Catharsis

Catharsis itself is a debated topic.

As far back in time as we have records of human beings, evidence points to rituals for dealing with disturbing emotions like grief, anger and fear. A primary part of the experience would have been action expressing those feelings — and the goal, to relieve them.

Aristotle defined this process: catharsis. He praised the theater of his time for stirring up emotions because the resulting catharsis gave healing.[1] Freud and his collaborator Breuer theorized that hurtful emotions get repressed and build up in the mind, creating unhealthy pressure, which needs to be purged. Using hypnosis, they got patients to recall tramatic experiences they did not remember, and bring them to conscious awareness.

Since then the idea has been accepted as a fundamental premise of our culture, manifesting in a variety of interpretations. Jacob Moreno developed improvisational Psychodrama to enable participants to act out deep emotions and neutralize their impact. Arthur Janov with his Primal Therapy coached people to relieve early-life traumas with sobbing, writhing, and especially screaming. Werner Erhard, with his est seminars, put people on stage to work for catharsis:

Probing one’s deepest emotional wounds in a grueling marathon of self-exposure and self-inspection before an audience often produced volatile results: at the climax of the controversial seminar participants confronted people with whom they had issues in dramatic, cathartic, on-stage monologues that often included screaming, crying, hysteria and collapsing.[2]

Indian guru and mystic Osho (a.k.a. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) taught his followers a five-stage process he called “Dynamic Meditation” — a full-body technique designed to “increase alertness, and purify the body of toxic, repressed emotions.” Here’s stage 2:

Go crazy, and let every emotion you have out, just like a 3-year-old having a tantrum. Scream, cry, jump or do anything that expresses and releases what you feel inside.[3]

In a 1993 book Facing the Fire: Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately, psychotherapist John Lee wrote:

Punch a pillow or a punching bag. And while you do it, yell and curse and moan and holler . . . . Punch with all the frenzy you can. If you are angry at a particular person, imagine his or her face on the pillow or punching bag, and vent your rage physically and verbally. You will be doing violence to a pillow or punching bag so that you can stop doing violence to yourself by holding in poisonous anger. You are not hitting a person. You are hitting the ghost of that person—a ghost from the past, a ghost alive in you that must be exorcised in a concrete, physical way.[4]

[5][6] This attitude continues in the popular mind today. But research psychologists tell a different story. For example:

In 1956 Seymour Feshbach demonstrated that the Freudian ventilation notion was incorrect. Feshbach gathered a group of little boys who were not aggressive or destructive. He gave them violent toys, had them kick the furniture and “otherwise run amok during a series of free-play hours. This freedom did not ‘drain’ any of the boys’ “instinctive aggression” or “pent-up’ anger;” what it did was lower their restraint against aggression. On later occasions, the boys behaved in much more hostile and destructive ways than they had previously.[7]

In 2001, social psychologist Brad J. Bushman introduced the report of his newest experiment by mentioning numerous examples of similar evaluations:

In 1973, Albert Bandura issued a statement calling for a moratorium on catharsis theory and the use of venting in therapy. Four years later, Geen and Quanty (1977) published their influential review of catharsis theory in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. After reviewing the relevant data, they concluded that venting anger does not reduce aggression. If anything, they concluded, it makes people more aggressive afterward.[8]

Bushman and two colleagues had previously published another experiment that tested not only the catharsis hypothesis but also the effect of media messages about catharsis. Student volunteers were randomly assigned to read one of two fake newspaper articles, either pro-catharsis or anti. The result:

Our findings suggest that media messages advocating catharsis may be worse than useless. They encourage people to vent their anger through aggressive action, and perhaps they even foster the displacement of aggression toward new, innocent third parties. In our research, people who received procatharsis messages first chose to vent their anger by hitting a punching bag, but then they went on to show elevated aggression toward the person at whom they were angry. They even showed increased aggression toward an innocent third person.[9]

The Bushman team concluded their report with this criticism:

Pop writers may think they are offering helpful, sage advice on affect regulation, but the effect of advocating catharsis may be to cause a general increase in aggressive behavior. Perhaps media endorsement of cathartic release should come to be regarded as a potential danger to public health, peace, and social harmony[10].

The studies make clear the danger of practicing anger. It’s no surprise our whole culture has become addicted to anger. Even the studies are preoccupied with anger: I don’t find many that consider other emotions.

