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. You can't use up misery, you'll always have more. If you were to compare misery to a pressure cooker; as pressure builds, you vent the pressure out, things calm down and go back to normal. This makes sense symbolically, but it's a faulty comparison. You as a sentient being are wonderfully more elaborate than a nonsentient device. If you were addicted to drugs, more drugs would only perpetuate more drug use. You wouldn't exhaust your want of it. It may temporarily relieve some anxiety, but it does not give you any long-term solutions to stay resilient. In fact, doing more would only further embed that habit into your psyche. 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.
Catharsis has many definitions but is most often meant to mean: releasing of pent-up emotions to promote healing. But does catharsis really work? Or is the idea you can exhaust misery doomed to begin with? In common language, we call it "blowing off steam," and it has become the standard method of managing negative emotions. It's not something any mental health professional has told us to do, but like most of our attempts to be happy, we do it because it temporarily feels good.
Some methods of catharsis can be practical if done constructively, but some can make things far worse when we do it as a gut reaction. We like to paint violent individuals as people who held their emotions in until they had violent outbursts. But that's mostly true in movie logic where it's a lazy plot device to create motive. Most times they did vent, they did look for catharsis: they drew, they painted, they wrote, they complained, and they found commiserators who egged them on. Misery feeds off misery, and misery loves company. What is most often true, is not that we as human beings hold something in until it explodes—but rather, in the release it escalates. And when that leads to something regrettable, that, too, was a misguided attempt at catharsis.
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—it makes you human. 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 releasing steam worked, angry, emotional people should be the happiest people we know. But they're often the saddest. Just as the people who are always looking for the newest health remedies are always the sickest. It's about where we put our attention.
Instinctually, we overvalue the negative. (It's an old survival mechanism that, like wanting to constantly eat, has gone haywire in the modern world). If a positive and negative thing happened today, we're more likely to remember the negative. If we have a positive dining experience, we expect that to be the norm. But if we have a negative experience, it stands out, and we'll tell others. So many things have to fall into place just for us to have a normal day. There are countless contingent events that could go wrong, but they don't. It's a daily miracle, one we have come to expect. Imagine the primitive world where nothing was guaranteed. A world without safety net. We find water, what a day! Now in a time of abundance, we have water inside our huts! To that we say, so what? On a typical day, your car starts, you get to work on time, you're not fired, company is doing well, you get the package you were waiting for, computer is working, you have a phone in your pocket, you're not sick today, there are new movies to stream that you can watch from your couch, your kids are healthy, you had breakfast, you had lunch, you ate whatever you wanted and whatever you wanted was an order away, and more. Bad things are so rare, that's why they stand out because they are abnormal. But if we don't ever appreciate these daily wonders and focus our attention only on the negative, why would we be happy? We're gaslighting ourselves and making things appear worse than they really are. And how often do we hear that? That we're making it sound worse than it is?
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's a paradox: when people don't agree with our negative emotions, we'll sometimes avoid them in a misguided attempt to surround ourselves with positivity. And "positive" in this instance, rather than meaning constructive conveniently means confirmation bias—those who "positively" agree with our negative feelings. You'll find that some of the gloomiest people will repeatedly make vows to only allow positive people into their lives. But if that worked, why would they need to constantly renew their vows? (Just the same with New Year's resolutions: if resolutions worked why do we need to keep making the same ones?) Are these people not living up to their commitment of only allowing "positive" folks in, or did they follow through with their commitment but had different consequences than the ones expected? Rather than having a positive experience, they had the opposite.
If you're the only negative person in a group of positive people, it's only natural that they'd disagree with your worldview. Actual positive people perceive reality differently, that the world is a better place than you think. Your walls and defensive shields speak to your fundamental belief that the world is a negative place. Then finding others who agree with your worldview would mean you're surrounded by others like you, not by actual positive people. And since actual positive people have a different worldview than you, you would think of them negatively. The image you have of yourself does not match what you put out. You see the problem as everyone else other than you, everyone else needs to change for the better, not you. You don't vow to be more positive (which would directly affect your outcome), you only vow to change the people you associate with (which you hope will indirectly change your outcome). You renew your vow because you're either surrounded by people who disagree with you, or with people who bring you down. You project your pessimism outwardly, and you can't understand why you never feel better.
