Chapter 2: Human catharsis

A. Catharsis as such

The following account is based on intensive work done in co-counselling over many years. The focus throughout is on the discharge of what I have called personal as distinct from physical distress.

  1. The discharge of grief occurs through crying and sobbing. The repressed client will permit the tears but restrain the sobbing, yet the deeper layers of pain are released in uninhibited convulsive sobbing. Aware physical support, holding, embracing may be needed by the client for her to feel secure enough to allow this convulsion to occur. As the physiological process occurs, the pain of separation, of love frustrated pours into consciousness and is fully experienced.
  2. The discharge of fear occurs through trembling and cold perspiration. The limbs, hands, head and neck and trunk, jaw are caught up in a high frequency trembling, while the person experiences the fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the psychological invasion or threat, of lack of comprehension. The fear discharged may be a fear of unfamiliar positives such as love, ecstasy, orgasm, pleasure, as well as unfamiliar negatives. Fear especially seems to lock and block automatically in the system, and it can be a revelation to the withdrawn, dogmatic, isolated person to experience the dissolution of that rigidity in the release of fear.
  3. The discharge of anger occurs through an uninhibited high-frequency burst of sound and storming movements. It is righteous indignation mobilising the breath, the voice and the whole musculature, arms, legs and pelvis: the protest "How dare you!" released somatically. Repressive controls inhibit sound and movement through muscular contraction: and the client will often need training and encouragement to remove these blocks. The associated experience is that of extreme, fiery indignation and protest.
    • Anger at the level of personal frustration, when human autonomy is interrupted and interfered with, is a kind of spiritual anger. In my view its discharge is only effective when it is entirely harmless, that is, when it is released onto old cushions, mattresses or into the air. The discharge of anger needs to be carefully distinguished from aggressive attack, which I see as a distortion resulting from undischarged fear and anger. There is all the difference in the world between the tone of "How dare you!" and the tone of "Take that! And that!" The theory holds that destructive, aggressive behaviour in humans will decrease as a function of its underlying repressed fear and anger being harmlessly discharged. This distinction is quite crucial when it comes to the effective education of those who are acting out in very destructive ways. When a person is breaking up property, other people or herself, her attention is displaced away from and is avoiding experience of the full force of deep inward fiery outrage and protest: it is a maladaptive attempt to deal with the buried anger. Aggression grapples with the opponent to avoid experiencing the pain of outrage. This notion of a spiritual, human anger and its need for a consuming, intensive but harmless release is very little understood in the culture. But the need for education here is enormous, for repressed anger is acted out in a great deal of physical and verbal battering.
  4. The discharge of embarrassment occurs through full, uninhibited laughter. The top layer of embarrassment appears to be a light social fear of what other people will think, say or do about one's appearance or behaviour. A slightly deeper layer is that of light indignation at such intimidation. The combination releases as laughter. A person who is open to the release of distress will find that laughter may pass over suddenly into the trembling release of fear or the storming release of anger, deeper tensions which the release of surface embarrassment uncovers. As the laughter of embarrassment rolls off, the experience is that of the break up of the previously unidentified rigid fear of the opinion of others.
    • Embarrassment presents itself congealed in repressive solemnity, sobriety, seriousness, which has a rigid, inflexible quality, trapping the lightness, the brightness, the flexible awareness of the true human beneath it. As the laughter rolls, the flexible human beams out, and the solemn mask falls temporarily away. There is no more delightful sight than seeing a person beaming with laughter, a full release of embarrassment for the first time, the old controls trying to slip the mask on again but failing since a fresh burst of laughter sends the mask once more clattering to the floor. Embarrassment is clearly a very substantial part of human distress at the personal level.
    • The human spirit or person, I believe, is innately and spontaneously light and joyful. The roots of embarrassment lie in the social intimidation or repression of this innate spontaneity. The growing child quickly gets the message that the abundance of her spontaneous joy is not socially acceptable, indeed is intolerable to the distressed adults around. Fundamentally, what embarrassment represses is the easy, elegant joy of the child - but not simply of the child but of the authentic adult too - hence the laughter that discharges embarrassment is very close to and often continuous with the laughter that expresses delight and joy in being human. Human development groups that never sparkle with richly human laughter still labour under a weight of unidentified and unresolved embarrassment.
