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Catharsis and Suggestion

{written by : Ian Heath}

Article word count : 3181 -- Article Id : 971
Article active date : 2008-10-31 -- Article views : 8997

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I explore catharsis in more detail. It usually has either a sexual theme or a theme of self-praise. The sexual theme is the more peculiar of the two, so I focus on it.

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Reversal of Values

I explore catharsis in more detail. It usually has either a sexual theme or a theme of self-praise. The sexual theme is the more peculiar of the two, so I focus on it.

The usefulness of the sexual theme is that it highlights a feature of catharsis that does not appear to have been noticed in literature on psycho-therapy that I have read. Catharsis reverses values !

Catharsis originates from the repression of ‘immorality’. Repression has the function of removing from awareness unsuitable desires and attitudes and the memories of unpleasant events, and also of inhibiting the anxiety associated with those events, desires and attitudes. The anxiety indicates that an unsolved problem has been buried within the subconscious mind. The anxiety indicates that the unsolved problem is creating a little bit of determinism.
When we have an insight into the cause of a psychological problem, then we find that the problem no longer needs to be repressed ; the reason for this is that the insight allows some or all of the underlying anxiety to be released. The joy that the person feels arises because we are releasing the anxiety (though the person does not usually know that he / she is releasing anxiety). This release is a main function of a psycho-analysis.

When the repression is dissolved by an insight into the cause of the problem, the stored-up anxiety bubbles up into consciousness, producing the excitement of the catharsis. In the past, usually as a child, the person had stigmatised the event or desire as being immoral and undesirable. Therefore when the catharsis begins its course its content is this immoral event or desire. The event may be an objective one, or a subjective experience (as, for example, in the child’s interpretation of its relationship to its mother). Because of the excitement, the memory is no longer stigmatised. Now the peculiarity of catharsis is felt:

There is a reversal of values :

it becomes fun to phantasise on the immoral, on the forbidden ; immorality is felt to be exciting.

Immoral Compulsions

In the catharsis the person feels that he / she is breaking free of the constraints of tradition. The person’s daydreams focus on overturning the social constraints on morality and sexuality. Naughtiness becomes compelling and compulsive in his / her phantasies. In fact there is definite emotional pressure to phantasise: this pressure creates the compulsion. This pressure is due to the release of anxiety. This pressure determines the intensity of the excitement. The greater the amount of anxiety that is associated with a repressed memory, the greater becomes the excitement that is experienced and the more protracted becomes the fun phantasy of immorality. The greater the amount of anxiety that needs to be released, the longer will the catharsis last, even up to several weeks duration if necessary.

Only when all the anxiety is released can compulsion cease.

Because there is a reversal of values the initial starting condition has to be narcissism in vanity mode. Excitement needs vanity as a base, and a mood of narcissism enables a person to handle immoral attitudes without passing pejorative judgement. The imagination, which produces the phantasy, becomes free to use material that formerly was forbidden. A memory cannot be analysed unless it is allowed to rise into consciousness. So long as a memory is forbidden, it remains repressed and its associated anxiety restricts conscious choice. In the catharsis, a forbidden idea of childhood is now presented in full consciousness to the person, who is now an adult. The excitement neutralises moral judgements, the anxiety is released from memory, the confusion created by the child is cleared up by the adult, and a little bit of determinism is eliminated.

As narcissism fades away and jealousy becomes the current emotion, so sexual desire adds spice to the immorality. Now the person becomes vulnerable to forming a temporary sexual attachment to anyone who may give him emotional support or who can make him feel good about himself (before the client can fall in love with the therapist, that client has first to experience catharsis).

When the excitement has finally evaporated, guilt arises and the backlash begins. Guilt feelings are generated as a reaction to the immoral content of the phantasies. The person now repudiates what he felt in the catharsis. Disgust at himself is produced, leading to resentment. Morality becomes emphasised ; the person decides to clean up his act.

