What is the connection? What are the differences between thought and feeling? Is catharsis real? How can our clinical skills grow stronger by weaving these possibilities in the therapeutic setting?
All of us have had the experience of being fully present with a client who’s going through an “arc” of thinking, feeling and catharsis and felt the resolve and the relief they experience when traveling this path with our help. I’ve compared it to a gathering thunderstorm and the stages of anticipation, turbulence and resolution that come in the “afterglow” of such liberating experiences. The feeling in the air after a storm is palpable because of changes in the “ionic valence” of the atmosphere. Likewise, changes in emotion bring changes our brain chemistry. Grief, especially, is a very beautiful and powerful “presence” that often comes to us and our clients, unbidden and often misunderstood. Though not always defined by a linear sequence of events, this arc of “thinking, feeling and catharsis” often plays out in moderately predictable fashion. Knowing and sensing this with clients can make us more aware and more connected and more valuable as guides to their experience. I know of no emotional experience more than grief that brings people seeking help.
Thinking is our natural state. Our minds are busy. As our thoughts appear, then bounce and travel and land on memories and interpretations and observations and judgments of past/future, we have feelings from these thoughts, and judgments that are powerful. For example, thinking of a lost loved in early stages of grief triggers profoundly tender memories. Feelings, quite naturally, rise within our bodies. Pulses quicken, breathing shifts to shallow, temperatures rise, tears appear and fall. We can help our clients at moments like this by normalizing the experience and giving them permission to follow their feelings, honoring them and allowing them to come and go. A mentor often encouraged me to “let it come through”, as if we were welcoming a sacred experience of healing. Aristotle was the first to use the medical term “catharsis” from the Greek word “to cleanse” or “to purify” and apply it to emotion. Whatever the scientific threads of explanation, if you’ve felt the relief that comes from a good cry, you’ll be more able to offer guidance and support to those who seek help.