Published descriptions of therapy provide thousands of examples of
catharsis. Here's one. In the early 1880's, Josef Breuer, Freud's friend, was
treating a bright, attractive young lady, Anna O. Among many other
symptoms, she had a phobia of drinking water from a glass. She didn't
understand the fear. Under hypnosis, Anna O. recalled being disgusted when
she saw her tutor's dog (she hated both the tutor and the dog) drink from a
glass. After Anna O. expressed her intense anger about the tutor, she
immediately understood her rejecting the water (just like she rejected the
tutor) and she could thereafter drink water from a glass. None of the current
behavioral research has studied such a "cathartic" experience as Anna O's,
probably because this kind of repressed experience can't be scheduled as a
30-minute lab assignment for Intro Psych students; it can be recorded in
therapy, however. Furthermore, a straight-forward, easily controlled
procedure for venting one's anger is available (see chapter 12) and could be
researched readily. It focuses on reducing anger, not learning aggression. The
same process occurs when you feel better after letting off steam with a
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I hid my wrath, my wrath did grow.
I suspect intention and expectation of catharsis are crucially important in
determining the outcome, e.g. if you beat a punching bag an hour a day
thinking how you will punch out people you don't like, I suspect you will
become more hostile and aggressive. If you punch the bag thinking that at
the end of an hour you will be completely exhausted and cleansed of your
hatred and will have a better understanding and more willingness to forgive
the irritating person, I suspect you will become less agitated and aggressive.
That needs to be proven in the lab.
One final observation about catharsis: many violent crimes are committed
by people described as ordinarily being gentle, passive, quiet, easy-going,
and good natured. Naturally, this surprises everyone. Likewise, many
psychological tests describe persons who have committed violent acts as
ordinarily being over-controlled, i.e. not emotional or impulsive and very
inhibited about expressing aggression against anyone. Thus, it seems that
they may "store up" aggression until it is impossible to contain and, then,
they explode. Many of us, who have been parents, have had a similar
experience, namely, holding our tongue until we over-react with a verbal
assault on the child.
The research about hostility suggests that a safe, appropriate way of
releasing our anger is badly needed. Athletics are supposed to serve this
function for some people but the data is contradictory. Byrne and Kelley