Does catharsis really work? Or is the idea you can exhaust misery doomed to begin with?
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
It takes a lot of creativity to be angry and miserable. I can't use up misery, I'll always have more. If you were to compare me to a pressure cooker; as pressure builds, I vent the pressure out, things calm down, and go back to normal. This makes sense symbolically, but it's a faulty comparison. I as a sentient human being am wonderfully more elaborate than a nonsentient device. If I were addicted to drugs, more drugs would only perpetuate more drug use. I wouldn't exhaust my want of it. It may temporarily relieve some anxiety, but it does not give me any long-term solutions to keep me resilient. Writer and poet Maya Angelou said, "You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” With that same logic, you can't use up misery. The more you use, the more you have.
Does catharsis really work? Or is the idea you can exhaust misery doomed to begin with? Catharsis has many definitions but is most often meant to mean: releasing of pent-up emotions to promote healing. Whether we are familiar with the term or not, "blowing off steam" has become a standard method of managing negative emotions. Some methods of catharsis can be very helpful if done in a constructive way — and some can make things far worse. What we've learned over time, with people who've had violent outbursts was, many didn't hold it in. They did vent, they did look for catharsis: they drew, they painted, they wrote, they complained, and they found commiserators. Misery feeds off misery, and misery loves company.
Emotional suppression is bad for our health, yet that's not the whole picture. Just as a focus on positive thoughts is good for us, so is the acknowledgment of negative feelings. The combined creates mental vitality. The want to purge any negative emotions puts all the focus on the negative emotions and suppresses robustness. In Three Simple Steps, author Trevor Blake writes about a Stanford research study where they found that thirty minutes of complaining (whether you are listening to it or the one doing it) is damaging to the hippocampal part of your brain.
If I Dislike My Job...
Let's say I dislike my job. I vent to my co-workers, my co-workers listen, then we vent to each other. We share stories, always upping the ante, and slowly turning our boss into our enemy. Dislike turns to hate and I can't stand being there. My performance drops, my boss gives me a hard time, I vent more, and I become that someone who brings the whole workplace down. I am not trying to improve my circumstances. I am only making my work environment and my health worse. Guy Winch, PhD and author of The Squeaky Wheel says:
Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, says that complaining is just as harmful as secondhand smoke. There is a paradox; when people do not agree with our negative emotions, we will sometimes avoid them in a misguided attempt to only surround ourselves with those who are positive. "Positive" meaning, only those who "positively" agree with our negative feelings. You will find that some of the gloomiest people will repeatedly make vows to only allow positive people into their lives. But if that's what they are doing, why do they need to constantly renew their vows? If you are the only negative person in a group of positive people, it is only natural that they would disagree with your worldview. And finding people who agree with you — you being a negative person — would not mean you are surrounded by positive people, rather you would be surrounded by others like you. The image you have of yourself does not match what you put out. You see the problem as those around you, not yourself. You don't vow to be more positive (which would directly affect outcome), you vow to change the people you associate with (which you hope will indirectly change your outcome). You renew your vow because you are either surrounded by people who disagree with you, or with people who bring you down. You're projecting your pessimism and you can't see why misery keeps returning.
Thinfluence, written by two Harvard Medical School professors, explains how social influence interacts with weight. The American headlines read, "Your friends are making you fat." In thinner countries like France, the headlines read, "You are making your friends fat." If you really want to change, you must acknowledge your own shortcomings.
Excusing My Bad Behavior
We sometimes use the catharsis/ venting idea to justify our behavior. Maybe I'm angry at work but I take it out on my spouse or co-worker: "They should have known to leave me alone and be nice to me because I'm in a bad mood." "Today was the wrong day to forget to bring me my report." "Wrong day to forget about our dinner plans." Negativity spreads. I'm mad at my boss but now everyone else is mad at me. This is a selfish behavior, I want everyone else's feelings to be subservient to mine. I can't be blamed, I was having a bad day and I have been taught that it is only natural to take it out on the world.