  5. The discharge of guilt and shame. Guilt or remorse is to be distinguished from shame. Guilt is the distress emotion that can arise with the realisation that one has hurt another person, whereas shame is the distress emotion associated with the realisation that one's behaviour has been inadequate, has let the side down, has fallen short of expected standards, even though nothing hurtful has been done.
    • Furthermore there is a crucial distinction between redundant guilt and shame, and genuine guilt and shame. The former arise in a person indoctrinated with false and inauthentic values: a person feeling both guilt and shame about sex within a loving marriage; a man feeling shame at sobbing when someone he loves dies; a person still feeling guilty about wanting to reject what she can clearly see to be false and unjust authority, whether religious, political or domestic; and so on. Genuine guilt arises when a person has insight into the hurtful effects on another caused by her behaviour, where such effects were avoidable and served no wider constructive purpose. Genuine shame can arise when a person through some lapse or oversight or compulsive irresponsibility falls short of a valid social standard: defaulting on an important appointment, producing sub-standard work.
    • Redundant or false guilt and shame are really chronic forms of embarrassment and will usually discharge off as laughter together with some release of fear and anger through trembling and storming. Genuine guilt is like self-generated grief: the special kind of grief that follows from knowing that I have rejected the need of the one I have hurt to be loved, and that I have frustrated my own need to love that person. The primary discharge of such guilt is through tears and sobbing where the pain of guilt is intense. There may well be some associated anger too - frustration at the particular set of circumstances that interrupted my capacity to take intelligent choices in the situation. Finally, laughter will resolve any penumbra of false guilt that may have gathered around the genuine guilt.
    • Genuine guilt is often a higher order or reflexive distress: I distress myself still further because my already distress-distorted behaviour hurts another person. Genuine guilt often gets taken over by the already existing repressive controls, so that a person entertains compulsive guilt rather than release and experience in full the pain of the underlying self-generated grief.
    • Genuine shame, where others have been disappointed rather than hurt, is an altogether lighter form of distress. It is, if you like, genuine embarrassment, and as such it will discharge in laughter; although of course there is the deeper issue of what led to the sub-standard performance in the first place. What I have called embarrassment in the previous subsection is really redundant, false shame, but of a continuously present, socially pervasive kind, whereby the person's authentic self-expression is intimidated by false values programmed into the psyche, a programme which is triggered to play in almost every social situation.
  6. The discharge of disgust. Disgust is a distress emotion closely associated to physical nausea, hence part of the discharge may be a genuine vomit reflex or a symbolic or pseudo vomit reflex. Disgust, as a personal distress, as distinct from the purely physical disgust reaction to an unpleasant smell or other noxious stimulus, is a distress emotion that may arise in response to chronically distorted behaviour in oneself or in others. Apart from the actual or symbolic vomit reflex the discharge of disgust largely reduces to the discharge of fear through trembling, since in my view the core of personal disgust is fear at the invasion of the psyche or of relationships by blind, irrational, distorting energies, with associated grief at the interruption of shared loving thus induced.
    • Compulsive and distorted sexual interaction may result in a combination of personal and physical disgust in which nausea, fear and anger will be interwoven components.
  7. The discharge of boredom. Boredom, like guilt, shame and disgust, can be a reflexive distress. Behaviour already shut-down and distorted, so that genuine options and possibilities are internally restricted, the person feels bored. It can also be a genuine frustration induced by an uninteresting meeting or encounter. The underlying core distress appears to me to be anger, and is discharged accordingly.
  8. The discharge of physical fatigue and tension as such. All catharsis of personal distress involves a release of somatic as well as emotional tension. But there are clearly physical tensions sui generis, such as fatigue and muscle tension that cannot be reduced back to psychogenic factors. The discharge of these appears to involve deep, repetitive yawning and stretching.

