Why catharsis is a (dangerous) lie cover image

Why catharsis is a (dangerous) lie

Dorian Minors • February 24, 2019

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Catharsis is a term that originated in Greece. In Greek, the word meant something like 'to purge'. In his book, Poetics, Aristotle writes the phrase 'cathartic tragedy'. It's thought here, that he was considering the way a tragic play could replace the emotions in your mind with those on the stage. A kind of purification. You see, the word was a medical term back then and still is today. A way to avoid talking about the kinds of discharge that made people feel uncomfortable. like menstruation and vomit and faeces.

But Aristotle's usage is the first recorded example of it being used as an emotional metaphor. It's a shame. Because if Aristotle hadn't tried to be so damn poetic, the dangerous idea it has become may never have slipped out into the aether.

The catharsis lie

Catharsis these days refers to things that make us feel better. Like popping bubble wrap. Or seeing the driver who cut you off stuck at the next intersection. Or anything Denis Leary does in this song.

But, unfortunately for the term, it got caught up by those nutty 19th Century psychodynamic scholars, most notably Sigmund Freud. They came up with the 'hydraulic model' of emotion. You see, Freud postulated that our emotions would build up inside us, to a point, and then explode like fluid under pressure. When it did, like fluid, our emotions would spill out uncontrolled.

The idea was incredibly influential and an extraordinary number of therapies were designed to accommodate this fragile inner emotional tank. Marcus' 'woosah's in Bad Boys are played as a joke, but it really isn't far off the mark when it comes to emotional redirection therapy. In fact, the model was so influential, it spilled into popular culture. Much like the time The Simpsons had Ned Flanders lose his mind under the emotionial pressure, all of a sudden, news outlets and worried citizens felt like people's violent outbursts had a simple explanation. Even an expected one. When people are under too much stress, they explode. Seems intuitive, no? Consider the origin of the phrase 'going postal', a phenomenon in which a slew of postal workers gunned down colleagues over the course of the 90's and 2000's. Seemingly random violence, now explainable: they simply kept their emotions bottled up too long. Or the alarming trend of school shootings? More than one person has ascribed these acts to students simply letting their emotions build up. Now you can even go to your local anger room and break some stuff to let out all that pent-up frustration. Simple.

The unfortunate truth

The problem is, the hydraulic model and the therapeutic properties of hydraulically inclined therapies are often bullshit. Letting your emotion out to 'ease the pressure' isn't helping anyone relax. In fact, it often just makes you feel the emotion more strongly. Particularly anger. This is one of the reasons why victims of physical domestic abuse are at such risk of being murdered. If catharsis was effective, an abuser might stop at a punch. Instead, they continue beating until their partner, or child, or anyone, really, is dead.

Similarly, it's a partial culprit in the rise of 'outrage culture'. Venting online about something offensive feeds your sense of offence and, unchecked, builds itself into far more serious acts like doxing and death threats. Particularly in a forum where there are few flags to engage your self-control.

Image Let's face it. As intuitive as the benefits of 'venting' might seem, when has letting your anger out ended well?

Yep. Funnily enough, it turns out that we don't have an emotional tank that just fills up until it bursts. Emotion works a very different way, and this often varies from emotion to emotion (/articles/difference-between-anger-hurt-hate). Emotions are motivators: they are designed to prompt us to act in response to the environment. Anger, for example, is a response to injustice, and a sense of violation. It prompts us to exert our power over the injustice. It also prepares us for the confrontation. Our body produces stress hormones like adrenaline and our heart rate increases. If you 'vent', you encourage that process. And it, in turn, encourages you.

Similarly, 'sadness' and other depressive symptoms appear to motivate us to reclaim some kind of loss. When we are sad, we retreat from the world. We reflect. It gives us time to make sense of our loss and return stronger. Yet, too much reflection becomes rumination and actually interferes with our problem-solving.

The answer is not 'venting', nor is it suppression

The fact of the matter is that believing in a process like catharsis makes one more likely to seek it. We expect that by indulging in our feelings, they will go away, so we indulge. We placate the pain of school shootings with 'cathartic' memorials, and cry into our pillows to release the grief. But the pain doesn't go away. Venting won't fix it.

Neither will suppressing the emotions however. Emotions help to motivate us. They are a symptom of a motivation. That same motivation will continue to trouble us until it is resolved. This is perhaps most poignant in the rage of women. Our society relagates the fury of women to hystericism, though women have ample reason to be angry. These societal pressures encourage women to suppress their anger, or risk dismissal. And so instead women might cry, they might avoid the confrontation that would address the issue or try to raise it in some other manner. But these mild releases are often insufficient, and the repression takes a physical toll on the body.

Consider also the shame, guilt, and anger that are typical of the sexual abuse survivor. Shame for the violation of their dignity in circumstances that often provoke misplaced judgement in public forums. Guilt, because survivors will often feel responsible. Responsible both because of the threads of victim-blaming that run through the fabric of our communities, but also because it's so easy to forget how powerless and naive one is as a child. Or to forget how deeply fear paralyzes. Anger because of the tremendous injustice the abusor visited upon them by taking away their life as they knew it, their memories, their plans. And then the survivors keep this secret, and these emotions become a poison that spreads into every aspect of their lives. With predictably tragic results. High rates of suicide, of mental health issues, of troubled self-esteem that can contribute to revictimisation.

Many of our day to day problems are nuanced, the emotions they engender varied, and recovery is often complex. The solution could never be as simple as to vent, or to suppress. To let these emotions 'pass us by', until we can take back control. The solution is to engage with our emotions. To feel them out for their source and do battle there. It's only then that we may find our relief.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.