Emotions have a bad rep these days. Especially in medical research, emotions are usually the enemies. This orientation is understandable with respect to rage, but laughing and crying also are treated as pathological. There are many studies of a new diagnosis called Emotional Lability (EL) and the even more extreme one, Emotional Incontinence (EI). "For Heaven's sake, stop crying: you are making a mess all over my new tablecloth."

It seems to have occurred to only a few researchers that the absence of emotional expression might be a far wider problem, and possibly a much more damaging one. There is only one diagnosis that hits this mark directly (alexithymia), but it is less discussed.

The current trend in medicine, and indeed in the public at large, is that the way to deal with emotions is to CONTROL them. This note is to recommend another direction, however. We all have emotions, so let's ENJOY them. For example, young people still enjoy fear by going on roller coasters and viewing horror movies. How is it possible to enjoy fear, which most of us think of as a highly negative and painful emotion?

Thereby lies a tale called catharsis. Suppose that sadness (grief) is mostly physical: bodily preparation to cry. Reacting to a lost attachment, our muscles and tear glands automatically prepare us to sob loudly and tear plentifully. Crying resolves the bodily tension of preparation: we feel less sad and tense, and more relaxed.

So to enjoy grief, cry it out. However, there is a complication implied in the rollercoaster example. The ride and the fear it generates can be enjoyed only if the riders feel perfectly SAFE. "Painful emotions" can be enjoyed only if expressed in a safe context. This is the basic message of the ancient theory of catharsis in the theatre: the drama must move the audience to identify with the play's emotions, but at the same time realizing that it is only a drama.

We have "good cries" when we are able to rapidly move in and out of the grief. Peter Levine (1997) called it pendulation. Without this movement, we either don't feel at all, repression, or feel so much that we get lost in it (a "bad cry").

The way to enjoy emotions is to feel them in a safe context: expressing them to an empathic counselor or friend, with a sad film, song or book, or if alone, taking care to cycle back and forth between crying and watching yourself cry. Like Wordsworth's definition of poetry, we enjoy all and any emotions, positive or negative, when they are remembered in tranquility.

We all do a similar cycle in conversations in order to understand what others mean: we move back and forth between our own point of view and that of the other person. Otherwise much talk would be ambiguous or even incomprehensible. In early childhood, we get so used to doing it that we don't notice that we are doing it. So talking to one's self as if another person were present, especially a beloved person, turns out to be a good idea: "Hi mom, I need to talk to you about what a bad day I had."

The way to enjoy our emotions is to feel them in a safe context for as long as necessary. In our society, a safe place for this kind of activity is often hard to find. Most of the people we know are not receptive to intense crying, especially the kind of long term crying that is necessary part of mourning a deep loss. As Iris Dement's song puts it so beautifully, there's no time to cry.

Most experts in the social/behavioral sciences and psychiatry disagree. They think, mistakenly, that the theory of catharsis has been disproved. But the disproving studies didn't even consider the issue of pendulation. The reviews of my 1979 book on catharsis were not friendly, to say the least. Could it be that the experts are wrong?

About the Author

Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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