Like many people, I used the use the word “catharsis” in such a way that implied that it’s the ultimate goal of emotional expression. It means to purge ourselves of an emotion. Often we do need to dispel something that’s been hanging around for too long, but that’s only part of the process. I remember well the occasions when one of my professors or my mentor would speak with some disdain about how heavily we sometimes lean on catharting. I would sit there wondering why they seemed so worked up. Wasn’t getting rid of built-up stuff a huge part of our work?
The term’s history in formal therapeutic settings lies primarily in psychoanalysis. Traditional psychoanalysts believed that by outwardly expressing traumatic events, the patient would be relieved of their symptoms. Take a peek at the therapeutic uses on the Wikipedia entry on catharsis, if you’d like a little more history or references. It’s been a few decades since the broader field of therapy has understood that catharsis is only one part of what assists us in reaching actual renewal. Anyone who has had a long overdue conversation with someone knows the immediate relief that venting can have. The harder we push against something (by keeping it to ourselves, for instance), the more tension that is created. So when we stop pushing or restricting, a lot of energy is freed up. It is at this point that we have more potential to process the emotion.
But again, catharsis alone does not necessarily bring closure or sustainable satisfaction. It has a higher chance of doing so if and when we emote the very first time we have a particular experience. For example, let’s say that I stub my toe, and I let out a little yelp. There would likely be no reason for me to later revisit that experience with an attempt at experiencing catharsis, because I had it right there in the moment. If, however, I was made fun of when I stubbed my toe, or I was told not to let out any cry of pain, then the tension would stay and build inside of me. Later, when attempting to find catharsis, it would be necessary for me to also deal with the problematic relational dynamic that was at play before. Letting out a cry of pain for my younger self would definitely be useful, but I’d also need the reparative experience of another person showing me empathy. I may also need someone else to help me know when I’d cried enough. Expressing unfamiliar or long-bottled emotions often requires the modeling or support of another person. Fortunately, when that’s a hard-won experience with our family or friends, there’s a whole group of professionals who have the training, experience, and desire to be there for us.
Make no mistake, the goal is not to get rid of an emotional experience as quickly as we can. It’s actually quite necessary to sit with an emotion for as long as it is useful for you, and sometimes that’s on the scale of weeks, months, or years for the more intense experiences. This too is where the presence of another person can be very necessary, as “sitting with” an emotion takes active work. Someone else brings a wider perspective to what’s happening, and that can help to guide us. But always, what we are returning to is the ability to listen to our own prompts.
I like to think of it like drawing a bath for yourself. You get into the bathtub to relax and soak up what ever you’ve poured into it. You can’t really know what you’ll feel, but the intention is always to feel better afterwards, and that intention acts as a guide. So when the water begins to get cold, you get out and it is then that you allow the tub to drain.