The Hell of Purgation|
In the previous article, Abreaction 1, I showed that an emotion can switch to its complement.
This switching is the essential ingredient in forming regular sequential flows of emotion. Some particular sequential flows are very important for understanding the formation of attitudes and beliefs, as well as shaping behaviour and relationships.
When we investigate empirically our range of emotions we will find that some emotions are linked together to form four kinds of invariable sequence, which are ways in which the unconscious mind operates.
I discovered them by empirical awareness, but empiricism by itself does not generate any explanations. I had to use my reasoning ability to understand the mechanics of the linkages. In other words, the sequences are discovered by awareness, but why and how the sequences flow as they do have to be understood by using one’s reason. So what I offer here is my interpretation of some ways in which the unconscious mind functions.
These invariable sequences can be called ‘laws’ since they are deterministic in their operation and are general to all humanity. These sequences, these laws, are four kinds of abreaction. Abreaction is the purging (cathartic) effect that the release of emotion gives. And the emotion that is released is anxiety. The four laws eliminate the anxiety that is attached to four other emotions, these being guilt, pride, narcissism, and jealousy. Anxiety is released in stages, and up till now only a couple of stages have been identified: these stages are those of excitement (in one law) and of tearful weeping (in another law).
I need to introduce a change in traditional terminology.
Up till now the terms ‘catharsis’ and ‘abreaction’ have been more or less synonymous. Since I need a new word to label the sequences, I have separated these two terms. I name the invariable sequences ‘abreaction’, and restrict the term ‘catharsis’ to the stage of excitement that begins just one particular sequence. Catharsis is now simply the first stage in the abreaction of guilt.
When anxiety is attached to a memory it helps to create determinism. The deterministic behaviour is the attempt to avoid re-experiencing that anxiety. The forcefulness of the determinism depends upon the intensity of the anxiety. Now the anxiety is removed from the memory by the process of abreaction. Abreaction eliminates determinism. After an abreaction has ended and been assimilated, the quality of life is improved to some degree, depending on how intense the abreaction was.
Unfortunately, abreaction can be hell itself to experience.
For the sake of brevity I write of the abreaction of guilt, pride, etc, whereas in fact it is the anxiety attached to these emotions that is abreacted.
I work out in detail only the first two abreactional sequences (those which I label guilt and pride), since they are the most common of the four, and the easiest to recognise. In the sequences, the switching of emotions occurs when one emotion is replaced by its binary mate ; in both sequences the binaries that switch are "vanity - self-pity" and "love - hate ".
I repeat the factors of guilt, pride, narcissism and jealousy for convenience. They are first described in the article on Emotion.
Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.
Pride = vanity + hatred of other people.
Narcissism = love + vanity.
Jealousy = love + self-pity.
Consider the abreaction of guilt, or moral abreaction.
This begins with catharsis and ends in resentment.
The sequence is:
Narcissism leads to jealousy ; then jealousy leads to guilt ; then guilt leads to resentment.
There are four steps involved in a full sequence.
The excitement of catharsis represents the stage of narcissism in vanity mode. When the excitement ends, vanity transforms into self-pity, so jealousy is now present.
Narcissism (= love + vanity) leads to jealousy (= love + self-pity).
The stage of jealousy usually produces sexual desire, because the self-pity mode is dominant and it is following the excitement. In the therapy situation, the client may fall in love with the therapist during this stage, that is, the therapist may become a suitable object for the sexual desire. When the sexual desire ends, the love mode of jealousy transforms into self-hate, so guilt now arises. The person hates themself for what they felt in the catharsis.
Jealousy (= love + self-pity) leads to guilt (= self-hate + self-pity).
When guilt fades the final product is resentment ; the resentment occurs because guilt, with self-hate mode dominant, ‘shrinks’ the ego of the person. The change to resentment increases blood pressure and usually creates a headache (on the left-hand side of the brain ; headaches on the right-hand side of the brain are due to fear or anxiety). Sometimes depression follows the resentment, but this effect does not seem to be a regular reaction.
When the resentment has finally been worked through, the end result is detachment to the problem which originally caused anxiety. This stage is not always achieved ; it depends on how important it is for the person to hang on to their grievance.
Consider the abreaction of pride, or non-moral abreaction.
This begins with sorrow or sadness, and ends in bitterness.