In a program called Re-evaluation Counseling[11] I learned techniques of a cooperative practice using catharsis for any distress. For example, in addition to anger,
• Grief
• Fear
• Embarrassment
• Guilt and shame
• Disgust
• Boredom
• Physical fatigue and tension.
For each of these feelings, a specific action helps produce catharsis. But to reach it, co-counselors don’t just indulge in that behavior. They need to have a “balance of attention” between the distress and the safe environment of the session — and within that perspective, allow the natural discharge reaction to arise. The double safety, of a supportive environment and the balance of attention, enables the energy of discharge to produce a useful change in understanding — an insight that “re-evaluates” the original problem.

“Balance of attention” is a skill that requires both training and practice.
For some time I tried to co-counsel with a woman who did not have co-counseling training, but did have other kinds of training in psychotherapy, and wanted a collaborative counseling relationship. I described “balance of attention” and how important it was, but she wanted to focus completely on the distress. She repeatedly worked on one particular distress: she yelled and cried a lot, and felt better for that, but the distress came back. I described the situation to my co-counseling teacher, who reminded me that without true discharge, rehearsing a distress would actually restimlulate it.

Existential psychotherapist Rollo May describes this problem of perspective as “an egregious mistake of much contemporary psychotherapy”:

the illusion that merely experiencing or acting out is all that is necessary for cure. Experiencing is absolutely essential; but if it occurs without the changing of the patient’s concepts, symbols, and myths, the ‘experiencing’ is truncated and has a masturbatory rather than fully procreative character.”[12]

Professor of philosophy Sarah Lucia Hoagland identifies a political aspect of this problem: “to simply relieve tension is not to address the cause of our anger.” Unless we address causes, tension will build again, and again. As a result, she says

The recurrent pattern ultimately leads to emotional numbing since there is no change or growth. (That there is also sexual numbing is suggested by sadists and masochists who can no longer enjoy gentle, affectional sex.) What is purged in this catharsis is one’s sensitivity to oppression, to domination and humiliation, not one’s internalization of it.[13]

In fact rather than being useful as a safety valve, reducing tension this way wastes energy that could have produced action to remedy the underlying social causes.

I discussed the problem of perspective with a therapist friend, who commented there are more ways to achieve perspective besides co-counseling–type “balance of attention.”[14] For example meditation, especially right after venting. That makes sense to me — and makes me wish those social psychologists had tried having their subjects meditate after using the punching bag.

What other practices can encourage perspective? Kinksters work carefully to ensure safety in the S/M scene; does this safety create the necessary perspective? Practitioners of sacred kink talk wholeheartedly about the healing they have experienced from it. That certainly sounds like more than just venting; sounds like the change that Rollo May wanted to see.


[1] Sorabji, “Catharsis and the Classification of Therapies;”in Emotion and Peace of Mind 1997
[2] Hughes, 2015.
[3] Luna, Dynamic Meditation.
[4] Lee. 1993, 96.
[5] Lee’s advice was summarized on a webpage of the Mental Health America of Northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio.
[6] A more complete quote occurs in Bushman, “Venting Feed?” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(6):725-726.
[7] “Cathartic Psychotherapies”. This description is from independent philosopher Morten Tolboll, on his personal website. The original publication of Feshbach’s research was Feshbach, “Catharsis Hypothesis and Aggressive Play”, Journal of Personality, 24(4).
Full text is not available without Wiley suscription but an abstract is at The catharsis hypothesis and some consequences of interaction with aggressive and neutral play objects.
[8] Bushman, 2002, 725.
[9] Bushman et al. 1999, 375.
[10] ibid.
[11] Re-evauation Counseling.(Participants usually shortened the name to “RC.”) This organization later split in two; the new group, taking a stand on egalitarian relationship as fundamental, became Co-Counseling International. For a description of my experience with the politics of the split, see Picking It Up By Myself / Peer Counseling.
[12] May, “Daimonic”,
in Myths, Dreams and Religion, ed. Joseph Campbell, (New York: Dutton, 1970), 207
.
[13] Hoagland, 160.
[14] For a good analysis of the problem of perspective see Powell, “Catharsis in Psychoogy and Beyond: A Historic Overview.”

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