Anger and Catharsis: Myth, Metaphor or Reality?
Concluding that catharsis of anger can't be therapeutic is incorrect.
Posted September 28, 2009
Cognitive scientist Dr. Art Markman's recent posting on the nature of anger and catharsis raises significant questions about how to best deal with anger--both in and out of psychotherapy. This is a subject another PT blogger, Dr. Steven Stosny, and I briefly debated here previously. (See postings here and here.)
First, let me say that there is a very good reason for the numerous metaphors we apply to the misunderstood phenomenon of anger: They describe quite accurately and phenomenologically the subjective and objective experience of anger as a highly volatile emotion that can, depending on how we manage it, build over time, reach a crescendo, and eventually explode. Anger can be "bottled up." Fester, turn toxic, and seep out slowly and destructively in daily life, like radioactive contamination. Simmer and boil over. Anger is a primal force of nature, a hurricane, tornado, volcanic eruption, a thunderstorm, lightning bolt, a natural form of energy, not unlike electricity. When easily enraged, one "blows a fuse"or exhibits a "short fuse."
Anger is red hot. A smoldering or raging fire. Sometimes a "slow burn." We call someone quick to anger a "hot-head." A ticking time-bomb easily "set off" or "triggered." A powder keg. A steaming tea kettle. A boiling cauldron in which one "stews" in their own juices. Angry people "blow a gasket" under excessive internal pressure, like a heated cooking vessel that "flips its lid" or a missile warhead that "goes ballistic." Someone overcome by rage is often compared to a nuclear reactor that catastrophically and violently "melts down." Paradoxically, in other cases, the characterologically angry, resentful, bitter or hostile individual appears "cold-blooded" and calculating, as seen, for instance, in antisocial personality disorder, sometimes described as being "icy," "cool as a cucumber" or "stone-cold."
Perhaps metaphorically closest to the truth, anger or rage is a powerful explosive like dynamite, which can be used destructively or constructively, for evil or good. Like nuclear radiation or nitroglycerine, anger can be used both to harm and to heal. Anger can, under certain circumstances, take total possession of a person, driving us blindly into self-destructive behavior and evil deeds. Like love, anger can be "blind." Anger is often experienced as a threatening, malicious alien force taking over mind, body and soul. A ferocious beast, a berserk bear, a poisonous serpent, fire-breathing dragon, wrathful god, vindictive devil or demon. Such common metaphors clearly bear an archetypal quality, and have, in one form or another and across cultures, been part of how humans linguistically conceptualize and describe the subjective experience of anger for millennia. Like myths, metaphors of anger tend to contain a basic kernel of vital truth about the elemental, enigmatic nature of anger or rage.
But the mistake with using such metaphors is taking them too literally rather than metaphorically. For example, extreme rage may feel or appear like it takes possession of a person like a demon or the devil. This is a common myth or metaphor, one often seized upon by psychotic patients to explain their dissociated impulses. But that doesn't make anger the Devil. Literalism or reification is the problem in this scenario, not the metaphor. Likening anger to heated fluid in a closed container does not literally make it so. Nor can one extrapolate from that metaphor that anger will behave exactly like that heated fluid. It will not, because it is not literally heated fluid, and will not necessarily act as such. Anger is not this or that. It is what it is. But it does have similar qualities to other primary human experiences such as sadness, anxiety, and sex drive. Like other instinctual drives, existential experiences and primitive affects, anger can be denied or repressed. And when anger is chronically repressed, it becomes problematical, pathological, toxic and potentially dangerous to self and/or others. Once this occurs, the solution, however, is not to hit a punching bag: This will not make the anger, resentment or bitterness disappear. But it will likely provide some momentary release of tension, which, like masturbation, feels pleasurable. Striking a pillow, bag or bed when one is not already angry can be an effective technique employed by some Reichian or Bioenergetic therapists for inducing, evoking and becoming more aware of one's repressed rage. But one cannot "drain" or empty the anger permanently in this way, just as one doesn't drain sex drive permanently by masturbating. Indeed, this can serve instead to "prime the pump."
Dr. Markman and others argue against "catharsis," concluding that it only causes a person to become more angry than before. In support of his position, he cites a certain experimental study conducted in 1999. (See his posting.) A century before that study, Viennese physicians Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud (1895) discovered and documented the therapeutic value of catharsis or what they came to call abreaction: "The fading of a memory or the losing of its affect depends on various factors. The most important of these is whether there has been an energetic reaction to the event that provokes an affect. By ‘reaction" we here understand the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes--from tears to acts of revenge--in which, as experience shows us, the affects are discharged. If this reaction takes place to a sufficient amount a large part of the affect disappears as a result. Linguistic usage bears witness to this fact of daily observation by such phrases as ‘to cry oneself out' [‘sich ausweinen'], and to ‘blow off steam' [‘sich austoben', literally ‘to rage oneself out']. If the affect is suppressed, the affect remains attached to the memory. . . . The injured person's reaction to the trauma only exercises a completely ‘cathartic' effect if it is an adequate reaction--as, for instance, revenge. But language serves as a substitute for action; by its help, an affect can be ‘abreacted' almost as effectively." This was the birth of psychoanalysis.
