One of the most important dimensions of counselling and psychotherapy is the experience of emotional release – the ability to express and let go of strongly held feelings. This isn’t an easy process. In the therapy room, I often find that people are afraid of certain emotions. They dread losing control and being vulnerable. Emotions are viewed as irritating and burdensome, things to avoid at all costs. I’ve had clients say that emotions “get in the way of life,” or “will take me over, make me lose my mind.” These are common concerns. (In fact, I used to have many of the same thoughts myself.)
However, avoidance of emotion tends to have a nasty rebound effect. As a result of the fear and dread, difficult emotions are often relegated to some side corner of our inner world, packed away and locked up. Over time we become emotional hoarders. The baggage of pent up emotions and feelings proliferates, and pressure builds. And builds. We’re left with no internal spaciousness or freedom and feel constricted and trapped by the sheer volume of build-up. Life becomes increasingly complicated and chaotic as a result. Emotional baggage is heavy and cumbersome; it’s no fun dragging it all around inside and holding it at bay.
The antidote for emotional hoarding is to give space for emotional release, to dump the baggage and let it go, safely and securely. It’s like having a huge internal clear out, getting rid of what’s no longer needed to make room for something new. This means contacting the emotions, naming them, and experiencing them as much as can be tolerated. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.
Another term for emotional release is catharsis. It’s a fitting word, Greek in origin, meaning purging and cleansing. In catharsis the body is made pure, free, and open through the actions of detoxification and release. Historically, catharsis only referred to a medical purge to cleanse and purify the physical body. Later, the term was adopted by Aristotle as a metaphor for understanding the purpose of Greek tragedy. In Aristotle’s theory, an audience actively moves through fear and pity within a tragedy towards a feeling of relief, satiation, and even pleasure at its conclusion. Catharsis is a process concerned with cleansing and opening up inner space through powerful emotional discharge. I can also see echoes of this process in the therapy room.
The end result of catharsis is emotional rejuvenation and renewal. We feel lighter, cleaner, and clearer afterwards. I believe one of the hallmarks of good, effective therapy is that it allows for the possibility of catharsis and emotional release. It can be powerful, but with someone there to witness and help, the process won’t result in overwhelm. Through counselling and psychotherapy it’s possible to release, and then to make sense of it all. This is one of the ways to gain closure.