At last, when the resentment ends, a new balance is acquired. The immoral phantasies are neither repressed nor repudiated ; they simply cease to be compulsive. Choice is now available in an aspect of consciousness that was formerly forbidden. If the person so wishes, he can indulge in such phantasies without feeling guilty. But because the phantasies are no longer taboo they cease to have their former fascination. Detachment is the fruit of abreaction.

Since the adult mind contains a multitude of immoral thoughts from childhood and adolescence, so a multitude of abreactions are needed to completely clear the mind of immorality.

What catharsis achieves is that it allows formerly-repressed ideas to come back into association with the person’s normal consciousness. In this way his consciousness is enlarged. Each catharsis gives a different theme to the phantasies. No catharsis is a duplicate of a previous one. Any problem may have several factors to it, and hence may require several episodes of catharsis to completely solve it. So in a long analysis the person finds that his problems regularly change as he slowly abreact the various factors of them. Any difficulty that does not feature in the catharsis is not affected by the tail-end state of resentment.

The excitement of the catharsis is really just a form of dis-orientation. The hallmark of a change in subconscious motivation is always an episode of dis-orientation. The reduction of anxiety alters the way that the person uses his will. And dis-orientation denotes uncertainty in the use of will ; that is, the person is changing his use of will. This change is not always noticeable ; it depends on the gravity of the problem.

Morality and Ethics

I also label the abreaction of guilt as moral abreaction. Once the final quiescent state is reached, when the resentment fades away, we see what has been achieved. This abreaction eliminates compulsiveness not only in aspects of immorality in our subconscious mind, but also in aspects of morality.

The abreaction of guilt eliminates the compulsiveness of both immorality and morality.

This effect implies that the development of morality is not the final goal of humanity. Morality is just a stepping-stone to the production of full self-consciousness. Morality is a half-way house on the road of human evolution. But why is its compulsiveness eliminated? It is obvious that immorality is not desirable. What is it that is limited about morality?

Morality, considered as the unthinking acceptance of social values, is derived from the social conditioning of the child. Therefore the ego, and its values, cannot be changed without a corresponding change in the person’s morality. Morality, based on social conditioning, represents standards of conduct that have not been developed by choice but by fear and punishment and guilt-induction. To put these ideas another way, consider the child. The resentment at having morality forced on itself is built into the subconscious mind. Hence morality is intertwined with immorality. So in order to abreact one the other has also to be abreacted at the same time.

I make a distinction between morality and ethics.
I consider ethics to be the critical evaluation of standards and values. On the road of human evolution all fears and all compliant rule-governed behaviour will eventually be replaced by choice. Choice allows the person to freely construct new ideas on ethics and values that are harmonious to his / her fulfilment. A psycho-analysis helps the individual to learn to choose freely what moral attitudes to uphold and what ones to reject. Morality then becomes personal choice.

The sequence of abreaction leads the individual along the path that is ‘beyond good and evil’ (to use Nietzsche’s classic phrase). Abreaction leads beyond morality. When a person goes beyond good and evil, psychology replaces morality. Psychological judgements supersede moral judgements.

Sexual Abuse of Children

Catharsis produces a reversal of values.

The real strangeness of this fact can be illustrated by the issue of the sexual abuse of children.

If a child is sexually abused by an adult friend, it will generate guilt in him / her. When eventually as an adult he / she abreacts that guilt, the original situation will transpose from being fearful to being exciting. In the catharsis the sexual values are reversed. It will now become exciting to relive in phantasy that abuse, even to desire such abuse. Exhilarating phantasies of sexual abuse will compulsively dominate the mind. The desire to abuse other children may also arise. When the phantasy ends, the tail-end stage of resentment makes the person disgusted with themself. Eventually the person acquires detachment over the issue and ceases to blame their childhood friend.

The problem for the child (when it has become an adult) is that if he / she cannot restrain their emotions to phantasy then he / she may enact them in a real social situation by seeking to abuse young children.

