The Meaning of Catharsis in Freudian Theory

Sigmund Freud’s early work with hypnosis allowed him to discover past fear and childhood anxieties could be relieved through a process wherein the patient was brought to consciously realize past trauma.  The release of pent-up anxiety and fear was thus “cathartic.” Catharsis was borrowed by Freud from a Greek origin which described cleansing or purging.

In collaboration with a popular hypnotist, Jean-Martin Jarcot in Paris, Freud worked with what were then called victims of hysteria. This term is not used often in psychology today, but in the late 19th century, many maladies, especially in the minds of women, were associated with hysteria. The subject was brought into a comfortable state of altered consciousness wherein they were drawn toward cautiously re-visiting an event from the past that resulted in repressed or suppressed memory being coaxed outward.

However, Freud was frustrated that he felt only symptoms and not root causes were being cured. In later work, he collaborated with Joseph Breuer, another hypnotist, to work on the case of Anna O. In these sessions, Freud attempted to find a root cause of the hysteria, and to originate states of consciousness that acknowledged the problem and purged it from the subject’s memory. Later still, Freud would drop the hypnosis and concentrate on trying to help his patients discover the origin of their anxiety and fear while they remained fully conscious. He began to use the (now) familiar word association to initiate catharsis, or the “talking cure,” as it came to be known.

All of these techniques depended upon his carefully mapped-out comprehension of the human mind as capable of being engaged consciously with the Ego, or unconsciously with the Id (instinctual drives) and the Super Ego, which psychoanalysis still investigates today. Freud was a true pioneer in describing these three human drives of behavior. However, subsequent discovery and investigation of brain physiology, behavior and cultural norms has yielded much information that has greatly expanded Freud’s work.

Freud was, after all, a product of his time. Some of his ideas, especially as concerns human sexuality, and especially as concerns female sexuality, were molded in an environment that placed some of human nature in a light that is less than flattering.

Today, evolutionary understanding makes it clear that the “primitive” drives of the body, which Freud described as instinctual drives, are not necessarily savage or a secret encoded map of the dark side of consciousness. Therefore, those cures striving for catharsis are not necessarily a case of out with the “bad emotions, and in with the good and controlling ones.” Today, psychology recognizes the entire planet as being involved in the human experience of physical, mental and emotional illness and health. Health also is less fixated upon the drives of the body which were once seen as merely animalistic (and not in a good way) and sexually fixated. In Freud’s time, no doubt, “abnormality” was culturally biased, drawing on incomplete models and social mores.

The Victorian model of a great chain of being put western “civilized” man at the top of what appeared to be a hierarchy that often saw women as weaker and in more need of relief from hysteria. Other cultures and belief systems in the 19th century did not always allow for other people of other races or gender to be realized as whole, rational beings.

Thus, Freud’s talking cure, or catharsis, sought to often relieve neurosis and hysteria by releasing the pent-up energy of personal guilt that was unresolved.The personal guilt theory was predicated on the idea that a woman would likely have an unconscious lust for her father (and boys for their mother), a normal degree of penis envy, a fixation upon the genitals and other traditionally “Freudian” concepts.

Therefore, the process of such catharsis has fallen out of favor in the modern era. Now, such ideas seem antiquated and even intolerant. The individual seeking psychotherapy is not considered abnormal, even if he or she is homosexual. A more thorough understanding, perhaps best popularized by Lady Gaga’s “Born this way” and more thoroughly mapped out by progressive feminism, has led to the belief that no matter what one’s inner state or traumas may be, they are affected by the whole environment: the subject’s relationships, the subject’s personal values and much more.

Given all of this, catharsis still has its usefulness. Finding the core origin of human guilt, fear, anxiety and emotional pain is still helpful to help one’s release of that suffering.