I have a confession to make. A few weeks ago, I was co-leading a workshop. During the morning set-up, I laid out some baked goods while my colleague made coffee and hooked up the laptop and projector. I put on the kettle for tea, and then began welcoming the participants, and eventually joined my colleague as we started the presentation.
I forgot the kettle.
An industrial-sized kettle in the rented hall. It boiled dry. Then it started melting. The smell of smoke alerted me as I returned to the kitchen closer to break time.
I felt awful! I was shocked at how close I had come to starting a fire. I was furious at myself for being so careless. And I felt very ashamed.
My first impulse was to hide it, to not let people know, to cover my tracks. But the damage to the kettle and the stove element couldn’t be hidden. Nor could the smell and smoke.
And so, I confessed, first to my co-worker, and then to the building staff. Their calm acceptance of the situation and practical clean-up helped me calm down. The cheerful reassurances that the kettle could be replaced and the element cleaned up were also helpful.
But when I had to go back to the workshop and resume leading, I found I was still feeling rattled and preoccupied and ashamed. So I confessed again, to the whole group.
And as I looked around the room at the faces of the participants, I saw only kindly acceptance; sympathetic looks that let me know they’ve made similar mistakes. There was none of the disgust or judgement that I feared in my moment of shame.
And I was able to experience once again the power of confession. I experienced how reaching out and sharing my mistake allowed my shame to dissipate as I received the understanding and compassion that they were quick to share. As shame researcher Brené Brown has found, empathy is the antidote to shame.
As a result of the gracious response from the group, I was able to set aside my mistake and get on with the workshop, no longer feeling rattled and distracted.
I was reminded of how when we feel ashamed, a common impulse is to hide away, and that it often takes a deliberate effort to turn toward another person rather than withdraw. It also takes a kind and responsive companion to extend the grace and empathy that we are longing for in a moment of shame.
If we turn to another and confess, but are met with criticism or negativity, we soon learn that it is not safe to share our mistakes or our true selves, at least in that relationship.
Some of us grew up in homes where we didn’t receive grace and acceptance when we messed up. Such a background makes it even harder to confess, since we have good reasons to think that we will be met with anger, judgement or rejection when we do.
But when we are in a supportive relationship and we risk turning toward the other person with vulnerability, making a confession can become an opportunity for healing. When we receive that empathetic response of “me too” instead of the rejection we feared, it becomes what therapists call a “corrective emotional experience.” To receive acceptance when your past experience or personal vulnerability make you think you deserve judgement or condemnation instead is a powerful, transformative experience.
The effects of such a corrective experience go far beyond the current mistake. It begins to heal that vulnerable, shame-filled space deep inside, allowing for trust and acceptance to begin to grow.
The more often we experience such compassionate acceptance, the safer we feel to confess, and the more we confess, the more we are able to accept and expect a kind response and the less we feel the need to hide. And in our close relationships, this deepens intimacy and strengthens our connections.
All through the amazing power of confession met with empathy.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network