B. Components of cathartic release

Catharsis is much more than mere emoting, A comprehensive account includes, in my experience. the following:

  1. Balance of attention. The person is aware of, in touch with, the distress emotions, but also has some awareness focused outside the distress - on the supportive presence of another person, on some thoughts, words that contradict (but do not repress) the pain of the distress. When attention is balanced in this way between the distress and what is outside it, a psychodynamic leverage is maintained that tips the distress emotions into discharge. Buried pain, when strongly activated just below the threshold of experience of it, soaks up awareness and attention: the client is in a heavy, down, immobile, depressed emotional state and is either heavily resistant to catharsis or cannot elicit it if she wants to. When a person is sunk or swamped by heavy distress in this way, then she needs to take some attention away from distress emotions (without repressing them) in order to liberate enough conscious slack in the system to free the discharge. If I go away from distress emotions but remain open to them, then by the play of opposites they are ineluctably drawn upward from their buried place toward discharge, If the whole psychosomatic system is absorbed in and tight with tension, release of tension cannot get started. The person needs consciously to disidentify a little from the taut system - then the liberating discharge can commence.
    • There are actually two complementary principles involved in this disidentification: the initial loosening of the system, and the drawing power of contradictory assertions - that is, thoughts and words that contradict or are quite outside the gloom generated by the hidden distress have the effect of drawing that distress out into discharge. This notion of contradicting or moving away from the inner gloom in order to bring its underlying buried pain into discharge is an elegant principle of unfailing practical potency.
    • In general, balance of attention means that the client always has some attention outside the discharge process, so she is not swept away by a cathartic upheaval that is oblivious to time, place, other persons and even the self. She is poised between the involuntary somatic upheaval and the arena of voluntary attention maintained outside this, an arena from which she can facilitate and guide the release, going deeper or shallower, coming to a close, as available time and the inner dynamic require. I have in mind here, of course, a skilled client who is managing her own catharsis with the supportive presence of another person, as in co-counselling.
    • Balance of attention also means that in practice the client will only work with levels of distress that are readily available, "on top of the pile", which she can progressively discharge in a relatively undisruptive way, so that the daily management of life is enhanced rather than disturbed. By working from a zone of free attention outside the distress, the skilled client guarantees that the deeper distresses will surface slowly in their own good time, reaching discharge point only when the person can effectively handle them.
  2. The release. From the zone of free attention, the person takes off the inhibitory control and lets the somatic convulsions - the sobbing, the trembling, the storming, the laughing - occur, while experiencing, opening consciousness to, the previously occluded pain of grief, fear, anger, shame. The distress convulses body and mind, but is in turn consumed by this acceptance. The experienced client will avoid premature closure which cuts off the discharge before all available distress at that working level is cleared.
  3. Spontaneous insight. Catharsis generates spontaneous insight, and the insight is just as important and valuable as the release of distress emotions. To return to the record theory, stress inhibits flexible, discriminating appraisal so that distress situations are recorded in the psychosomatic system in rigid, stereotypic way. Congealed distress is like wax on which a series of stereotypic oppressor-victim situations are recorded. The mind contracts under stress, so to speak, so that it has only a restricted grasp of the stress situation - "he oppressor; me victim; no escape; pain and panic, but cut it off and play possum". Elaborated by replays this record can become a chronic distorted construct in the way a person sees and reacts to her world. Discharge of distress has the effect of breaking up the distorted construct, liberating the mind to make a truly discriminating appraisal of what was really going on in the early critical incidents and in subsequent replays.
    • The person's intelligence, previously occluded and inhibited by emotional tension, will, as the tension discharges off, spontaneously re-evaluate the tension inducing situations and their subsequent effects. The basic insight here is a dynamic one: the person sees clearly what it was she as an authentic person really needed, sees how this need, interrupted and frozen, has together with the associated pain been the hidden motive force behind an elaborate set of distorted behaviours. Associated insights liberate other figures in the early drama from oppressor stereotypes so that they are seen in the round, as humans with all their facets.
    • The idea that a therapist or counsellor should give the client her own interpretations, insights, analyses, categorisations of the client's past and its relation with the present is ludicrous to anyone who has seen the flood of post-cathartic insight in the deeply discharged person. Interpreting to the client is a repressive process for both client and counsellor. For the counsellor, systematic interpretation applied to others is a form of double treason: it manipulates the client in order to keep at bay post-cathartic insight in the counsellor herself.
  4. Celebration. The liberation of distress from the human system is simply a prelude to the celebration that follows it. This is a celebration of human identity, of the re-emergence of specifically human capacities, of being fully present to oneself and others. The post-cathartic person needs space, both verbally and non-verbally, for this expressive delight in her authentic humanness. This is the phase of emergence from the shadow, of reclaiming the heritage of a warm heart, a flexible intelligence, an adventurous will. This is also a phase of sharing, of reaching out to others, of reciprocal delight.
    • On the practical side, celebration may also mean action-planning and goal-setting, the re-organisation of personal and professional life, in details or in substance, in order to give systematic expression to the values of emergent capacities.
    • Amidst the heavy repressions of the non-cathartic society celebration of self will often present itself, initially, to the uninitiated adult as inconceivable, an embarrassing and deluded phantasy. In my experience this attitude invariably boils down to a deeply embedded programme that reiterates the person's innate nastiness - and this programme invariably has a strongly repressive function. It takes courage and clarity to take the needle off the old record and sing a very different song.
    • Affirmation of the values of personal being can become a conscious meta-programme, an intentional way of living in which a person celebrates in attitude and behaviour, herself, others and the given world.