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 "I'm letting my emotions out" argument to excuse our bad behavior. Let's say I have a bad day at work, then I take it out on my co-worker, and then my wife. I'll tell myself: "They should have left me alone," "They should have been nice to me," "That's what happens when I'm in a bad mood," "They should have known," "Today was the wrong day to forget that report," "How could she forget about our dinner plans?" "That's what they get." Negativity spreads. I'm mad at my boss, but everyone else is mad at me. This behavior is selfish; 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 come to believe that it is only natural to take my frustrations out on the world. I think it is natural because it feels natural. But anything can feel natural if that's what you always do. Just as kindness feels natural to kind people.
But my anger is on a roll. I intend to say one critical thing, to point out one flaw, and it snowballs into a long tirade. I preemptively get defensive for my awful behavior because I know a backlash is coming, and when it happens, I double-down on my own outrage. I'm the only one who should ever be allowed to get upset. After all, the world revolves around me. When I shift the blame onto everyone else, I don't experience as much guilt for my actions. But less guilt means that I'm more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, especially toward the victims that I blame. It keeps my "positive view" of myself intact. Everything I do is for a good reason. I'm never to blame. I'm always the victim. I was blowing off steam, don't judge me. In fact, think highly of me for showing restraint, because I could have been worse. In this removal of my accountability, I compromise my emotional growth. I become an adult-child, lacking in maturity and ethically stunted.
I do wrong because I'm a selfish jerk, but you're not allowed to tell me I'm doing wrong because I'm also sensitive. And there's nothing you can do to change my behavior that will ever be right in my eyes. I'm selfish and sensitive, which makes me impossible. It's like that child who takes other children's candy. If you tell him to stop, he gets angry and throws a tantrum. And because you're so sick of this kid's bellyaching, you let him keep the candy and give the other children more candy, which he ends up taking again anyway. (How many adults get their way because of intransigent behavior?) Fortunately, a child can still be corrected. But adults have full legal control over themselves. Therefore, change for them 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:
It's easy to confuse sharing with venting. Here's how I think about it: sharing is talking about how you feel from the point of self-reflection, from a calmer moment after the fact. Venting is in the moment, venting is sharing to relive the moment, and sometimes it's taking your frustrations out on others. Sharing is a healthy, reflexive, and interactive form of empathetic communication. Venting is one way, it's about you, and everyone else needs to listen. Rather than empathy, you want sympathy, for others to feel sorry for you. Venting is sharing without any of the vulnerability.
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.
Sometimes we think a friend's "job" is to dedicate their lives listening to us complain—as if he or she owe us that. It's a belief that comes from self-importance. But friends don't work for us, it's not a job and we aren't their employers, they are our companions who need to be treated as equals, not just for their time but for their own emotional well-being. We'll lose friends, not because they aren't doing their "job" of putting up with us but because we're putting ourselves before them. We want them to be selfless so we can be selfish. Friendship is a byproduct of two people becoming a unit. It's not you as a consumer and your friend as your commodity—a commodity you use. How often do you say "Well, I wouldn't call him (or her) my friend," but you're aware he (or she) considers you to be one? If this is true, the opposite is also true. Social data consistently show only half the people we consider to be our friends, think the same about us. Making everything about ourselves can only lead to social isolation and unhappiness. We intuitively know this, this is why since grade school we've said: "I know who my real friends are." And I hope you do, and I hope you didn't chase them away.
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 by 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 hyperfocusing on it.) Once you associate anger with aggressive behavior, you tend to use it more often. In trying to release anger, you're only egging it on.
Bullies take their anger out on each one of their victims. But they never feel better, it self-perpetuates. The more they bully, the more they need to bully. The more they release, the more they need to release. It becomes the new drug, and what is a drug addiction but an addiction to release. A short-term fix at the expense of long-term mental health.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one of my instructors told me never to use a training partner as a tool to relieve stress. I get that, as I've been on the wrong end of someone's stress catharsis. No matter the situation, treat people 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. Martial arts that only cater to the fighting aspect without a code of living is no different than a training ground for human attack dogs. Which is why traditionally it has always been coupled with a philosophy of discipline and self-control. Because aggression will never exhaust. Rather than releasing our emotions, the point of mastery is to learn how to regulate them.
