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Christian Counseling - Catharsis: Use and Misuse

Catharsis refers to the release of emotions that have been pent-up. It comes from the Greek meaning to purge. Most people believe the expression of strong emotions is healthy and a necessary part of healing. However, in the last few years there have been contrary statements about the harm of expressing anger.

Studies, such as Bushman, et. al. (1), suggested people who are encouraged to release their anger or hostility (catharsis) became more aggressive than people who don't express their feelings. These studies led some in the general public and a number of clinicians to discourage emotional expression of anger and hostility. However, it appears more likely that the problem was not the feeling and expression of anger, but the absence of moral and relational principles to guide the manner of expression and what to do after expression. In other words, the subjects didn't seem to have any guidance about healthy emotional expression and lacked the necessary tools, such as forgiveness and reconciliation, to help them finish what they started.

Another problem with this particular study is the Grand Canyon leap from the idea that catharsis doesn't reduce angry, aggressive emotions to concluding that expression can be harmful and should be avoided because it begets more aggression. Their underlying belief associated with that idea is that catharsis alone is supposed to provide resolution. The truth is it can provide temporary relief from the burden of strong, troubling feelings and help people learn to express themselves, but it's not meant to be the end-all technique of resolve.

Catharsis is meant to be a stepping stone toward healing and change. It is only one leg of journey; one tool in the toolbox. It leads to self-discovery, which lends to motivation and direction. Expressed emotions are meant to assist conflicted people in working out the problems. Indeed, there is a period of time during cathartic discharge when there is an increase in felt emotions.

Most clinicians know that unpacking any emotion will heighten a client's awareness and experience of that feeling. Moving beyond a person's defenses in therapy will surely increase the felt strength of whatever emotions are being addressed, such as: anger, depression, and anxiety. This is normal, expected and often beneficial provided the person continues to process the feelings and associated memories, and not stop at catharsis.

The goal is not just the release of emotions, as the research studied, but to use the power and energy generated from the cathartic experience to take appropriate action. It's the latter action, such as having an appropriate conversation with an offender, that helps bring a final and more complete release of emotions and the opportunity for relational resolution. And that resolution is dependent upon being guided by moral principles and good relational conduct.

(1) Bushman, Brad J.; Baumeister, Roy F.; and Stack, Angela I. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 76(3), 367-376.

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