C. The effects of catharsis

Two immediate effects have already been covered in the previous section. I will re-iterate them briefly here, then move on to longer term effects,

  1. Spontaneous insight. This includes re-evaluation of the past traumatic event - insight into what was really going on, together with insight into connection between such an event and subsequent behaviour.
  2. Celebration of personal being. The beaming human person, as distinct from the shadowy distressed person, emerges through the cathartic release.
  3. Break-up of distorted behaviour. As old frozen human needs are identified by spontaneous insight, and the pain and tension that buried them is discharged, the person now has the inner freedom and flexibility to bring those needs awarely to fulfilment in present time. It is thus open to the person to cease living compulsively and to choose to live intentionally - to make conscious choices that relate fundamental needs to present realities. Catharsis does not automatically regenerate behaviour, but it liberates a person from distorting compulsions so that she can freely choose new behaviour. But the conscious act of choice has to be made.
    • Nor should, in my view, a crude hydraulic model be used. Such a model might argue that first of all you have to drain off the total pool of distress in which paralytic distorted behaviour lurks, before that behaviour is rendered impotent and new behaviour can begin. A preferable model is that as soon as discharge of distress liberates enough insight into the dynamic of the distorted behaviour, then a person can start to live intentionally. The old distortions may still have some energy in them, may still tend to leap out of the bushes when the situation that provokes them occurs, but now that the person understands what makes them leap, she can choose to replace them with alternative and more adaptive, effective behaviours. In other words, catharsis can reduce the charge on distorted behaviour tendencies to the point at which the person has enough attention outside them, in their provoking situations, to choose to keep them out of behaviour and to create new and self-fulfilling responses.
  4. Living in abundant time. Sustained catharsis generates a great deal of free attention - attention that has been liberated from the constraints of past distress. The result is a much greater awareness of present time reality, of what is here and now occurring in the given world, with a greater capacity to respond appropriately and flexibly to it. For many people this is an altered state of consciousness, for ordinary consciousness so often has a charge of anxiety on the memory of past events, which restricts the ability to notice in a thoroughly aware way what is going on now. Distress emotion hooked on to the past puts both very severe blinkers and a distorting lens on perception of the present.
    • But living in abundant time is more than living in present time. It is possible to be very here and now in terms of immediate sensory awareness yet to be also dissociated from past and future. Living in abundant time means being aware of what is present, with an openness to and a sense of the re-evaluated past, and with an openness to and a sense of the emergent possibilities of the future that are pouring into the present.
    • To be very present is also to be alive to what is about to become and to what by choice can be brought into being. Choice is very much shaped by the creative impact of the future on the present, dynamic possibilities elected by the will; but the freedom to make such choices presupposes an aware liberation from and re-evaluation of the constraints of the past. The present lived out of the future through a restructuring insight into the past - some such aphorism as this comes close to the concept of living in abundant time.
  5. Synchronous events. This is the controversial notion of a greater correspondence between events without and development within. The assumption is that as my own degrees of freedom increase internally through the break-up of old rigidities, external opportunities present themselves that correlate with the newfound liberty to explore new possibilities. Such an assumption rests on a far-reaching metaphysical theory that the traditional notion of efficient causality conceived in terms of sequential cause and effect needs to be related to an entirely different notion of causality conceived in terms of simultaneous resonance.

