Writing by Lizzie Armitage. Artwork by Cilla Sullivan
Negative catharsis exists, and I’m ashamed to admit that I experience it regularly. Since primary school, I have felt somehow ‘other’ from other people, and these feelings only spiralled as I entered adolescence and the social minefield of secondary school. As a result, whether the creation of myself or other people, I have always felt inferior, and inferiority complexes can be a nasty breeding ground for hate. We only need to look into the incel subculture to see this. Men take their feelings of self-loathing stemming from undesirability and turn it into an attack on women, and the caricatures of the attractive, athletic men which they felt belittled by during their formative years. It’s easy to imagine how, to them, it must feel good, cathartic even, to be on the other end of the figurative fist.
I’m reluctant to compare myself to these advocates for bigotry and shower-avoidance, but sometimes I wonder if the only difference between us is self-awareness. I am constantly pitting myself against people in imaginary competition, delighting in their failures and rejoicing in my successes. It’s cathartic to me when the know-it-all who always has something to say is corrected by a tutor. It’s cathartic when someone who is incredibly put-together admits to feelings of insecurity about their appearance. In those moments, they are no better than me. Typically this feeling of triumphant catharsis is followed by a pang of guilt. Why can’t I just be happy for other people? I like to think that if I was better adjusted I could be, but as it is, I’m afraid I’m just a bitter and twisted individual.
There are some who say that no human emotion is inherently bad. For instance, anger is a natural response that can help us communicate sources of tension and provides adrenaline for the physical conflict essential in earlier times. Jealousy is likewise a natural response. In fact, I don’t think I ever feel more primal than when I’m jealous. Competition for resources and positions in the social hierarchy have laid the foundations in my brain for side-eyeing someone’s Dior lip oil. It’s very Mean Girls. However, while I agree that it is natural to feel jealous, I would argue that natural does not necessarily equate to good, and that, being the evolved beings that we are, we have a responsibility to acknowledge these feelings, and challenge our negative desires towards people that arise from jealousy.
On the other hand, challenging our negative emotions isn’t very cathartic. The release becomes a chore and a tool for self improvement. This raises a different question; is it justifiable for catharsis to come at the expense of other people? One common (and convenient) way of justifying my snide comments is the ‘no harm done’ mentality - if people can’t hear my thoughts, they can’t be hurt by them, so why make an effort to change a harmless habit? This is a tricky one, because while the thoughts themselves don’t do a person harm, a dirty look, a snappy reply, or a sly smirk may not go as unnoticed. Whether intentional or not, I believe that jealousy towards others will inevitably alter how you treat them. When I think it might do someone good to be knocked down a peg or two, I am less likely to help them back up. The fleeting joy this grants me makes the world a worse place, even if only a little at a time. When looked at from this perspective, I don’t think I can justify my petty behaviour as a form of catharsis, because in creating my own escape, I create something other people need escape from, contributing to a never-ending cycle.
So, through the course of this article, I’ve managed to come to the ground-breaking conclusion that wishing harm on others is bad. If only it were as easy as flushing my jealousy cigarettes down the toilet and slapping on a Mitski nicotine patch to get my daily fix of catharsis. Of course, the journey to being a better person is never easy, but I don’t think we should expect it to happen overnight. If indulging in a cheeky bit of social schadenfreude on the weekends keeps us on the straight and narrow, so be it, as long as it’s not the only thing keeping us going.