I once heard it said that catharsis, on its own, does not lead to relief from our sufferings. I don’t think I truly understood that statement until last night.
In the small hours yesterday, I took the opportunity to blog anonymously on a writing prompt related to something difficult, and thereby obtain catharsis in doing so. It had rather the opposite effect.
What is meant by catharsis? There are endless dictionary definitions, but I had presumed that catharsis meant releasing something, leading to relief. Writing about suffering, however, does not lead to relief, even if it may lead to release, if we omit the element of hope.
Last night I was unable to sleep, worrying about a loved one and the dangers she was courting in her life. Of course, we cannot protect those we love when they are adults and capable of making their own decisions. However, some of those decisions were causing me grief, and making me question the rightness of my own decisions in life. So I availed myself of the opportunity to blog about it, anonymously, as per the invitation.
I don’t think I was ready for what this kind of writing would make me feel. Today, I felt a raw mix of depression and anger – not about my loved one or her situation, and maybe not even about me and my situation, per se. However, I felt there was no hope.
The problem with catharsis as framed is that it can lead to hopelessness. It’s one thing to express our feelings, our fears, our sadness, and even our anger about something. However, there’s the rub. Talking about it doesn’t lead to any kind of resolution, and without the right support, can lead to greater despair.
I always thought of anger as the flip side of depression, but I now recognize anger in myself as a kind of hopelessness – recognition that often there isn’t justice in life, that there are things you can’t control, and that there are people who will judge you (and often you are that person).
Catharsis opened the hopelessness of the situation to me, and therefore opened stronger feelings of sorrow, anger and helplessness.
I understand better now that piece of wisdom about catharsis. The conclusion of my early morning catharsis was only an acute sense of how little I could do about the situation that faced me. It also reminded me that I was responsible for my feelings, and the suffering they caused me. This is the kind of philosophy that is promoted freely by many: that negativity attracts negativity, and likewise, positivity attracts positivity.
However, reviewing my situation a day later, now that the depression and anger stirred up by my cathartic writings have settled, I realize that catharsis is not just about release, it is about relief. To me, that means acknowledging, but then accepting; despairing, but then comfortinging; helplessness, but then hopefulness.
The most important part of catharsis is moving from release to relief. Both come when you face your suffering with a compassionate heart, without self-blame and self-recrimination, by just by accepting “what is”. It is important to give ourselves the release of talking about our burdens, but it is even more important to deal kindly with ourselves, and to handle the consequences of our emotions and ourselves with compassion.
Positive and negative implies judgement. Compassion comes with just accepting what is, without blame. Compassionate thinking is what will heal us.