My anger gets on a roll. I intend to say one critical thing or point out one flaw, and it snowballs into a long tirade. They get defensive, which makes me defensive. If I shift my blame onto everyone else, I won't experience as much guilt for my actions. Less guilt means that I'm more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, especially towards victims that I blame. It keeps my "positive view" of myself intact. Everything I do is for a good reason. I am never to blame. I am the victim. I was blowing off steam. In fact, I am showing restraint because I could be acting far worse. In this removal of my own culpability, I compromise my emotional growth. I become an adult-child, lacking emotional maturity.
I'm selfish which makes me a jerk, and if you bring it up, I'm sensitive, which only makes it worse. Selfish and sensitive is an impossible combination. It's like that child who is mean to a dog, and when you tell them to stop, they get angry and cry. It's impossible to deal with. For that person, change can only come from within.
In Experiments, Venting Anger Only Made People Angrier
In a study about Facebook, people who shared frustrations, sadness, or vented online only ended up feeling worse. There was no catharsis and they didn't get the warm embrace they were looking for when they posted sad song lyrics or mysterious cries for help.
One study found that users weren't using social networks to make two-way connections, some just wanted a one-way street, where attention should be directed towards them to make them special. But that's not what was happening. Attention-seeking was too transparent online, especially since things shared on Facebook were with the people that knew them well. The attention-seekers found no comfort, which made them more upset. Looking to vent online only made things worse. Famed coach and the author of Winning Every Day Lou Holtz said:
Sometimes we will believe a friend's "job" is to listen to us complain all the time. This view requires some level of self-importance, as if our friend somehow owes that to us. But they don't work for us, they are our companions who need to be treated as equals, not just for their time but their own emotional well-being. We will lose friends, not because they aren't doing their "job" of putting up with us — but because we are putting ourselves before them. We want them to be selfless so we can be selfish. Making everything about ourselves can only lead to social isolation and more unhappiness.
In a milestone study from the 70s, a researcher pretending to be a member of the study, acted rudely to the actual participants. The participants were then told they could punish their antagonizer with an electrical jolt. They weren't really going to shock their antagonist, but what's important is that they thought they were. The participants were then separated into two groups. One group had to wait before they punished their antagonist; the other group was immediately allowed to release their aggression, then later on received another turn.
The group that got to shock their antagonist without delay were more aggressive than the group that had to wait. When the second turn came around for the immediately gratified group, rather than being more lenient, they were more aggressive than their first time around. Having a chance to "release" only made them more angry. The group that was made to wait lost a lot of their aggression and regained their composure. Instant gratification for the other group only made fleeting anger more permanent.
In a study done by researcher and author Dr. Brad Bushman, participants were told to write an essay about a sensitive subject. Then they were graded and given terrible marks and harsh criticism. The participants were then given tasks: such as playing solitaire, reading, or hitting a punching bag. Their second task was to play a computer game where they had a chance to blast their opponents in another room with noise. Participants could control the volume, up to 105 decibels. People who hit the punching bag punished their opponents with louder blasts of sound than the group who were given tasks where they could take their mind off of their feelings (rather than hyper-focusing on it.) Once you associate anger with aggressive behavior, you tend to use it more often.
In martial arts, one of my instructors told us never to use a training partner to relieve stress. Treat them with respect, they're not toys, they're human beings. It's something fighters know; you hit a bag, you want to hit it harder, your aggression goes up, not down. After the first day of sparring, new students often fantasize about getting into fights. That's why these moves should always be coupled with a philosophy of life with a focus on discipline and control, because aggression will never exhaust. Martial arts that cater to just the fighting aspect with no code of living, is similar to training attack dogs.
Venting aggression decreases barriers against future hostility. Instead of purging, it self-replicates. You end up fixating and ruminating on hostile feelings. You don't have to wait to vent, it's immediate. You can speak with knee-jerk reactions, you don't need time to think it out and be rational. It validates the irrational. The more you vent, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Instead of exhausting negative energy, you get better at creating more of it. Effortlessly, like a true master. You are what you practice and if you practice anger, you become anger.
You begin to feel comfortable with anger; you learn to like anger because it makes you feel strong. Your ego gets boosted because you tell yourself you're special, you feel important. You get better at "talking crap," you make people laugh, get them to nod their heads. You begin to enjoy small acts of revenge or when something bad happens to people you don't like. Schadenfreude or harm-joy, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It's seductive and makes you feel powerful. You are scared and you want others to be scared with you.
