The meaning of catharsis in psychology continues to evolve. Originally, it was viewed as the conscious expression of feelings repressed due to a traumatic incident. Later, it was seen as an outburst of emotion that leads to a sense of profound enlightenment. In modern psychology however, catharsis can be defined as any form of expression and release of feelings and emotions. It is this articulation of emotion that is posited to lead to healing and positive mental health.
The Roots of Catharsis
Catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, meaning cleansing or purification. In terms of psychological theory, the introduction of catharsis dates back to Josef Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Breuer used hypnotherapy to help release feelings repressed in patients due to a traumatic event. He thought that the conscious expression of those feelings would assist in curing patients who exhibited hysteria. The concept of catharsis was fundamental to Freud’s original psychoanalytic theory: he believed that healing could only occur when meaningful unconscious thoughts and feelings were brought into consciousness.
Examples of Catharsis
Building on the more modern meaning of catharsis, we frequently see examples of it in our everyday lives in a variety of contexts. Below are some examples of when one might encounter or experience catharsis:
A breakup, divorce, or a death is often a precursor to catharsis. The strong emotions following a loss can plunge someone into despair, fill them with gratitude, or cause them to reevaluate their life.
Part of any therapy experience is attempting to unmask and express feelings to make progress with particular issues. For example, a woman attending psychotherapy has an “aha” moment when she first acknowledges feelings related to childhood abuse.
Creative works are often associated with catharsis. A movie, piece of art, or music can help bring about feelings that aid us in making progress with our personal issues. For example, a man sees a movie which reminds him of his divorce and causes him to rethink his behavior toward his ex-wife.
Our emotional state is often triggered by physical elements. Not only does exercise improve mood and lessen anxiety, it can cause us to experience feelings that may otherwise lie dormant. People often talk about exercising to “work through” their emotions.
Many people find that religious pursuits can produce strong emotions and a feeling of enlightenment. For example, finding a sense of higher purpose after a religious service.
Stress can give rise to a multitude of feelings, many of which may be negative. For example, a man having an angry eruption due to marital and financial stress.
Is Catharsis Helpful?
Freud thought that the expression of unconscious emotion was one of the keys to mental health, and this notion is shared by most mental health experts today. In fact, one of the main goals of psychotherapy is to have people communicate how they are feeling. So, it might be somewhat surprising to find out that catharsis—while helpful in many instances—may not always be a good thing.
- In general, stuffing our feelings is never beneficial. Unexpressed emotions will build up inside us and manifest themselves in various problems, including depression and anxiety. When we are able to express our emotions in appropriate ways, it is almost always a positive outcome.
- Almost every therapeutic intervention touts the importance of being honest and facing your emotions. Whether it is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or a psychodynamic therapy, healing does not occur with the avoidance or minimization of feelings.
- As originally envisioned by Freud and Breuer, the treatment of trauma requires catharsis. While current trauma treatment may not focus explicitly on the uncovering of unconscious feelings, it remains true that traumatic feelings need to be explored in order for the symptoms to be reduced. Specific treatments, such as exposure therapy, are meant to elicit thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma so they can be dealt with accordingly.
- It is widely accepted that the treatment of anxiety relies on the confrontation of anxious emotions. Feelings that are buried or avoided will certainly increase. CBT, for instance, will ask you to challenge your worries and encourage you to perform behaviors that will evoke your anxious feelings.
- Venting your feelings is very similar to the modern meaning of catharsis. Unfortunately, venting has not been associated with positive outcomes. Whether it is vocalizing your feelings or expressing yourself through aggression, venting has not shown to help.
- A comparable concept to catharsis is rumination. Rumination is when you continuously think about and/or express your thoughts and emotions. Rumination is frequently talked about as a way to cope with anxious thoughts, kindred to emotional processing. Similar to venting, however, rumination does not work in alleviating anxiety.
- Some people note that the concept of catharsis may give people tacit permission to act inappropriately. When a person acts aggressively to express their anger, for example, it can be passed off as catharsis. It is important to note that catharsis is never an excuse for inappropriate behavior.
- Proponents of catharsis argue that expressing anger does not have to result in behavior that is offensive or harmful to others. They talk about punching a pillow instead of threatening a person or destroying property. Regrettably, learning to express yourself through aggression (even if it is aimed at an inanimate object) just leads to more aggressive behavior. We have found that anger and aggression do not dissipate just because you express it through catharsis.
The Current Role of Catharsis in Psychology
Despite evidence against the effectiveness of catharsis, it still has a valuable place in mental health. It seems clear, though, that expressing thoughts and feelings alone is not enough. Something needs to be done with those emotions to make them productive.
So, what is the answer? It appears that catharsis must spur lasting change in both in thoughts and behavior. In short, it must trigger personal growth. Catharsis, on its own, may provide some insight and initial motivation but it does not appear to last. Regrettably, change can be difficult to accomplish. Professional help is sometimes needed if you feel unmotivated to make and sustain necessary change. Catharsis provides a clear jumping off point. It is up to you to land it.
- Guinagh B. (1987) Sigmund Freud’s Use of Catharsis and Cognition. In: Catharsis and Cognition in Psychotherapy. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-4776-0_4
- Michael M. T. (2020). Unconscious Emotion and Free-Energy: A Philosophical and Neuroscientific Exploration. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 984. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00984
- Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724–731. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167202289002
- Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2012). Rumination: relationships with physical health. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 9(2), 29–34.
- Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 367–376. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067