Updated: Aug 2, 2020
In all honesty, the origins of my familiarity with ‘Catharsis’ seem a little hazy. For as long as I can remember, I have known it to be the process of venting and releasing our emotions, especially anger. It was only in the last year or two, as I delved deeper into the academic literature on emotions, autotelic experiences and consequential purgation, I realized that there is so much more to the process that goes unaccounted in the mainstream discourse. Here is my attempt to demystify and reconstruct the process of ‘Catharsis’ for a cohesive understanding.
The word ‘Catharsis’ was originally coined by Aristotle as early as the 3rd century B.C. In his writings on the concept, he mentions that Catharsis is the purgation of pity and terror in theatre audiences. As complicated as that sounds, he was simply referring to the audiences’ ability to empathically identify with the drama characters in a way that helps them release their own personal grief and fears. He even boldly claimed that as a process, ‘Catharsis’ in drama, was not just a source of pleasure for the audience but also a functional necessity for the society. This assertion left scholars puzzled for such a long interval, that essentially no significant works can be found up until the late 19th century. In fact, a much lesser known fact about psychoanalysis is that most of Sigmund Freud’s early works revolved primarily around Catharsis. After spending years on careful documentation of its effectiveness, Freud later vaguely dismissed the idea and moved on to shape the psychoanalytic theory as we know it now. Quite unfortunately, majority of psychoanalysts uncritically accepted this denial of Catharsis, even though it was brief and casual as compared to his early claims of its potency. Essentially, the process was completely overlooked and to some extent, even disregarded up until the mid 20th century, when it began to pick momentum.
Coming back to the importance of Catharsis as noted by Aristotle, let’s try to understand this in terms of our behaviors. Most of the action that we engage in, is driven by an intrinsic or extrinsic need. There are various theories that illustrate these needs elaborately. One such theory is the “pleasure-and-pain” principle. Founded in hedonistic philosophy, the “pleasure-and-pain” principle assumes that all of human nature seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Even though seemingly simple and at points even ridiculed for having a reductionist view of humans, this theory can operationally be used to rationalize most of our behavior. But if avoiding pain is a primary motive in all human behavior, then why do people watch horror movies which typically induce fear? What is it about a scary roller coaster ride which excites us? What about “tear-jerking” movies and dramas that stir up empathic emotions in us? All of us, at some point, engage in behavior which can commonly be categorized as “thrill-seeking”. These thrill-seeking actions then, seem to be a glaring exception to the pleasure-and-pain principle.
One theory of Catharsis postulates that this seemingly paradoxical behavior is an attempt to both relive and thus, resolve emotional distress from our pasts. Being the highly evolved beings that we are, our subconscious realizes that reliving old distress can be overwhelming for our systems and may disturb our physical as well as psychological equilibriums. Therefore, to ensure resolving of an unfinished business from the past, our systems demand security. This security is experienced in the form of psychological distance from the stimuli. It ensures that the stimulus is severe enough to provoke emotional distress but also sufficiently vicarious such that the emotion does not overwhelm us. Thus, distress and security are two major components of the process of Catharsis. In a way then, when we tear up at the fate of Rose and Jack in Titanic, we are in some way, reliving our own personal experiences of grief and loss but under new and less severe circumstances which seem less painful.
But an obvious question to ask would be that if we have these mechanisms of ‘emotional purgation’ so readily available to us, why then, do we still sometimes feel like our past ‘baggage’ weighs us down? Shouldn’t then, we be able to absolve ourselves of all kinds of emotional distress through vicarious re-living? According to John Heron, a celebrated social scientist, some amount of catharsis happens perchance in our daily lives. But, as in all other human capacities, effective use requires training and conscious guidance. Well, as mentioned above, one way to experience emotional security is through psychological distance. Another, is in the safety of our therapist’s office. In experiencing catharsis, it is imperative that the self does not simply re-experience the past distress but is also anchored in the present, to ensure ‘cognitive insight’; the ability to re-evaluate one’s own thoughts and beliefs. Cognitive insight, thus, could be considered as an important third component of catharsis. A therapeutic space is ordinarily fashioned in a way that facilitates not just emotional reliving of the past but also ensures a here-and-now awareness of the present. In fact, many recent clinical reports have found catharsis to be the main cause of success in psychotherapy. That being said, not all psychotherapeutic approaches necessarily give catharsis a central role in treatment.
The modern day society has been labelled as ‘anti-cathartic’ by upholders of the process. Since emotional expression is considered ‘dramatic’ rather than a natural release, we find it easier to repress and hide our emotions instead of engaging with them in a healthy manner. A psychotherapeutic setting could be the safest space for an individual/group to re-experience these past, hidden emotional crises in the context of complete security. Quoting Thomas J. Scheff, “Catharsis in these contexts is analogous to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: emotion recollected in tranquility” In my endeavor to engineer and sustain a space which facilitates the tranquil experience of emotional recollection, lies the origins of Katharsis. I advance an invitation to anybody who’s even a little bit intrigued to experience Catharsis with Katharsis!
Heron, J. (1977). Catharsis in human development. Human Potential Research Project.
Jackson, S. W. (1994). Catharsis and abreaction in the history of psychological healing. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 17(3), 471-491.
Naeem, H., Gulzar, M. A., & Raja, M. N. S. (2011). Pain–Pleasure Theory of Motivation. IJCRB, 3(2), 1489.
Scheff, T. J. (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Univ of California Press.
Scheff, T. J. (2007). Catharsis and other heresies: A theory of emotion. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 1(3), 98.
Somya, Katharsis' founder and mental health therapist, is a passionate counselling psychologist and well-being advocate. She accomplished her education in psychology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University and Christ University, Bangalore. Having formerly worked as a school counsellor, Somya's expertise lies in working with children and helping them adjust around the school ecosystem. Some of her spheres of competence include management of socio-emotional issues like anxiety, mood swings, adjustment to life transitions, relationship issues and personal development. Somya adopts an eclectic, holistic and creative approach in her therapeutic practice.