Venting aggression decreases barriers against future hostility. Instead of purging, you're mastering misery. You end up fixating on hostile feelings. Rather than waiting, you fall back on knee-jerk reactions. And without time to be rational, you're submerged in the irrational, it's too late to turn back now. Can't admit fault now. The more you use negative emotions, the more you practice; the more you practice, the better you get. Instead of exhausting negative energy, you get better at creating negative energy. Effortlessly, like a true master. You are what you practice, and if you practice anger, you become anger.
Eventually, you become comfortable with anger. You learn to like anger because it makes you feel strong. You're more special than others, more important than others—your ego grows. You get better at "talking crap," you make people laugh, get them to nod their heads. You make cruelty cool. You start to enjoy small acts of revenge, or when something bad happens to people you don't like, you call it karma. (But what about your karma for wishing harm onto others?) You have schadenfreude, the German word for the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It's seductive and makes you feel dominant. You want to dominate others, to be the alpha because you are insecure. You're scared, and you want others to be scared with you.
Darkness leads to more darkness and anger only leads to more anger. If you somehow get punished, or perhaps during a lucid moment, you decide to give yourself a penance, rather than letting go of anger, you hold onto the poison. Rather than giving up on catharsis, your penance serves a reminder. Your rage builds, awaiting your future victims.
An angry person telling the world of their anger isn't releasing their misery, they're spreading it. Is your intent to heal or is your intent to start a riot? How many toxic mobs have started with an angry leader spreading their venom on a mic? Are you trying to be political or are you trying to feel better? Most office politics start from misguided attempts at happiness.
And what if the target of our resentment is ourselves? The chase for release can lead to a self-destructive path. We can fall into rituals of self-harm, or even suicide, our final form of release. Despair leads to more despair. And when these feelings become linked to desperate acts, is when irrational thoughts transform into 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: exercise, keeping a journal, reading good books, laughing, spending time in nature, talking to a friend, meditating, and working with a therapist.
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 can make us feel better in the moment (which is why we rely so heavily on them), but they create more problems than they solve. In the moment feelings go away on their own. We need to think beyond the immediate. To use a fight analogy, it's about learning how to box, not learning how to punch. And in this case, rather than quick fixes and tricks, we need mastery over the self (self-regulation).
Whenever you try something you've turned to in the past, ask yourself, "How has this worked out for me?" If it's always made things worse, stop doing it. Don't waste your time repeating what hasn't worked. If it agitates people, but your intent isn't to agitate others, rethink your methods. 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:
Focus your energy on solutions, not venting. Venting is saying: "I don't have to solve anything. Why should I? I'm releasing it. I don't need to work on myself. My mission is already accomplished." Perhaps you're not sure what actions to take, or you can't handle the risk of action, so you complain instead. "I'm literally going to sit here and complain instead of doing something." We like to say that things can't change, but they can. We've proven that every time we've made things worse.
Be active and problem solve. Think and talk out the issue. How many things that bother you are in your control? Are there ways to rectify them? Are you talking to the right people? Is your goal to air things out or is it to improve your circumstances? Is it to hear yourself talk or is it to take the right actions? Like water, when feelings are directionless and have no place to go, it becomes toxic. Misery loves to fantasize, and fantasies often replace action. And when misery takes over our imagination, our minds become toxic.
Productivity isn't just a way to get more things done, it's also a way to think about your emotional life. It puts the emphasis on control and change, and when you feel more control, when you see that you can change, you feel better. And change doesn't have to be extrinsic, it can be internal. Change your circumstances, and if you can't, change your expectations. In fact, change both. Somewhere in the middle is a place of peace.
But dwelling on the negative aspects, hoping it will purge and create positive thoughts doesn't work. If anything, it only reinforces negative thought cycles. 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 individual change—changing your behavior and adapting your thoughts. Create a positive cycle while still acknowledging the unpleasant feelings that arise. This requires discipline, but you'll feeling better. (And it'll get easier as you go.) Express yourself in a productive way while maintaining a long-term positive outlook. Is the glass half full? Is it half empty? Or should you recognize both and feel fortunate to have a glass? That's for you to decide.
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