‘It has to get worse before it gets better’: The truth about catharsis, as the path to emotional healing
The confusion surrounding ‘letting go’ also and why it is useful, but not necessary to ‘scream and shout and let it all out’.
Sometimes we feel like we have so much emotion in us that we just want to let out.
Or we maybe feel numb and like we are holding back from expressing what we know is deep down.
In both instances we intuitively know that something is blocking us from feeling the emotions that we want to feel.
And in both instances we hope that by crying, screaming and letting it out we will feel better for it.
To put it simply; you do not need to re-experience a traumatic or difficult emotional event before you can heal from it.
Screaming, shouting and dancing have their place. They feel good and they can be helpful, but they are not the whole of the truth when it comes to emotional healing.
The conclusion that this article will draw is that while there is some truth in the common misconception that we must feel worse before we can feel better, this is not the entire truth.
Instead what is more accurate is that feelings of hurt, anger, pain, fear etc, will transform and disappear once we relax and become more comfortable with experiencing those emotions in our body, without becoming overwhelmed by them.
Painful Memories and General Emotional Pain (Without Any Known Memory)
Emotional healing really is very simple, in practice, and while the initial event may have been painful (and perhaps still is painful), the healing and transformation doesn’t have to be.
Persistent difficult feelings are a result of a ‘holding’ in the body and the mind. On one hand, certain parts of the mind and body are still in a state of anger, sadness, terror etc, due to the traumatic/difficult past event (known or unknown), whilst other parts of the mind and body are pushing down on these feelings and suppressing them because these feelings are uncomfortable.
Again, this doesn’t have to be complex. Many people will already have a sense of what I am explaining here. In real life, they perhaps have an inability to feel their emotions fully and passionately.
They may feel numb to certain feelings or unable to express certain feelings. Emotional suppression (or repression) isn’t some intangible spectre than exists deep in the recesses of our psyche. Instead, it is much more simple than that.
Feelings Happen In The Body
It is PHYSICAL, not mental. It is something that happens in the body, not just the mind. And It is something that many of us in this culture have a dull awareness of in our bodies. We feel at times that we do not have a deep capacity for the emotions that we want to feel or that we are incapable of certain feelings.
This may sound intangible, so to put it in practical terms, just look at the behaviours of pretty much anyone. They watch tv, they smoke, drink, eat food, they fidget, they look at their phone or their laptop. I’m not saying that anyone who does these things must have some emotional pain they are avoiding. But what these behaviours do illustrate is some people their (somewhat compulsive) attempts to avoid the discomfort that they feel.
The suppression may even grow from feelings that go beyond just numbness and a lack of energy and can become physical pains (commonly referred to as somatisation). People experience such physical symptoms as headaches, back pain or tiredness.
How Do We Get In Touch With What Is Suppressed?
Of course, this suppression does not happen at a conscious level. It is unconscious So how do we change or take control of something that is happening unconsciously?
This is where the idea of catharsis, screaming and shouting in order to discharge emotional pain comes from. Early forms of body-oriented cathartic therapy, which helped people to break free from the numbness and rigidity of the way they felt daily, were bioenergetic analysis and gestalt therapy. These involved people beating mattresses, chairs, screaming, crying, shaking their fists violently and ripping up pillows in order to discharge the way that they felt on, a daily basis, and get back in touch with their more natural state of being. And these therapies worked.
While screaming and shouting continue to be helpful in that they help us to feel more energised, awake and in touch with our bodies— the real healing in these therapies come, not from screaming and ‘letting it all out’, but it comes from the us finally becoming aware of the phyiscal sensations that are in our bodies (rather than going numb to them) and being able to feel these emotions in our bodies without becoming overwhelmed.
This is much more fundamental. Emotional change happens when a person is able to actually tap into the feelings (or lack of feelings) in their body, by observing and becoming aware of what is there (rather than numbing them or ignoring them) and then gradually staying with the feeling as it goes from being uncomfortable to part of the person’s comfort zone.
(I have included some links at the bottom of this page that go into much greater detail on how to do this).
From Discomfort to Comfort: A Simple Example Of Taking Conscious Control of an Unconscious Fear
A blatant example of this, just to make a point, would be when I got over my fear of spiders. I used to be immobilised by fear when I saw even the smallest spider in the house. (To give an example of how irrationally scared I was, I remember my freind one time picking up a house spider about the size of two pence coin and cupping it in his hands. He then started moving his hands towards me and joking he was going to throw it at me. I ran away from him and up a flight of stairs and started shouting at him from the top of the stair case that he better not come near me with that spider. I remember feeling genuine rage and thinking ‘this guy is a fucking asshole’ just because of the anticipation that he might bring the spider near me).
To get over the phobia I was put in a position where I was holding a tarantula in my hands. Over the course of an hour or so I was able to hold it, touch it, put it down again, relax, breath deeply and then do it again. Through this gradual process of me relaxing and trying again, asking questions about it and becoming curious about the animal lead to me eventually being able to relax whilst holding it.
This probably seems obvious to anyone reading this. Even someone with no emotional intelligence still is familiar with the fact that human beings will gradually increase their comfort zones with time and exposure to certain influences. Anyone who was ever scared of starting a new job, going on stage, going to school, scared of meeting people etc and who then managed to get over that fear has experienced the exact same thing.
With time we desensitise ourselves to stimulus, we generalise it and it becomes ‘normal’.
This is how emotions work. It is that simple.
