Every few weeks I see the same tweet. The last one was a typical example: “Don’t go to therapy, go to Confession. It’ll actually make you so much happier.”
Now, a charitable person might interpret this to mean that much of our unhappiness is a result of human sin, that therapy without repentance will only result in more misery. And they’d be right. Unfortunately, I am not a charitable person. I should probably go to Confession about that.
Because what this tweet suggests is not just confusion about the differing roles of therapist and priest, but confusion about the concepts of mental health and sin, a confusion I fear is too common in the Church today.
I’d like to clear that up. But before I do, you should know that I am neither a therapist nor a priest. I am, however, a stand-up comedian, which means I am both mentally ill and sinful enough to have had ample experience with therapists and priests alike. What I have found is that, with the approach I outline below, both practices can be mutually reinforcing.
The best way to think about therapy is that it trains the virtue of prudence. Josef Pieper defines prudence as the ability to perceive reality objectivity and act in accordance with that reality. It is synonymous with mental health. Mental illness, on the other hand, is the inability to perceive reality and act appropriately. Many factors – past trauma, cognitive distortions, bad habits, faulty reasoning, genetics, substance abuse, etc – can inhibit one’s ability to understand the world and make one’s way in it.
Treating this will make you happier. But first, you need to find a good therapist. Therapy will not work unless your therapist is exceptionally prudent, unless they can see the world correctly and help you navigate that world.
Finding one can be difficult. One time I was trying to save money so I went to a psychiatry school where they can practise on you. (This does not work with Confession.) My therapist-in-training was younger than me and asked me about my mother. So I told her. Then she started talking about her mother for 30 minutes and that was the end of the session. I left confused. Do I get college credit for that? Am I a therapist now?
So what do you look for? For Catholics, the most important thing to look for in a therapist is that they do not think religious beliefs are merely epiphenomenon of psychological issues. This is a rare quality among therapists who are not themselves religious, but it makes a world of difference. Not that the two aren’t related. It may be true that you believe in a loving God because your father wasn’t. But it could just as easily be said that fathers should be loving because God is. Likewise, my devotion to Mary may be the result of childhood trauma, but if what I claim about reality is true, then I am exactly the type of person Mary would have reason to comfort.
My therapist understands that. I have other people I can talk to, but it’s not the same. In fact I have come to believe that a therapist is someone you pay $100 an hour to talk to you without looking at their phone.
So how does therapy work? Prudence is impossible without a good memory. By telling your therapist important stories and having them probe into parts they believe are distorted, you learn to remember more truthfully. Traumatic events have a way of closing off one’s access to reality out of a need for self-preservation. By providing a safe place to talk about uncomfortable events and feelings, you learn to be more open-minded towards how things are and how they will be. Anxiety about the future does not go away, but it no longer prevents you from making decisions.
This won’t just make you a better person. It will make you a better Catholic. Becoming more prudent will assist in the exercise of other virtues and keep you from sin. A priest can absolve your sins, but he cannot fix the cognitive distortions that give rise to the occasions of sin.
There are other differences, too. Confession is short because your sins are boring. Therapy is long because your sins are interesting. In Confession, the priest is acting “in persona Christi”. In therapy, the therapist is acting “in persona your mum/dad/highschool bully”. Therapy costs $100. Confession costs around 10 Hail Marys, which comes out to around $10 per Mary.
I have found Confession to be therapeutic in one respect. Our culture has no shortage of people who want you to feel good about sin and feel bad for things that aren’t your fault. But by confessing your sins objectively, you not only learn to feel guilty for sins, you also learn not to feel guilty for things that aren’t sins.
I hope that you have found this helpful. I hope that if you find yourself unable to see the world clearly and act virtuously in it, you’ll seek out therapy. When you fail, I hope you will seek out Confession. But most importantly, I hope you’ll tell the Herald that I should keep writing things like this so I can afford more therapy.