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This is my third post on Dr. Curt Thompson’s book, The Soul of Desire. Today I want to introduce his practice of confessional communities. It is a form of group therapy. In reading about this method of interpersonal neurobiological psychotherapy that Dr. Thompson practices, I thought about how our friendships need to be more like this and our discipleship in church. As Dr. Thompson says, “It is in communities like these that we encounter the possibility of being deeply known and where we ‘practice for heaven.’” These small group meetings of between 6-8 people create a space where people are seen, soothed, safe, and secure while they express their grief, trauma, and desires. It’s facilitated and led by the therapists, but the patients play a collaborative part in creating beauty together out of pain and unrequited desires. Both the being seen in a secure setting and the creative collaboration is healing, as this is what we all long for. In this way, the patients get to tell their story and be a part of one another’s’ healing. Dr. Thompson notes,

We need others to bear witness to our deepest longings, our greatest joys, our most painful shame, and all the rest in order to have any sense at all of ourselves.

When one truly feels known, and secure in that knowing, then they are able to take the risk of imagining and creating beauty again. And that’s what happens in these sessions. Because it isn’t just the being heard that heals, but the ability to help others. We aren’t mere projects to be fixed. Hurting people are still people. In his book, we get to read about what this looks like with examples Dr. Thompson gives from his own practice. This is something one-on-one therapy cannot do. While reading, I was thinking about how inline this is with the key principles of trauma-informed care. They have to be practiced in a group setting, so that not only is there peer support, but a format to equip one another to care for each other—giving back what was taken, which is often voice and agency, and combatting the harmful dynamic of merely forming another hierarchal structure over them. Dr. Thompson discusses the value of the other people in the room helping one another, over the individual psychotherapy:

Many of our relationships—not just psychotherapeutic ones—have common blind spots, power gradients, and limit to how helpful one voice (as compared to many) can be in helping us overcome shame. The confessional community gives us a place to engage in real time and space those phenomena in order to achieve greater states of integration, and therefore be more perfect, more whole, even as our Father in heaven is perfectly whole.

And this is also why Dr. Thompson makes these groups coed:

If we are going to create in vulnerable, differentiated community as reflected in the biblical narrative, men and women must be in the room together.

I know the backlash, boy do I ever! Men and women should not be in such an intimate setting because the sex part always gets in the way! But Dr. Thompson insists on the advantage of a secure well-boundaried format to do the hard work of understanding our sexual difference as a “place of dignity, not one of exploitation.” Here were some parts I underlined:

Our sexuality is the physical representation of our most vulnerable and most powerfully creative selves, and we take it with us wherever we go.

Sex is everywhere.

Our problem is that far too often we assume that the arousal that sex generates is mostly or only about sex, when in fact it is most often about our deep desire to be seen, soothed, safe, and secure. The boundaries we often set between sexes—as necessary as they are—can also be easy ways for us to avoid naming our more vulnerable desires as well as the shame that is often associated with them.

There’s so much more to this than I can record in a short blogpost. He recognizes there are necessary and helpful circumstances for us to separate by sex. Don’t miss the point though. More perspectives are learned this way. People can work through how their trauma and shame may have been attached to relational struggles with both sexes. And this creating and integrating helps rewire the neuropathways in our brains. We can in a sense take our group with us wherever we go, imagining how we want to create beauty in different relationships and situations.

Being joyfully known enables our imagination to expand because it has for so long been truncated by the interpersonal and neurobiological features of shame, fear, and disintegrating behavior—our sin.

And we need our imaginations to enter into beauty. We imagine together to be partakers in it. I think this is what is so powerful about the best small groups in church. I’ve experienced a lot of growth in the smaller, intimate groups where you know you can be real, pray together, be cared for, and stay in the room with each other when someone shares deep pain, disappointment, or failure, pointing one another to Christ, sensing his presence with us. How God must delight in that! And it’s why I love getting together with small groups of friends as well. Practicing for heaven. Curt Thompson’s book would be a great book for a small group to study and discuss together.

*I am quoting from an advanced reader copy in which changes may still be made before the final version. Taken from The Soul of Desire , Copyright (c) 2021 by Curt Thompson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.