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Blowing Off Steam: The Power of Catharsis

Blocked emotions block vitality. Here's a key to releasing them both.

Key points

  • Emotional release—catharsis—can help you regain momentum and vitality when you find yourself blocked.
  • Strong emotions are fine and natural, but over the long haul they're better out than in, and the way out is through.
  • Catharsis could involve art-making, physical exertion, journaling, or binge-watching movies that capture your emotions.
Andreza Suang/Shutterstock
Source: Andreza Suang/Shutterstock

The movie Good Will Hunting features an immensely powerful scene of catharsis—emotional release—and how it can liberate passion and power in us that's been pushed down and pent up our whole lives.

Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a genius who’s genius is largely stuck inside him, along with his ability to love. He’s in counseling with a psychologist played by Robin Williams—it's either therapy or jail, for assaulting a policeman—and it’s become apparent that much of Will's problems, and what holds him back from his potential, is the fact that he had a physically abusive childhood. During one particular session the psychologist says, “It’s not your fault.”

Will, leaning against a desk, says, “Yeah, I know.”

The psychologist takes a step toward him. “Look at me son. It’s not your fault.”

“I know.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know.”

Stepping closer, the therapist says, “No, you don't. It’s not your fault.”

Will stands up, his face a grimace.

“It's not your fault.”

“Don’t f--- with me.”

Another step closer: “It’s not your fault.”

Will violently pushes the therapist backward: “Don’t f--- with me. Not you.”

“It’s not your fault.”

Will buries his head in his hands.

“It’s not your fault.”

At which point Will bursts into tears, along with, if I remember from seeing the movie in the theater, much of the audience, myself included. Because a lot of us recognize that thing that wasn’t our fault, but that we’ve been carrying around with us our whole life as if it were—your parents’ neglect, abuse, alcoholism, intolerance, shaming, withholding, abandonment, divorce, whatever.

And from that moment on—true to life, in my opinion as well as my experience—Will’s life begins to change dramatically. He begins coming into his power and his gift and his heart.

Catharsis was originally a medical term referring to the flushing out of the body during menstruation, and means to cleanse or purge. Aristotle was the first to use it in a theatrical sense, referring to the emotional discharge a playwright hoped to effect in an audience by the release of pent-up emotion, typically at the end of a good old Greek tragedy.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, “the talking cure” was sometimes referred to as chimney sweeping, a cleaning out of the pipes, a restoring of the flow. But it isn't typically clean and tidy work, especially with the kinds of trauma Will Hunting experienced, which are emotional superfund sites that aren’t going to be cleaned up overnight, or tidied up with a hankie and a good cry. Thus, catharsis should be handled with care, a great deal of compassion and patience for yourself, and with the deeper wounds perhaps even in a care-taking or therapeutic situation.

According to numerous studies, emotional release is good for your physical and mental health, and can help you regain your momentum and life-force, as long as it doesn't involve smashing things and going supernova on people, which has a tendency to just reinforce the venting of aggression because it temporarily feels good. Thus the “rage rooms” popping up in cities around the country, which give paying customers a chance to destroy rooms full of furniture with baseball bats and sledge hammers, might give them a temporary cathartic outburst, but tends to work against long-term anger management. It gives them relief but not resolution.

Healthy catharsis is part of gaining the closure people seek around not just old wounds, but breakups, job losses, health crises, the death of a loved one, even just a social slight—the kind of release that allows you to Move On. But though strong emotions are fine, and we have a great capacity for holding and managing them, over the long haul they're better out than in. And the way out is through. Thus the benefits of catharsis require that you actually feel your buried emotions, not just vent them. You might argue that you’re definitely feeling anger while you’re venting it, but what about the sorrow that’s below it? And the vulnerability that’s below that? And the love that’s below that?

Ironically, getting closure requires opening-up, though there’s an even chance that doing so will make you feel worse before it makes you feel better. Before it kicks in, catharsis will immerse you in whatever disturbing emotions have accompanied your troubles and traumas. And closure is more a verb than a noun. And it can’t be forced, as hungry as you might be for emotional efficiency, to turn lemons into lemonade, or forget your troubles altogether.

And though buried emotions can often be ignored for awhile, or medicated into oblivion, they’re ultimately among the most authentic expressions of your aliveness, and you can affect a great resurgence of energy once you're no longer using it for the repression and disguising of your truth, once the pain of denying how you truly feel finally exceeds your fear of revealing it.

Step one of catharsis is feeling what you feel. Step two is finding a way to release it, if not give it a voice. And the tools for blowing off steam in a healthy if not creative fashion are legion. Pour out your story to a friend, listen to music or binge-watch movies that capture how you're feeling, go for a hard run or play an explosive game of racquetball, journal about it, stomp around your house making fiery speeches about the indignity of it all, write one of those ferocious and purgative letters you're not supposed to send, draw a big picture of how you're feeling with bright oil crayons on butcher paper, crank up the music and dance, sweat your emotions at a gym, angry-clean something.

Improv teacher Nina Wise believes that our darker impulses should not only be acknowledged, but played up and played with. She once hosted a “depression party” during which guests had to wear black, they lit black candles, and served black food—black caviar, black sesame crackers, black bean dip, black coffee, dark chocolate.

They ate on black plates, wiped their downturned mouths with black napkins, and when anyone asked how you were, you had to say you were terrible, horrible, awful, and complain volubly about all the depressing and demoralizing things that had befallen you lately: heartache, heartburn, weight gain, financial loss, romantic breakup, mental breakdown, car trouble, career off the rails, and the world generally going to hell in a handbasket.

Finally, having exhausted themselves with the rigors of kvetching, and feeling better for it, they put on loud music and danced.

To be sure, there are many tools and techniques available to help clean out the pipes when you find a backlog of emotions blocking your vitality and self-expression, but it's more an ongoing process than a once-and-for-all. Especially when the backup is long-standing, setting your soul to rights won't be a job for quick-fixers and resolution junkies. It's more like Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

As Mark Twain once said, “Habit is habit. It’s not meant to be thrown out the window. It’s meant to be coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

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