The sequence is:
Jealousy leads to narcissism ; then narcissism leads to pride ; then pride leads to bitterness.
There are also four steps involved in this sequence.
This abreaction usually follows the abreaction of guilt. The sorrow arises when I reflect on the problem highlighted by the preceding guilt. The sorrow requires the self-pity mode of jealousy ; when it ends, the self-pity transforms into vanity, and narcissism is generated.
Jealousy (= love + self-pity) leads to narcissism (= love + vanity).
The person now feels good after the previous sorrow ; when we have a cry we feel better afterwards, but nobody noticed the sting that follows the good feelings. When narcissism fades the love mode changes to hate, and pride arises. Now hostility to others (especially to people in positions of authority over oneself) is dominant ; hostility is felt even towards the therapist.
Narcissism (= love + vanity) leads to pride (= hatred of others + vanity).
Finally, as pride fades, bitterness is felt over the way that the sorrow and self-pity have limited my sense of individuality.
The end result is detachment. As in the previous abreaction of guilt, this stage of detachment is not always achieved.
Abreaction mixes together the subconscious and the unconscious minds. The sequence derives from the unconscious mind, but the content originates in the subconscious mind of the person.
In these two types of abreaction, the first one, focusing on guilt, usually concerns issues of morality and social conditioning. So I also call it ‘moral abreaction’. The abreactional process starts from an insight into the cause of a psychological problem. The second one, focusing on pride, concerns non-moral issues such as those of dependency and freedom ; hence I also call it ‘non-moral abreaction’. This process does not require any insight in order to initiate it. Simple reflection on the preceding abreaction of guilt is enough to trigger it.
Anxiety is attached to two modes of character, which are the person’s sense of having a social identity and their sense of being an individual. In the abreaction of guilt, the stage of narcissism represents the release of anxiety from the sense of individuality, whilst the stage of guilt represents the release of anxiety attached to the social identity. In the abreaction of pride, the initial stage of sorrow allows the person to release the anxiety attached to their social identity. Finally the stage of pride releases the anxiety attached to the sense of individuality.
The hell of abreaction resides in the end stages of resentment and bitterness, which are the responses to the release of ‘pressure’ within the subconscious mind.
The first few stages of an abreaction may last from an hour to a day, to a week, to a month, depending on how important and intense the problem is. But the end stages may last many months.
The intensity of these stages is proportional to the ‘pressure’ within the subconscious mind, that is, to the extent to which social, sexual and political mores have been internalised involuntarily. When a person voluntarily internalises customs and conventions, this is social learning and it does not form anxiety. But when the internalisation is involuntary, then this is social conditioning : it creates anxiety and distorts beliefs in natural goodness as we learn to distrust people. This anxiety eventually becomes buried in the subconscious mind as the person grows used to the conditioning. The more intense the conditioning is, the greater is the intensity of anxiety that is buried. This intensity creates the ‘pressure’ that wants to be released.
The subconscious mind will always attempt to reject any form of involuntary conditioning, so the stronger that the conditioning is, the greater is the effort to reject it. Abreaction gives the subconscious mind the opportunity to release the buried anxiety. The length of time that resentment and bitterness are experienced depends on the length of time that is needed to assimilate the problems that caused the abreactions. The person has to re-structure their beliefs in order to accommodate to the elimination of anxiety from their subconscious mind. Changing one’s fixed beliefs, especially bigoted and repugnant ones, is never a pleasant experience.
In the abreaction of guilt, anxiety is most intense during the stage of guilt (this is why the sequence gets its name). The anxiety makes my eyes ache. The combination of anxiety and guilt also produces sensitivity to bright light, especially in the mornings. The eye ache is always worse in the mornings as compared to the afternoons (at least for me). The light sensitivity makes it especially difficult to work at a typewriter under a bright desk lamp, or to work with a computer VDU screen.
In the abreaction of pride, anxiety is most intense during the stage of pride, but there is little accompanying eye ache.
Now I can explain a paradox of psycho-therapy that puzzled Carl Rogers (Rogers, 1984). He often noticed that a client would leave a therapy session really excited, believing that he/she had finally solved a major problem. Life felt good. Then in the next therapy session a few days later the client would feel like a walking disaster -- everything seemed to be going wrong, a complete contrast to the halcyon hopes of yesterweek. This is the way that the abreaction of guilt affects the individual ; it is the guilt that collapses the hopes. There is nothing to be done but to persevere till the nightmare passes.