D. Processes that complement catharsis

It would be absurd to argue that catharsis is in and by itself a sufficient condition of human development. I do not for a moment believe that it is anything more than a necessary condition, needing to be complemented by other necessary conditions before anything like a sufficient account of human development comes into view. Some of these complementary necessary conditions seem to me to be:

  1. Creative thinking. A person needs to think out what kind of a world she wants, what her values and priorities are, what are rational means to rational ends given the current state of play in society and nature. Catharsis may liberate consciousness to think more relevantly and humanly, to apply intelligence in non-evasive, non-compulsive ways. But creative thinking is an independent act of clarification that has to be chosen in its own right. People do not think by catharting; they only think by deciding to think.
  2. Creative choosing. Goal-setting, action-planning, conscious risk-taking, intentional living, fully self-directed and purposive behaviour: again catharsis may liberate a person from the tensions that inhibit these processes, but the challenge of the new inner freedom and insight still has to be met by choosing - to re-structure the outer circumstances of life to accord more with the values emerging within, to take initiative that enhance human flourishing in the domestic, the social, the professional and the political domains. The point about such choosing is that it represents the values that have emerged by inner growth, rather than values imposed by an ideology rooted in repressed and distorted emotion.
  3. Expansion of consciousness. Catharsis functions at a relatively crude level of psychosomatic energy, involving gross somatic convulsions. Transpersonal techniques shift consciousness onto subtler levels of awareness and give access to a wide range of refining and cohering energies. I have presented a typology of such transmutative techniques in Helping the Client (Heron, 1990) together with a discussion of the relation between the cathartic and the transpersonal. The important point, I believe, is that the two types of process, the cathartic and the subtle contemplative-transmutative, are complementary. Misused, either can become a systematic defense against entering fully the domain of the other. Appropriately used, each can balance and enhance in a life-affirmative way the other. And each may produce the other as a by-product. Thus sustained practice of some meditation methods may lead incidentally to the phenomenon of unstressing, when the meditator finds herself unaccountably crying, trembling or laughing. Sustained catharsis brings the person very fully into present time, giving acutely enhanced perception of phenomena and taking consciousness to the very threshold of access to subtle levels of awareness. Finally, there is an interaction of the two approaches which is central in resolving the constraining effects of what I have called primary distress recordings. For details of this see the section on transpersonal direction-holding in my Co-Counselling Manual (Heron, 1998). And for a theory that sets the whole of human distress within a transpersonal context, see Chapter 19: Co-creating, in Sacred Science (Heron, 1998).
    • When catharsis is misused, its practice is invariably built around with rigid, authoritarian and inflexible theorising. Such dogma is itself a distortion rooted in unresolved and unidentified fear of the unknown to which transpersonal methods give access. When meditation is misused, its practice is harnessed to repressive mechanisms so that the whole elaborate edifice of mind-expansion buries early, perhaps chronic, distress, without resolving it. Such distress in my view continues to have significant and clearly detectable distorting effects on behaviour: spiritual authoritarianism, inability of the guru to relate on a peer basis, dogmatic intuitionism, rejection of the body, messianic delusions, compulsive proselytising, uncritical and undiscriminating guru-worship, and so on.
    • It is useful in this respect to postulate a very general principle to the effect that everything has to be dealt with at its own level in a manner appropriate to that level. Somatic humans have to deal with their very human tensions at a somatic level. Trying to deal with them entirely by transpersonal work simply leaves a lot of unacknowledged and unfinished business lying around - and for those with eyes to see it shows in all kinds of systematically deluded responses and behaviours. But Reich and some other pioneers of radical catharsis have made the complementary error: they have rejected all mysticism and meditation as an aberration, seeing only its repressive use, and refusing to acknowledge its liberating use. Then they propound the somatic myth: the delusion of human development conceived exclusively in terms of psychosomatic liberation - the free flow of emotion in and with and through the body. They should study the literature on out-of-the-body experiences.
  4. Culture of the body. Sensory awareness, conscious breathing, diet, dynamic yoga, dance, movement and relaxation methods: all these, and others, are ways of organising and cohering physical processes, with a significant effect on mental processes. They can be seen as an affirmation and celebration - non-verbally - of human identity, apart from their purely physical beneficial effects.
  5. Art. There is a close relationship between the aesthetic and the cathartic. I have already alluded in Chapter 1 to how various forms of art may have a cathartic effect. On the other hand, art, whether as creation, interpretation or appreciation, may have an effect complementary to that of explicit catharsis. It provides a way of organising, refining and transmuting emotion through the development of and response to symbolic forms. It purges by transmutation as well as by explicit release. While at the same time it offers a mode of knowing irreducible to any other.

