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Public Confessions of Private Affairs

Tune in to the trend of Internet- and TV-based confessions to find out why it’s happening and whether it’s helpful.
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Confessions = Catharsis? continued...

Simply writing our deepest emotions may make for a healing experience. James Pennebaker, PhD, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, has long studied the healing effects of unloading on paper an emotional upheaval. He's conducted several studies on the topic; the highlights have found their way into academic journals and, more recently, into his book Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval.

The upshot of Pennebaker's work is this: Writing about painful experiences can improve health by enhancing immune response, reducing recovery times, and promoting overall well-being. In a landmark study led by Pennebaker, participants who wrote about personal and painful topics actually experienced an increase in the levels of white blood cells (key to immune function) circulating in their bodies. Conversely, the control group who suppressed their emotions had a significant drop in immune-fighting cells.

The Role of the Audience

Are those on the receiving end of confessions simply modern-day voyeurs, or is there something more to tuning in to public confessions?

Odd as it may sound, some say it feels good to know that other people feel bad. "We watch because we feel vicarious pleasure and power over people whose secrets we know. We can point and say 'that poor sap' without revealing our own guilt and shameful feelings," says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of several self-help books.

Fox concurs. "People have said things to me like, 'I came to your web site and realized my life isn't all that bad," he says.

The reality show The Moment of Truth bears this out. Recently, 10 million viewers tuned in to watch a young man confess, in front of his girlfriend and mother no less, to having had sex with more than 100 people.

It's possible to put a positive spin on our voyeuristic tendencies.

Recently, MTV ran a public health campaign on depression. In it, they relied on the public revelation of rock musician Pete Wenz's battle with depression to raise public awareness of this mental health problem that's often battled in private. Not only did Wenz confess to dealing with depression, but he also urged people suffering from depression to get professional help. As this example illustrates, the media can and have used public confessions in a positive way.

While TV and the Internet serve simply as the tools used in modern-day public confessions, the larger question of why they've become a conduit of choice for confessors remains. "Whether that's because people don't have real communities, or the electronic versions are easier and require less work, is hard to know," Janata says.

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Reviewed on April 09, 2008

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