The unhappy person who tells everyone about it, isn't releasing their misery, they are spreading it. Are you looking to start a riot or are you looking for healing? When the person we despise is ourselves, the chase for release can lead to an even more destructive path. We can fall into unhealthy rituals of self-harm, or even commit the ultimate and final form of "release." Despair leads to more despair, but when these feelings become linked to desperate acts, is when irrational thoughts result in extreme actions. We don't ever want to be in a place where our minds believe harmful actions are a viable solution.
Coping for the Long-term
When you cry you often feel better, it's all we had as children. But as we get older, we need to create more permanent coping systems. Showers make us feel better, so does exercise, so does keeping a journal. Even writing a letter and then destroying it. But there is no magic answer, we're all complicated beings and we need a variety of tools to function better. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and food have all shown some form of effectiveness in making us feel better, but they also create problems of their own. We need a reliable coping system, not tricks. To use a fight analogy, you need to learn how to box, not just learn how to punch.
Whenever you try something you've turned to in the past, ask yourself, "How has this worked for me?" If it has always made things worse, you would be foolish to keep doing it. If it agitates people and you're not planning to organize a strike, you should rethink your methods for happiness. Directionless agitation stresses everyone out for no other reason than to make you "feel better." Harvard-trained psychiatrist and author of F*ck Feelings Dr. Michael Bennett writes:
You ever have a friend who starts to vent, then catches his or herself and stops? Those are the smart ones. They care about solutions, not venting. In a way, venting is saying: I don't have to solve anything. Why should I? I'm releasing it all out, my mission is accomplished. Perhaps you're not sure what actions to take or you can't handle the risks of taking any action, so you complain instead. We like to say that things can't change, but they can. We've proven that. We can always make things worse.
I challenge you to go one month without complaining. See how good you feel.
Be active and problem solve. Think or talk out the issue. How many of these things are in your control and are there ways to rectify them? Are you talking to the right people? If your goal is to improve your circumstances and not just air things out, are you taking the right actions? Just like water, when feelings are directionless and have no place to go, it becomes toxic. Misery loves to fantasize, and fantasies often replace action. When misery takes over our imagination, our very minds can become toxic.
Productivity is not just about getting more things done, it also works as a practical guide for our emotional lives. It's about focusing on things that are within our ability to change. When we feel more control, we feel better. Control isn't only about external change, sometimes the change is internal. If we can't change our circumstances, we can change our expectations. Somewhere in the middle is a smart way to live.
Dwelling on the negative aspects, hoping that it will somehow purge and create positive thoughts doesn't work. If anything, it only reinforces negative cycles of thought. It becomes a habit, a way your brain likes to operate. Being positive is its own habit. To have more positivity, you have to work on being more positive. The cycle of victims creating more victims of misery can only end if someone decides not to pass it on. That requires changing behavior, being more productive, and adapting your thoughts. Creating a positive cycle, while still acknowledging the unpleasant reflections that may arise. I challenge you to go one month without complaining. It'll require discipline but see how good you feel. Use that to learn how to express yourself in a productive way while maintaining a long-term positive outlook.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life - Trevor G Blake
- The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem - Guy Winch PhD
- The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work - Jon Gordon
- Thinfluence: The powerful and surprising effect friends, family, work, and environment have on weight - Walter C. Willett, Malissa Wood, Dan Childs
- Winning Every Day: The Game Plan for Success - Lou Holtz
- F*ck Feelings: One Shrink's Practical Advice for Managing All Life's Impossible Problems - Michael Bennett MD, Sarah Bennett
- Maya Angelou has healed and inspired millions with her poetry
- Sign up to commit every February to no complaining
- "Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being" - Scientific American
- The New Era Of Positive Psychology, a TED talk by Dr. Martin Seligman
- "Psychiatry's Scientific Reboot Gets Under Way" - New Scientist
- A study found that emotional suppression increases mortality
- A study found that sharing frustrations on Facebook only made people feel worse
- A study found that using social media for narcissism typically backfires
- A study on the catharsis of aggression
- Does Venting Anger Feed Or Extinguish The Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, And Aggressive Responding - Dr. Brad Bushman
- "The Psychology Of Elliot Rodger" - Dr. David Gustaf Thompson