E. Cognition and catharsis

It is entirely illusory to suppose that catharsis can be separated from cognitive processes. Here are some of the ways in which they interact.

  1. Theory framework. A psychodynamic theory that provides a sound rationale for cathartic behaviour is in my view a necessary precursor to initiating it in others. The theory itself can predispose a person to remove repressive and redundant controls. And it provides a secure cognitive framework for descent into the well of emotional discharge. In co-counselling training I always start with a theory and discussion session, and only invite those present to get into the practical work on themselves when they find the theory a sufficiently persuasive basis for doing so. Sound theory provides guidelines for responsible, aware release of distress emotions. And to return periodically to review and refine the concepts that clarify to human understanding the cathartic process, is an important part of sustaining that process in growth-promoting ways.
  2. Theory revision. If catharsis is one of the necessary processes whereby human beings liberate their distress-occluded intelligence, as well as their capacities for love and creative will, then that process surely comes of age when the liberated intelligence reviews the theoretical assumptions in terms of which it has been liberated. The cognitive and the experiential circle round each other, ideally, in mutually enhancing ways. What I call experiential research, and co-operative inquiry (Heron, 1996), involves two or more persons systematically in a three stage process, which may be repeated cyclically several times:
    • They agree intellectually on a plausible psychodynamic theory.
    • They cash it out experientially on their own growth and behaviour, using some form of reciprocal support, and for a significant period of time.
    • They review the original theory in the light of their experience of systematically living through its practical implications.
  3. Pre-cathartic open association. Following the chain of spontaneous associations, the thoughts and images that arise unbidden - if there is sufficient attention outside the distress - to start off a working session.
  4. Pre-cathartic intention. A person may start a co-counselling session, for example, with a clear notion of what she wants to work on. The unresolved area of distress has been conceptually identified. This is a kind of directed or focussed pre-cathartic association: the spontaneous associations are invited to arise around an intentional focus. Or, more elaborately, a personal cognitive map of the distorted psyche may be made as a basis for subsequent working: this, in fact, has already been done in broad outline by anyone who accepts the theory framework in 1. above.
  5. Pre-cathartic disidentification. This means disidentifying from distress recordings with their restricted deficiency view of the self and the world: generating a focus of attention outside the distress as a necessary prelude to discharging it. This means a cognitive shift: talking about positive experiences outside the distress; reconstruing the distress experience in a comprehensive way in order to contradict the restrictive concepts in which it is bound.
  6. Pre-cathartic cognitive reversal. This is closely related to the previous method. It is a way of defining the cognitive shift made in disidentification from distress: a person reverses her perspective on the distress-experience instead of seeing it compulsively in the deficiency concepts in which it is bound, she chooses to construe it from a wider more inclusive and abundant perspective.
  7. Cathartic insight. The discharge process itself may be launched by the sudden identification within one's being of the buried voice of pain or frozen need.
  8. Post-cathartic insight. The spontaneous flow of dynamic insight following catharsis, as described in previous sections.
  9. Disidentification and cognitive reversals in daily life. Already alluded to above (C. The effects of catharsis 3). When old distress-distorted behaviour tendencies have lost some of their distorting charge through emotional discharge, then the person can effectively disidentify from them when they are provoked by the old stimuli, and reconstrue the provoking situation in abundance rather than deficiency terms. See my account of the reversal cycle in Feeling and Personhood (Heron, 1992, 214-215). A classic reversal in terms of the theory presented in this work would be to replace seeing and responding to difficult people as nasty and unpleasant, by seeing them and responding to them as potentially abundant humans trapped by their buried pain in distorted behaviour: the former construct generates a limited, limiting and inflexible repertoire of response, whereas the latter construct can generate a wide range of flexible alternative behaviours - based on the crucial distinction between the person and the distortion.

