Catharsis Means “Release” for a Reason

An uncomfortable personal story with a lesson I wish I’d learned far earlier.

I cry a lot.

This wasn’t always the case — in frequency or in good health. For a large chunk of my early formative years crying was a failure, or a mistake. I believed most feelings existed to be restrained and tightly controlled. I believed that “growing up” meant not just bottling feelings up, but not letting them get strong in the first place. I believed that caring deeply about my own interests was abnormal, that wanting to share those feelings with others was an unwanted intrusion. I believed that I was less of a man if I gave a damn about something other than beefy dudes in plastic armor slamming into each other over an inflated pigskin — especially if the feelings weren’t competitive or materially productive.

And so, I tried to lock it all down.

And so, I tried my damnedest not to cry.

And so, the pressure built over time.

And so, resentment grew. Toward myself, toward my role models, toward the “friends” I had at the time. No cage is perfect — something will always slip through the bars eventually. When I slipped out, these things came out under pressure. The consequences of those moments are still some of my most shameful and painful memories, even if that quiet, toxic part of me still revels in the discomfort I was able to spread with mere words.

Bear with me, this sob story does have a purpose.

It took a complete social and cultural reset, a fresh start in a new place, for me to heal. Nothing aided that healing more than letting myself feel, and feel deeply — without shame or fear of judgement. The seeds of this had been sown years before with the release of How to Train Your Dragon (2010), a movie that echoed my own feelings with brutal honesty. That trilogy has been a touchstone and safe place for me ever since.

The summer before my senior year of high school brought the sequel (which I still hold to be one of the best animated films of all time), and I think that was the first time I allowed myself, in a public setting, to cry. To let the tears come out and let my breath catch and let the emotions rush through me. To do so and not give a damn for what anyone else would think. When it was over, I felt…clean. Not empty or wrung out the way you feel after a breakdown — I’d had enough of that. No, I felt washed clean. The world seemed sharper, and I felt a sense of peace inside that I hadn’t felt that intensely since I was a child. I wasn’t happy, per se, but I felt free.

It was temporary, at that moment, and had come after years of relearning who I was in a new school district and discovering that I was capable of having friends again, but it was a feeling of release I hadn’t had before. It was one of the first times I consciously recognized as a moment of catharsis — deep, soul-cleansing catharsis that you’re not only unashamed of, but proud of. It is, from my still-young perspective, one of the most uniquely human experiences you can have.

It’s also one I see so many people, especially young men like me, hesitant to embrace — even when they’re not being actively discouraged from it socially. Feel your anger, yes, but feel your grief. Feel your sadness. Feel your melancholy. Feel your joy, your happiness, your excitement, your love. Feel that coarse, bittersweet knowledge of what is, what could have been, and what will not be. Revel in those feelings, let them burn and coil and bubble and whirl around inside you. The only way to know them, to understand them, is to feel them*. Once you know them, you can let them visit and leave like old friends — even if some of them are less pleasant than others. Instead of ripping through you like a feral animal, they come and go like the tide.

https://www.morrobay.org/listing/north-point-beach-%26-tide-pools/15569/

It’s easier to pick up the driftwood and trash (or let it float away) when you know what to expect, and welcome it.

A big step toward that is just letting yourself fucking cry.

My now-fiancé teases me from time to time. When How to Train Your Dragon 3 (2019) came out we went and saw it in theatres. I collapsed into a blubbering wreck by the ending, and even more so in the last scenes with their children. We went to see Spiderman: No Way Home recently, and it was an emotional rollercoaster. If I hadn’t healed, if I hadn’t been able to feel the way I do now, my life would be dimmer for it. The colors more grey, the air less crisp, the loving caress of the winter wind more hostile, and art more hollow. Life would be shallow again.

Very few people lack emotional depth. Many lack emotional understanding or empathy, but very few people truly feel nothing. These things have weight and power, and pressure will always build if there’s no outlet. If you don’t allow yourself catharsis, if you don’t let yourself accept and embrace the feeling — not the presence of it, but the feeling itself — then the choice will be taken away from you. The release that comes from the dam breaking will hurt, and you won’t be able to control when or where it happens.

I’m not ashamed of the tears that come when I listen to music, or connect with a piece of visual media, or read words on a page. It took a long time, but I can now look in my mental mirror, with all of my loves, interests, hates, disappointments and bittersweet surprises, and accept what I see there. Acknowledging yourself cannot just be logical — you have to feel it. It’s one thing to look upon a picture of a beach, and another to taste the bitter sea air, feel the bite of the breeze borne of cold waters, and revel in the soft rustling of the sand as it slips between your fingers.

To the men: I don’t personally give a shit about the concept, but I can think of no less masculine thing than denying yourself the experience of your own feelings. There is joy in embracing sadness. There is relief in sitting with your grief. There is peace that comes with that bittersweet remembrance. There is power and strength that comes with loving your own human experience, and that love requires understanding. Don’t bottle it up. Seek and allow that catharsis.

Let yourself fucking cry. Damn everyone else.

Thanks for reading, if you made it to the end. It’s not a comfortable topic for a lot of us, and there are still a lot of old-school, toxic opinions floating around that have been entrenched in society for years. Let those views die with the people that originated them. Lets live our own lives, with all that entails.

*Disclaimer: this doesn’t necessarily apply to those of us who struggle with mental illness or are neurodivergent. People like us have different experiences in general, and so what I’m talking about here may be scarier, harder, or more dangerous for us than they’d be to others. If you’re buried by hopelessness, or anxiety, or that voice is whispering to take that fatal step, there are people whose job it is to help you. You need not feel and struggle alone.

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Calen Bender

Calen Bender

Fantasy author and professional content writer. I like to read, play games, play with my dogs, and pretend I know what I’m talking about.