The intermediate emotions in the abreactions are not always easy to identify, with the exception of the stage of sexual desire that comes after the catharsis. When a person cannot identify their emotions they cannot verify the connection between excitement and resentment, or between sorrow and bitterness. The person beginning empiricism may simply see the period of the intermediate emotions as a ‘lull’ time between the beginning and the end emotions.
Universality of Abreaction
When a person walks the path of personal development, he or she has to come to terms with their unpleasant memories and the sense of guilt that they induce. Guilt disturbs the person, and the anxiety that accompanies it helps to control him or her, since anxiety is one of the causes of determinism. Hence on the path of personal development the person will have to endure many periods of anxiety. If he or she wants to understand why, then they have to sustain a long psycho-analysis. This necessitates the repeated experience of abreaction.
Since abreaction is a very distressing experience, can a person avoid it and still practice personal development? A common alternative to the attempt to understand oneself is the focus on will power and the denial of whatever is felt to be unpleasant about oneself. So the development of will power, aided by denial and repression, is often the dominant theme in psychic practices such as contemplation and meditation, and even in forms of autosuggestion. This theme is just the need to control the mind, but the practitioner is using their will to achieve this, and not their understanding. Another variant is the practice of cultivating emotional ecstasies; here the practitioner is allowing themself to be swept away by their emotions – the very opposite of control. Are these a genuine alternative to abreaction? Unfortunately, the answer is no!
Neither will power nor emotional ecstasies offer adequate solutions to the problems of the world, and most of these problems have moral and ethical components to them. Abreaction forces a person to confront and face such components, no matter how much he / she may wish to avoid them. By eliminating anxiety and fostering understanding, abreaction enables a person to upgrade their current standards. This upgrading is part of the function of resentment and bitterness.
So no devotee of personal development can avoid abreaction.
I give examples of different creative attitudes of mind and the ways that the effects of abreaction have been portrayed.
The mystic is subject to the ebb and flow of emotion: sometimes he / she seems to be walking in sunlight and at other times he / she sinks into darkness. Sometimes he / she is elated, sometimes he / she is in despair. This alternation of mood has been called the hill and valley experience that the mystic has to endure. So mystics, who usually have no desire to understand themselves, still experience intense periods of abreaction. The ‘dark night of the soul’ in mysticism is just a prolonged spell of abreactive resentment or bitterness. The dark night usually follows a period of exceptionally-good sentiments (the catharsis), and so is exceptionally bad. [Where the catharsis is absent, then the dark night should be classified more accurately as a ‘trial’, such as the trials of fire, air and water].
Philosophers experience abreaction. In ‘Ecco Homo’, Nietzsche describes his feelings of joy when he was writing ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra ’. When the writing was finished he felt ‘distress without equal’. So he wrote ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra ’ during a period of intense catharsis, and was afterwards engulfed in bitterness. In his book ‘On the Genealogy of Morals ’ he provides many examples of bitterness in his aphorisms (an example, picked at random, is essay 3, aphorism 14).
Writers experience abreaction. Hermann Hesse spent some time in 1916-1917 going through a Jungian analysis. His sense of spiritual liberation led eventually to 1919 being his happiest and most productive year. The next year ‘was the most unproductive and despondent year of his life’ (Hesse, 1985. Introduction). So 1919 was a year of catharsis, and 1920 a year of abreactive resentment and bitterness which stopped his creativity.
Even in psychological therapy that is not psycho-dynamic, such as forms of behaviour therapy, abreaction still occurs. The therapist may sometimes find that the client falls in love with him/her. This emotional attachment to the therapist signifies that the client is experiencing the abreaction of guilt.
By reading biographies that feature the subjective states of mind of people we realise that abreaction is not limited to psycho-analysis. It is not limited to people who are aware of abreaction. Ignorance of dynamic psychology is no defence against abreaction. Each person engaged in the process of character development has to eliminate undesirable or immature emotional responses. This requires the elimination of anxiety. So each person following his or her own idea of evolution or fulfilment will, voluntarily or involuntarily, experience the trauma of abreaction. It cannot be bypassed.
Autobiographical Writings. Triad/Panther Books, London 1985.
Client Centered Therapy. Constable 1984.
---- On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Vintage Books USA 1969.
---- Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin 1988.
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Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.
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