how it feels to bleed on every object you own because you can’t go a day without cutting yourself. It’s like some sort of disease. Last week at a party I blurted out the story of the most recent time I felt suicidal to a friend, describing the moment in gross detail.

Things are not real until they are witnessed, until they have been woven into words and placed in context. There’s something especially painful about living through trauma silently. You begin to doubt whether it was real, whether it was as bad as it seemed, whether it’s actually a part of you. Every tiny thing you do to yourself is somehow validated as acceptable when there is no one to contradict it. Self harm or restriction or purging is a cruel thing to do to yourself, and appropriately they often come with guilt. If you did these things to someone else, you would feel you needed forgiveness. And so when you do them to yourself, there’s a need to confess and have someone forgive you, let you know that you can continue on.

I’ve started to call it confession syndrome. It’s a way to validate yourself and quickly signal to someone else that you trust them. But it’s cheating. There are absolutely circumstances in which you need to share these stories. They need to be heard and incorporated into your identity and forgiven by you and with the support of the people you love. You need reminders that you are still loved even with the darkest moments of yourself in full view.

But the unthinking moments of blurting out disturbing stories are not the same as honest and open communication that creates a validating environment. Instead, it puts other people in a circumstance in which they have to validate you and have to witness something about you that isn’t necessarily appropriate to your relationship. It bypasses the hard work of actually getting to know someone and shorthands to “we’re close” by disclosing personal information. And because you’ve pushed an interaction into a personal context, you’ve pressured your conversation partner into accepting and being close with you as well: validating you.

Confession syndrome is a horrible way to build relationships. One of the most important elements of trust is seeing how someone behaves over time in a variety of circumstances. You get a feel for someone’s character by doing this. It gives both parties time to increase their vulnerability on a fairly even level: one person might share something slightly more personal, then the other will reciprocate. When you drop a bomb like “I cut myself”, you don’t give the other person the option to reciprocate in any reasonable fashion. It’s a kind of emotional hostage situation: be close to me or else.

Having people in your life that will listen to the times you need to rehash the stories is important. Sometimes they weigh on you and you can’t help but need to say them out loud so that they will stop circling your mind over and over again. But learning how to be a whole human even with all the broken bits is not something to do with that person you just met or at that party while slightly tipsy. It’s for the quiet moments with loved ones. It’s for the places you are wholly safe. It’s for the people that don’t have to prove they will love you through the ugliness.

I’m putting away my confession syndrome, as best I can, moving forward. I have safe spaces to share these stories. I have people that I should tell about the things I’ve done to myself, people who want to know me more fully and who have shown they are trustworthy. These are the relationships that need these stories. These are the people who help me create myself with their narratives and their care. These are the people who want my confessions.

 

2 thoughts on “Confession Syndrome

  1. MoreDucks says:

    Hi Olivia! I found your blog by accident and this post really made some things click for me.

    I once had a room-mate who casually shared to our orientation group that she had been sexually assaulted and hated/blamed herself for it. She shared the details as quickly and as casually as somebody recounting a fishing or shopping trip– right at our dinner table on the second day of freshmen orientation. Her sudden and seemingly open admission of such a dark, personal secret quickly turned dinner conversation awkward and we all sort of found excuses to leave the table as quickly as possible.

    I never understood why she did that, as I try my hardest to keep my mouth shut when it comes to personal business. Like my room-mate and yourself, I too struggle with a history of coping with mental illness in one form or another and I punish myself for even thinking of sharing the issue with others. I never gave the over-sharing incident, among others of it’s kind, a real thought beyond labeling it as “weird” and a reminder to myself not to talk about such things. But your post really made me feel guilty for writing my roomie’s over-share off like everybody else at that table. It never occurred to me that it was closer to being involuntary rather than a moment in which she wanted pity from the group.

    I owe her an apology. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

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