Also notice that the man handling the spider did not instruct me to ‘feel the fear! Scream and let out your anger and fear! Don’t suppress it, cry and let loose!’. Nor did not hold me on the ground and let turantuals walk all over my body so that I could fully experience my fear of spiders. I guarantee that this would have traumatised me further and ingrained my phobia.
What happened instead? I gradually made the spider a part of my comfort zone. Was I scared to just let one of its legs touch my hand in the beginning? For sure… but it was not overwhelming. Through tapping into the fear a little and then being able to relax and breath until I was okay with touching its leg, the discomfort was transformed into something that was comfortable for me. I could then try again and go a little further and then a little more until I was holding it.
So notice— it did have to get a little worse before it got better. I did have to experience some discomfort, but not much. And it did not take long. By tapping into the fear little by little i was able to dissipate it. Had I become overwhelmed by the fear, It would likely have made things much worse for me.
This is just an example that is easy to relate to. While a fear of spiders is a somewhat trivial fear, I have used similar approaches to help overcome other more personal problems in my life.
These principals can apply to healing and any emotion or memory. You don’t need to re-experience them and bask in the pain of the trauma before you can feel better.
This same principal of desensitisation is the same principal that is at the heart of any form of change work.
Some of the more successful forms of change work such as Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine) use this approach through gradually working with the sensations of the body.
A more commonly known form of personal change work that uses the same principal, of gradually broadening the comfort zone, is Psychocybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. In this book, Maltz invites readers to clearly imagine themselves the way they would like to be. By continually thinking about themselves as they would like to be; the prospect of becoming that way (eg. losing weight, making money, being in a loving relationship, getting on stage confidently etc) starts to gradually seem less and less daunting and they feel less identified with thoughts such as ‘but that’s just not who I am!’. By eventually becoming comfortable with the thought of being the way they want to be, they are then able to implement changes in real life with much less emotional resistance.
Maxwell Maltz calls this ‘expanding the self-image’. It could just as accurately be called ‘expanding the comfort zone’.
Why Do People Think that Catharsis is the Only Answer and the Pathway to Healing?
Another reason why screaming and cathartically venting one’s emotions is misconceived as the answer to releasing emotional problems is because it is often a way for people to bring emotions to the surface; to make conscious what was previously unconscious.
Throughout this article I have stated many times about becoming aware of the feelings that we are suppressing in our body. Many of you might be thinking ‘okay, so how do I do that’. Quite often with cathartic actions, such as screaming, dancing and physically shaking out; the very act of doing these things will start to ‘bring up’ feelings to the surface. They can make us aware of feelings that we were previously unaware of (suppressed in our bodies).
Another Word On Catharsis
I was fortunate enough to attend a 3 day Bioenergetics retreat with Elliott Hulse. In his videos you will see that he is a strong advocate of cathartic release and expression. While the cathartic exercises that we did brought allot of feelings to the surface; what was more important is that we were able to experience these emotions in an environment where we felt safe and where we could gradually start to become more at ease with accessing these feelings.
Don’t get me wrong; catharsis and letting it out are great for our expression, energising and looseness. If you’re looking for greater emotional expression and flexibility then this is definitely something to look into. And in the process they can work in letting go of old negative feelings. But what what I want to emphasise is that they are not the only way to achieve a same result of emotional healing.
It is important to note that your body wont often allow you to access strong feelings that it perceives as threatening if you are not in an environment where you feel safe or ready to tap into them. Many of us may want to tap into our feelings or cry but we just can’t, and for this reason we believe there is something wrong with us. Your body is smart, There is nothing wrong. Either we just need some more time to tap into those feelings using various practices (outlined at the bottom of this article), or perhaps we don’t even need to cry.
Working directly with a traumatic memory can potentially have the effect of re-traumatising a person. This is why very gradual and body oriented approaches to healing are most effective. Taking a gradual approach to healing– as apposed to being ‘a man’ and either just ignoring your feelings, or thinking that the best thing to do is to re-live the entire experience and feel all of your strongly held feelings all at once (which are both uneducated and potentially damaging)– is the way that the body finds it’s way back to safety, connectedness and wholeness. The beautiful thing is this process can take as little time or as long time as you need.
Re-experiencing the initial event is not what is important. This in and of itself is not what creates change. The fundamental reason that these can work is because the person is tapping into a feeling in their body, instead of remaining numb to it. Because this is the fundamental reason for emotional change— things such as complete re-experiencing of the initial event, or a powerful emotional catharsis are not needed in order for healing to take place. But what is needed is that the person become aware that there are feelings in their body and getting in touch with them at a rate and speed that is comfortable (and not overwhelming) for them. What is important is the person moving from numbness, to awareness, to discomfort (of the feelings they are holding back) to comfort to wholeness.
I have included two videos that I believe will be very helpful to anyone who has found this interesting. I will also include some recommended books. It is my intention to write some other articles on how we can naturally discharge emotions and how the body stores and releases trauma and stress. These will be linked in this article once I have posted them.
An explanation from pioneering and paradigm shifting Trauma expert, Peter A. Levine of how the body stores trauma and stress in the body and releases it. This video is incredible.
Here is a step by step video that guides you through a simple emotional release process that allows you to get more in touch with your body and to become aware of the feelings that you are perhaps holding onto.
Resources used while writing this article:
Peter Levine – In an Unspoken Voice
Peter Levine – Waking the Tiger
Peter Levine – Healing Trauma
Maxwell Maltz – Psychocybernetics
David Berceli – Trauma Releasing Exercises
Joseph Le Doux – Anxious
Anthony Robbins – Awaken The Giant Within
David Allen – Getting Things Done