The Myth of Catharsis
The term catharsis comes from the Ancient Greek word katharsis, which means purification/cleansing through the purging of emotions or the relieving of emotional tensions. The grandfather of psychology, Sigmund Freud revived the concept of catharsis. He believed that one needs to express bottled up negative emotions to avoid adverse psychological issues such as hysteria – Freud was big on diagnosing female patients in particular with “hysteria” (insert sigh here). More current research concludes that while one benefits by the processing of adverse emotions rather than numbing/denying/suppressing, the venting of anger often increases anger and aggression rather than decreasing (or “purging”) of it.
Catharsis provides symptom management, not long-term change.
Think of catharsis as being similar to the perk you might feel momentarily from eating the pint of ice cream, buying a new pair of shoes, or drinking a bottle of wine….Those too provide temporarily relief, but not long-term change. Catharsis is not congruent with what is happening – one really needs to feel a deeper *felt* sense of relief in the body.
There is a common misconception that one always feels better after “a good cry”. Sometimes we truly do…but if there is an automatic emotional tendency to cry profusely with trauma (re)activation, a different approach is needed. While it can be desirable to strive to return to stabilization when reactivation occurs, focusing on the sensory processing of the arousal can offer the increased benefit of long-term change.
What this looks like in actuality, is a client and therapist working collaboratively to assess what is contributing to the emotional arousal. It could be a physiological activation, a lack of mobilizing defenses, a trauma-based, habitual response, or an accurate representation of emotional meaning for the client.
Trauma-based emotions (dubbed “vehement emotions” by Pierre Janet) include the powerful feelings of terror, anger, fear, shame, horror and helplessness that arise when someone cannot respond adaptively to an inescapable threatening situation (Van der Hart et al., 2006). Such trauma-driven emotions manifest as reactive and repetitive, which is to say they do not change in expression or intensity when exhibited as time goes on. This repetitiveness is akin to being on the proverbial hamster wheel – one may be spinning fast, but getting nowhere.
To increase effectiveness for change, it is prudent to work with a therapist. Having a trained professional as support can assist in embracing newness (different is not “bad”), explore body sensations and somatic reorganization, and challenge automatic and distorted cognitions which will contribute to the emergent of an authentic connection with Self.