Katharsis vs. Kathexis: Wohin mit den ganzen Gefühlen?

It is cooking inside of many people these days. It is bubbling, boiling, pinching, it is just about to explode. What is this IT? The “IT” is feelings and emotions that are boiling up, which shows in various forms. Some people literally explode by e. g. screaming at somebody or starting a fight over irrelevances. Others swallow their feelings silently and sooner or later have physical symptoms and a big number of people try to suppress feelings with shopping, consumerism, alcohol and distraction. This is not surprising, since in our society we have been manipulated in a way that it is not okay to have or show feelings. You have to be strong, reliable and professional and feelings just don’t fit into this picture. What would the neighbors and colleagues otherwise think! Feelings are negative, foolish, childish and destructive. However, many people are facing their limits by now, and trying to suppress what’s boiling inside of them sooner or later triggers backwards.

It is time to realize that feelings and emotions are not a design error of God, but an essential part of us. They are meant to be. They are archetypal forces that serve us. However, a many people seem to push this away. How many books and workshops are offered, where you can apparently learn to stay totally calm and control your rage, or how many seminars promise you that after attending you have got less fear. It is really frightening. Recently a young man told me that he had spent a year in an Ashram in India in order to learn a special kind of meditation allowing him to finally be really calm and relaxed. At first this seemed to work perfectly. And then, he explained, after one year the day came, where his mother and sister came to visit him in India…and – you might suspect it already – within 2 hours these two women triggered the entire old program in him and all his suppressed feelings started boiling again in high speed. Gone was the equanimity. So let’s clarify one point: anger, sadness, fear and joy are archetypal, meaning original feeling territories. They never go away. You may manage to control and suppress these elemental forces, but some day there is the point of no return, where all feelings you have suppressed come back like a boomerang. It is time to take possession of and use the power of feelings again.

This topic is getting even more and more explosive these days, because the national and worldwide political and economical development is everything else than trustworthy and instability and insecurity increase considerably. So what can you do when a feelings cocktail is boiling inside of you and everything just seems to be too much?  

In general you have two options: catharsis or cathexis.

Let’s take a look at catharsis first. Imagine you have suppressed your feelings about various big and small things in your life. Most of the people do this. They build a so called numbness bar in order to not feel the feelings, to survive in a big city or to be able to work in a certain company, in short: to survive in the everyday jungle of modern society. On a scale of 0% to 100% feelings maximum, many people have set their numbness bar at 80%, which means that they cannot consciously feel feelings that are less than 80% big. This is neither good nor bad. It just produces certain results. When in a certain moment it comes to the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the feeling rises over 80%, then a volcano eruption occurs. You might scream at your colleagues in the office or attack your partner, you bawl the lady at the cash desk in the supermarket or fulminate against your client. That’s exactly what catharsis is. Catharsis is an uncontrolled emotional release to „simply blow out the feelings.” Some people live out their catharsis against other people, others go into the woods and shout at a tree or hit a punching bag. This kind of eruption oftentimes feels so big that afterwards you might think „What was that? Oh my God, next time I have to control myself in a better way.” And then you set your numbness bar high again to cover the feelings, because in the end you don’t want others to say that you are irascible, a cry baby or a poor lunatic, right?

But once again: You cannot get rid of your feelings. We are human beings having an emotional body with a heart that has feelings. And as long as you are not Davy Jones (the bizarre captain of the Flying Dutchman in the movie „Pirates of the Caribbean“), you cannot live without a heart and thus without feelings. It is not possible. It is in vain to try to switch off the feelings. So catharsis is not productive. It may be of temporary use, but you do not own your actual power of feelings again. Consequently, this power it not permanently available to you. When you do catharsis, the feeling owns you.

Let’s do an experiment at this point.

Experiment: How do you distract yourself?
Think back to moments, where feelings started boiling inside of you and you managed to control them competently. How did you do this? How did you distract yourself to not feel the feelings? Maybe you went running or you let off steam in the fitness center. Or you watched TV, surfed in the Internet, opened a bottle of wine or beer or ate chocolate and pizza. Some people also use sex as distraction, some use cigarettes or other drugs. Each of us has his favorite strategy to distract himself and “to forget”. Please write down how you try to make the “negative” feelings go away. 

The distraction strategy, as well as catharsis, is based on the old view of feelings. The old view says that feelings are bad. Anger is negative, destructive, childish, dangerous and threatening. When you feel sad, you are a cry baby, drag others down, you are unprofessional and not able to make decisions. If you are in the territory of fear, you are a coward, spread panic and please, nobody wants to feel fear so it is important to avoid it. And what about joy? Well, this feeling is likely to be positive, right? But what happens when you sit in the office smiling all day long? Then you are foolish, naive, you have smoked some grass, don’t have enough work or had a clown for breakfast. In any case you are not to be taken seriously.

Let’s leave it like this for now regarding the old view of feelings, which has been hammered into us since we were children and which modern society is still trying to hammer into us.

Another opportunity to handle upcoming clear or mixed feelings is the so called cathexis. Cathexis means that you feel your feelings consciously, lower your numbness bar step by step and then learn to use the information and energy behind the feelings responsibly. To be able to do this, a new view of the four named feelings territories anger, sadness, joy and fear is necessary.

The new view says that feelings are NEUTRAL energy and information – as neutral as the four directions on a compass – and serve you in a precious way. They are like a golden key, like an inner navigation system that leads you unerringly through life.

With anger you can for example set boundaries, get into action, make decisions, go forward, clear out stuff, do things, say Yes and No, begin and end something. With sadness you can AUTHENTICALLY get in contact with other people, develop compassion, let go of things or say good bye, open up and be vulnerable. Fear allows you to plan, be creative, to go into unknown territory, be innovative, present, awake and attentive. Joy serves you to lead, to motivate yourself and others, to take a look beyond your own nose, to be enthusiastic and to go forward.

With this new point of view cathexis is possible. Cathexis means that you explore the treasure e. g. of the territory of sadness and are able to be really sad in a safe space in presence of another person, not as a victim, but responsibly. You consciously start and consciously stop. You clearly communicate what you feel sad about (“I feel sad, because…”) and it is heard by the other person. This works similarly with anger, fear and joy. It is essential that you learn to feel consciously and dig out the manifold treasure of feelings.

Catharsis also has the intention of getting rid of something while cathexis has the purpose of keeping the treasure you receive when you clearly and consciously experience and explore the different feelings territories.* The treasure you get with cathexis is clarity about your feelings and their use. You experience that you are bigger than your feelings. You take again possession of the feelings and their energy. And most of all you get back your power and can reconnect to your true potential.

All the best,
Nicola Neumann-Mangoldt