By "language," Freud and Breuer mean verbalizing feelings like anger, as opposed to physically acting them out. Punching a bag or pounding a bed are obviously physical expressions of anger. But in order to be truly cathartic, the patient must experience--or re-experience--these emotions as profoundly as possible rather than just physically expressing or rationally discussing them. The more apropos metaphor for repressed anger would be an underground oil or natural gas field. The oil is under tremendous pressure. When tapped into, some of that pressure is suddenly released in the form of a "gusher." But this doesn't do anything to significantly reduce the subterranean pressure built up over eons. Similarly, tapping into deep and chronically pressurized reserves of anger, resentment or rage can, indeed, bring more anger to the surface. This is why merely abreacting or ventilating anger is not necessarily therapeutic: Ventilation, as Dr. Markman suggests, can fan the flames of anger rather than extinguishing its fire. Certainly giving destructive expression to anger in the form of physical violence is no solution. Can mass murderers or abusive spouses said to be "cured" or made less angry by physically discharging their rage on their victims?
When we are dealing with anger, we are not dealing with a metaphor. We are dealing with an existential reality. A psychobiological phenomenon. Punching a bag, let's face it, is not the same as punching out the person who hurt your feelings or betrayed you. It is not, as Freud and Breuer put it, an "adequate" response to the insult, no real revenge or talionic lashing out against a real person. It gives someone a tiny taste of what real revenge might feel like, but lacks the complete psychological satisfaction. Such ventilationist behavior knocks on buried anger's door, opens it briefly letting just a little anger out, and then promptly slams it shut again--which is exactly what happened in the experiment mentioned by Dr. Markman.
Of course, the problem here is that we cannot, in a civilized society, go around punching out, pummeling or verbally abusing every person who insults or infuriates us. (Though some seem to have started resorting to such primitive behaviors.) There is much to be angry about in modern life. And we must learn to accept, control, tolerate and redirect that anger as constructively as possible. But when left unexpressed, where does the anger go? Yes, sometimes, if we are aware of the anger in the moment, it will pass. But generally, it does not simply evaporate, like some stored, uncovered liquid might. Anger, when denied or repressed, tends to collect or accumulate over time, in the same way that knowledge and experience collect and accumulate over time. It turns bitter or rancid. And it grows ever more powerful and potentially dangerous, in the same way that a toxin can accumulate gradually and insidiously in some part of the body, eventually reaching life-threatening levels.
The arbitrary use of expressive, ventilationist or cathartic techniques like pillow-pounding, primal-screaming, bed-beating or bataka-bashing and so forth, designed to "drain off" or disperse anger and rage is, in the long run, ineffective and clinically counterproductive. Today, psychotherapists tend to fall into two basic camps when it comes to dealing with anger: suppressive therapy versus expressive ventilation of anger. But many psychotherapists utilizing such expressive or experiential techniques depend too heavily upon them in treatment to induce and dispel anger, prematurely forcing it out into the open in a misguided and ultimately futile attempt to "get the rage out" and be rid of it in once and for all. If the mere mechanical catharsis, abreaction or ventilation of anger or rage was invariably a constructive or curative practice, the psychotherapist's task would be far less complex, comparatively clear-cut and, in most instances, somewhat superfluous. But such is not the case. As psychologist Rollo May (1969) observed, this ventilationist mentality is "an egregious mistake of much contemporary psychotherapy--mainly the illusion that merely experiencing or acting out is all that is necessary for cure. Experiencing is absolutely essential; but if it occurs without the changing of the patient's concepts, symbols, and myths, the ‘experiencing' is truncated and has a masturbatory rather than fully procreative character."
However, concluding, as Dr. Markman and others seem to, that catharsis is never helpful is incorrect. The term catharsis derives from the Greek katharsis, which in turn stems from the root kathairein, meaning to clean or purify. Aristotle used this term in describing the therapeutic effects of theatrical tragedy in purging the emotions, resulting in spiritual renewal or gratifying tension release. Freud, of course, used catharsis to connote the process of re-experiencing repressed and therefore unconscious emotions in therapy. But the diverse practice of catharsis can be traced back to primitive healing rituals, exorcism and confession, the latter having been employed at one time by the Incas and Aztecs as well as the Catholic Church, where both exorcism and the traditional healing ritual called confession still survive today. When it comes to dealing effectively with anger, catharsis is not merely a matter of "letting off steam," though this can be beneficial in treatment when done verbally as opposed to physically. But the verbalization must be directly connected to and rooted in the true source of the anger. When such anger is acknowledged and verbally expressed, it can clear the way to discovering that which caused it in the first place.
Psychotherapy is partly about helping patients to acknowledge, accept and make more constructive use of their anger to change themselves, their relationships and their lives. It requires a re-owning of personal passion, power, resolve, strength and determination. Dr. Markman is asking the right question: Is it always best to express one's anger verbally and/or physically? So much depends on context, timing and circumstance. "Doest thou well to be angry?" asked God of a frustrated Jonah in the Old Testament, prompting Jonah to pause, sit in the shade, and ponder before impulsively or reflexively acting on his anger. Anger, and even violence, have their rightful place in human affairs. There is a time for fight as well as for flight. A time for aggressive action and a time for passive contemplation. A time and place for speaking our mind and for holding our tongue. And yes, sometimes the best thing to do in the heat of the moment is nothing at all--at least until the metaphorical smoke stops streaming from your ears.