A central theoretical question is whether it is possible effectively to resolve distorted behaviour by cognitive means alone, by first of all understanding the dynamic of distorted behaviour, and then by defusing in daily life and in contemplation distorted attitudes and tendencies as they arise. Such defusing would mean seeing the attitudes and tendencies for what they are, and dismantling their energy by removing the cognitive distortions built into them. This involves both witnessing the dynamic contents of consciousness and reconstruing them in the light of some general psychodynamic theory. The resolution of this question is for experiential research. My belief is that both the capacity to witness and to reconstruct can be greatly aided by the discharge process.

F. Transmutation and catharsis

What I have referred to just above as disidentification and cognitive reversals in daily life is a basic kind of transmutation, made possible by previous catharsis, but not itself involving further catharsis. The distorted behaviour tendency still has an energy charge within it, but this charge is transmuted into constructive responses that follow from reconstruing the situation. How we appraise a situation, how we see it, largely determines our emotional and behavioural response to it. Congealed distress compels us to see situations in deficiency terms - as situations that limit, deprive, oppress, restrict - and so we respond as victims. After some measure of cathartic competence is attained, a person can start to choose to see situations in abundance terms, - as situations that provide new opportunities - and so respond creatively and intentionally.

From this point on emotional and behavioural transmutation becomes a complement to the cathartic process. If transmutation is used exclusively without catharsis, there is some danger, in my view, of the process becoming too cool and dissociated, with repressive distortions creeping in under the guise of transcendental attitudes and aspirations. Or human warmth, the capacity for open, spontaneous, reciprocal loving may diminish or never appear. If catharsis is used exclusively and the person waits to clear the pools of distress before restructuring behaviour, then emotional release becomes too much an end in itself, and, I believe, a deluded one, leaving the person a growth victim.

Where the two processes are used to complement each other, then rechannelling can take over what catharsis started off: the person is liberated from the crude hydraulic model of emptying all the pools of distress. But this complementarity principle needs to be applied with great awareness, to avoid denial of or premature closure on distress material. When the balance is right, release of distress energy aids redirection of distress energy into authentic behaviour, and vice versa - with a total reduction in the amount of each in favour of spontaneously creative behaviour. Or such, at any rate, is my working hypothesis.

Transpersonal techniques are types of transmutation and their discussion above (D. Processes that complement catharsis 3) relates closely to this section. The same applies to artistic activity (D. Processes that complement catharsis 5). For a more comprehensive account of this section see Chapter 8: Catharsis and transmutation, in Helping the Client (Heron., 1990)

G. Catharsis, external displacement and dramatisation

By external displacement I mean the unaware acting out - against other people or the environment - of repressed distress and of a frozen, interrupted human need. The resultant distorted behaviour has conventional and socially tolerated forms, and socially disruptive forms such as hysterical shouting, uncontrolled verbal aggression, physical assault on persons or property, physical self-destruction. The point has already been made above (A. Catharsis as such 3) that behaviour of this sort is not catharsis, but a displacement and evasion of the pain of the denied feelings. However, some people who are acting out in these ways may be nearer genuine cathartic release than those whose distorted behaviour is of a severely controlled, withdrawn and repressive kind. So it is possible to train them, if the trainer's interventions are sufficiently authoritative, to flip from external displacement into genuine discharge of a potent but harmless kind.

