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Confession is good for the soul in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff—it is a palliative rather than a remedy.” — Peter De Vries

Let’s face it, we all have secrets, and many of us make confessions. Years ago I taught a writing workshop on confessional writing, and people revealed things they never thought they could. Writing down your confessions can be a healing form of writing used to unearth deep hidden feelings, which can lead to improved emotional health. It can also be a way to know yourself better and bring about a peaceful state of mind.

Depending on the secrets involved, some might argue that there are risks and drawbacks inherent in revealing them. In their study on revealing personal secrets, Kelly, Klusas, Weiss & Kenny (2001) said that sharing them can have trade-offs. For example, you might feel better revealing secrets and gaining new insights from those you share them with. On the other hand, your secrets could place you in a bad light. Therefore, telling your secrets hinges on finding the right venue for divulging them—whether that means relaying them to a trusted confidant or writing them down on the pages of your journal. One thing is certain, though: the best person to reveal secrets to is someone who is nonjudgmental.

Confessions are often associated with admitting you did something wrong. It doesn’t always have to be something criminal, but it can be. Similar to secrets, confessions are usually unknown to others, although you can share secrets with others; and they can be connected to fantasies, passions, or dreams. They might be your obsessions or thoughts that circulate through your mind during your quieter moments.

Often, confessions touch on the darker or more repressed parts of life. St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions is among the first published works of its kind, written in the fourth and fifth centuries. This work consists of 13 volumes, in which the author reveals his conversion to Christianity stemming from sins (such as theft and lust) that he was guilty of as a child. It might have been one of the first spiritual autobiographies, and was written when St. Augustine was in his 40s.

Some people like the idea of confessional writing but might not know what to write. If this is true in your case, consider asking yourself, “What am I carrying?”

Here are some confessions my students have shared or written about in the past:

  • I forged a legal letter.
  • I am bisexual.
  • I was sexually abused as a child.
  • I cannot stop thinking about sex.
  • I want to kill my mother.
  • I fantasize about running away with my professor.
  • I only hire sexy personal assistants.
  • I never answer the phone when it rings.
  • I secretly love my job, but just to fit in, I tell everyone I hate it.
  • I am 50 and have no idea what I want to do when I grow up.

Some people feel better sharing their confessions verbally to a friend or therapist. You might also consider recording or writing down your secrets and confessions. If you do so, then consider writing the word BREATHE across the top of a piece of paper. Then take some deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Confessional writing isn’t always healing, but it’s a way of expressing your sentiments via the written word. In general, writing can help make sense of certain events and circumstances in your life. When it comes to confessional writing, it can provide a respite from hiding behind a veil of secrets.

For the most part, confessional writing can take many forms—journal writing, letters, essays, books, or poems. Many people regard memoir as the main type of confessional writing, but, in actuality, any form of written expression that uses “I” and that shares a secret or revelation can be considered to be so.

Here are some writing prompts to help you get started with confessional writing:

  • Write about what is often on your mind or obsesses you—is it sex, books, clothes, cars, or nature? Write about the history of this obsession and where you think it originated. Is it connected to an event or a particular individual?
  • Begin with the statement “Before I leave, I want to tell you . . .” Sometimes it’s helpful to direct your writing toward one specific person.
  • Think of someone you’d like to give thanks to—perhaps a relative, friend, mentor, or loved one. Write a letter to this person expressing your gratitude, how you feel, and how important he or she is (or was) in your life.
  • Think of someone who makes you angry. Write a letter to this person expressing how you feel. It doesn’t matter if you decide to send the letter or not; the important thing is that you’re writing down your feelings.
  • Write a poem starting with “I’m sorry.”
  • Think back to your childhood, and remember a room in your home. Write one paragraph where you describe the room as if you were a child sitting in that space. Write a second paragraph from your current viewpoint.
  • Think about something you did in the past that you perceive as a mistake. Write down how you’d deal with the situation differently today.

References

Kelly, A. E., J. A. Klusas, R. T. von Weiss & C. Kenny (2001). “What is it about Revealing Secrets that is Beneficial?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 27(6) pp. 651–665.

St. Augustine (1961). St. Augustine of Hippos Confessions. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

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