If the child is abused by someone who is not a friend then the child can react by generating hatred of that person instead of feeling guilty about themself. Then when the child has become an adult there will be no compulsion to abuse other children. It is the creation of guilt in the child that causes the problem for him / her when he / she becomes an adult.

Compulsiveness is always a product of, or a reaction to, the conjunction of anxiety with underlying guilt.

However, sexual abuse of children may not be a product of compulsion. It may happen through the attraction of power, or because it is socially acceptable (as in the homosexual mores of ancient Greece).

Compulsiveness denotes confusion. The confusion within the subconscious mind has to be treated by psychological methods and not moral ones, if the aim is to heal the person. Confronting and resolving issues like sexual abuse cannot be accomplished if moral judgements are made the framework of therapy.


So far I have considered the process of abreaction as the consequence of having an insight into the cause of a psychological problem. It is insight, and only insight, that removes the problem. Psychic practices and religious experiences may relegate a problem to comparative insignificance, but they do not remove it.

However, abreaction can be triggered by another factor, independently of insight. This factor is that of suggestion or short-term desire. Suggestion causes the generation of anxiety. This anxiety can be abreacted without needing insight. The limitation of this mode of abreaction is that, since there is no insight, there is no permanent elimination of anxiety.

Once a short-term desire arises the ego attaches anxiety to it. Excitement is generated when the desire is being fulfilled but that excitement is just catharsis. Once excitement is generated the sequence of emotions proceeds to guilt and resentment as usual and the anxiety is abreacted. But the absence of insight means that fresh anxiety begins to accumulate to the next arousal of that desire. Only insight can prevent a previous problem or a former desire from acting as a nucleus for the build-up of new anxiety.

In effect, all that happens with suggestion is that the person creates an exciting phantasy within the emotional sequence of abreaction. Since anxiety is not permanently eliminated so these phantasies can be replayed endlessly. The person follows the emotional sequence, with all its pleasure and pain, without getting the benefit of the eradication of anxiety. Because the phantasy is based solely on feelings rather than on insight it can be generated anywhere and at any time. I call suggestion the feeling mode of abreaction, whereas therapeutic abreaction is the insight mode.

There is another difference between the two forms of abreaction : suggestion need not go all the way to guilt and resentment since it can be interrupted. This is one reason why the limitations of suggestion are not usually recognised.

The process of abreaction in feeling mode can be interrupted in only one way. At the stage of jealousy, the self-pity mode is dominant. If the person is then given appreciation and emotional support by another person, such as a sexual partner, then the self-pity mode is neutralised. This neutralisation means that the following stage of guilt is prevented from occurring. Hence emotional support given in time stops the person experiencing guilt and resentment. This is the real value of having an harmonious relationship with a partner : each can take turns in helping the other to survive abreaction. However, the fact that many partnerships are not harmonious indicates that this neutralisation of guilt does not always work.

For comparison, when a person is going through abreaction of guilt in insight mode, the stage of guilt cannot be prevented. When the person is given emotional support at the stage of jealousy, the guilt is merely held back and delayed till the effects of the support wear off.

I give examples of short-term desire.

1 ) Masturbation begins with excitement and often ends in guilt.
The arising of guilt denotes that abreaction in feeling mode is occurring. Whilst the person may be aware of the subsequent guilt, he/she may not realise that the guilt is followed by resentment.

2 ) Sexual intercourse too begins with excitement.
If the sexual partner is pleased with the person’s performance, guilt does not arise in the person. The person experiences only the stages of narcissism and jealousy : the self-pity mode of jealousy is neutralised by the partner’s social approval. However, if the partner is unaffected or dissatisfied, guilt arises in the person and the full sequence of abreaction runs its course. Hence sexual intercourse can lead to feelings of degradation and resentment.