Thus persons acting out destructively in, for example, a therapeutic community, are re-enacting in an exaggerated and symbolic form the psychological and/or physical violence done to them, in their early lives. Given the setting, the possibility for a genuine fear and anger discharge is not, in principle, far away. Persons who act out in this way, are not simply a danger, a threat and a nuisance, but are ripe for interventions of the skilled cathartic counsellor. An enlightened psychiatrist in a psychiatric unit for disturbed adolescents, north of London in the UK, found that such destructive behaviour significantly reduced after residents acquired intentional cathartic skills.

External displacement in everyday life needs sooner or later to be interrupted, in order to enable the person concerned to accept, experience and get some insight into the psychological pain that is being avoided by and displaced into the distorted behaviour. The ulterior transactions or games analysed in transactional analysis are good examples of the kind of the widespread displacements that occur in conventional social life.

Unresolved distress in children is rapidly displaced into distorted behaviour: they transfer their pain into compulsive clinging, demanding, destructive behaviour, spitefulness and malice, stubborn refusal, and in many other ways. The skilled parent finds some supportive way of interrupting the distorted behaviour, not just to put an end to it, but in order to facilitate discharge of the emotional pain which underlies it.

By dramatisation I mean a form of pseudo-catharsis. It often occurs in the early days when a client in co-ounselling is building up skills in self-directed cathartic release. Thus a client, within the limits of her session, may yell or scream or shout or bang the cushion with a low frequency thud, but in a way that lacks the high frequency spontaneous fiery discharge of genuine anger. She is really dramatising the external oppressor's end of her distress recording - symbolically re-enacting the violence done to her - as a prelude to discharging the fear, grief and the anger trapped at her own end, the victim's end of the recording. After the screaming, the inexperienced client, with the deft intervention of a skilled counsellor, may be able to tolerate and release a genuine discharge. Thus loud and pseudo-angry dramatisations in the client can be an effective prelude to the true release of fear, grief and genuine anger.

H. Catharsis and internal displacement

External displacement is the socially evident distortion of behaviour by repressed pain. The correlate of this acting out is internal displacement, a chronic "acting in" against oneself that takes the form of repressive control. The child can receive a double or treble invalidation:

  • Her basic human capacities may be rejected by parents and others.
  • The resultant distress may be rejected.
  • The resultant distorted behaviour may be rejected.

As a condition of social survival, the child learns to internalise these invalidations. The resultant repressive programmes within the psyche become functionally independent of their external sources. This is the control pattern: an ingrained, chronic attitude of self-deprecation. It continually says "I'm no good, my basic human impulses are no good, my distress emotions are no good, my behaviour is no good: I should be something other than I am". It is a burden of redundant or false guilt and shame, which serves to sustain repression of the distress emotions and the underlying positive potential.

To attain cathartic competence, a person needs to disidentify from this very negative self-image, and see it for what it is - an imposed programme that represses distress and occludes true capacities for creativity and joy. Many people identify very strongly and unawarely with the imposed negative self-image, so that they totally confuse their own identity with it. The process of disidentification, accompanied by bursts of emotional discharge, can seem very unfamiliar, uncomfortable and alarmingly liberating. In the early stages of co-counselling a person may, with much support and encouragement, step out of the control pattern for a brief experience of the unfamiliar liberation, only to be seen a moment later scurrying back into the familiar confines of the straightjacket. In the later stages, the person acquires increasing confidence in stepping out of the control pattern for longer periods, with the result of sustained discharge in a co-counselling session, and creative, joyful behaviour in everyday life.