3 ) On a holiday coach trip I sat next to an elderly woman.
For about three hours she talked incessantly. First she talked about what she found to be exciting (= narcissism); when these ideas ended she began to mildly criticise people that she knew (= jealousy). Her monologue was completed by the airing of her resentments. This was the abreaction cycle, in feeling mode. It has repercussions on communication. When a person is highly anxious and under pressure to talk, they will not listen to the other person but will follow the abreaction sequence. They have to continue talking until the anxiety has evaporated. Only when the abreaction sequence, and the compulsive need to speak, comes to an end can a two-way dialogue begin.

There is often a time scale to the compulsive need to speak. If time is plentiful the person will speak at a moderate pace, non-stop. As the time nears for the listener to depart, the person will increase the rate at which he speaks. He acts as though he has a quota of words to offload onto the listener before he can relax.

4 ) Often in psycho-analyses the clients fall in love with the therapists.
This attachment occurs during the abreaction of guilt, in the intermediate stage of jealousy and sexual desire. The therapist should avoid participating in a sexual relationship because after the jealousy stage ends, guilt and resentment are likely to follow if the client is unsatisfied. Any sexual relationship will now be felt by the client to be repulsive and the therapy may come to an end in discord.

5 ) New-Age encounter groups:
Here personal relationships are explored in a group setting within the atmosphere of a superficially-generated catharsis. The group interaction gives the impression that problems of relationships have been solved, or at least ameliorated. This might well be true if the group was a permanent reality, that is, encounter groups might be a good way to initiate communal living, when the group chooses the new rules that it will function by. But when this is not the case, when the person returns to the normality and dreariness of everyday routine then both resentment and the problems return as well – the artificial catharsis achieves little of permanence.

6 ) A physiological form of abreaction happens with drugs that are used to change mood.
Alcohol is usually drunk in order to free inhibitions (that is, to simulate catharsis); when over-indulged, it ends in a hangover. Likewise cannabis is smoked in order to become high; when over-indulged, the end feeling is usually lassitude. Both the hangover and the lassitude are physiological analogues of resentment, that is, they both represent the rejection of the cathartic mood.

This understanding of two common drugs puts a question mark over the usefulness of some psychiatric drugs. Any drug that attempts to induce a better state of mind in the person will eventually lead to some form of ‘relapse’. The induction of a better state of mind usually means switching to narcissism, and the relapse probably indicates subconscious resentment. Therefore all mood-changing drugs that follow the abreaction pattern will end in generating subconscious resentment, and this must defeat the purpose for which the drugs are used. Such drugs are not an acceptable alternative to counselling (assuming that the client is receptive to counselling and can have insight into their problems). Mood-changing drugs are needed in emergencies. But their long-term use cannot solve problems ; the best that they can do is to help clients to control problems.

In examples (1) to (6) the excitement is generated by suggestion, based on feelings. An alternative way of generating excitement through suggestion is by switching to mania. Hence there are three forms of excitement: two based on suggestion and one on insight. All forms relax the repression of subconscious memories and desires. But only in insight mode is the relaxation permanent, since anxiety is eliminated.

The euphoria of catharsis often centres on what is forbidden, whilst that of mania may centre on noble wishes or a desire to be socially benevolent in some way. The excitement generated by suggestion ends either in resentment or in the depressive stage associated with mania ; then the repression is re-instated. In episodes of mild excitement, often the only way to distinguish catharsis from mania is to see what follows it: resentment is always the hallmark of abreaction, whereas a depression usually indicates mania.

These ideas have implications not only for adult relationships but also for parent - child ones too. A parent who is recovering (that is, in the throes of guilt and resentment) from the party the night before is not likely to be accommodating to a child’s demands. The process of abreaction is likely to be the main source of discord in a family, and the young child is the member least capable of bearing such conflict.


[¹]. Anxiety is an emotion.

A summary of the factors of some important emotions is :
Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.
Pride = vanity + hatred of other people.
Narcissism = love + vanity.
Jealousy = love + self-pity.
Anxiety = fear + vanity.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by W. Kaufmann. USA, Vintage, 1966.

Author Bio :
Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.

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