Catharsis and Teaching

I recently read Micheal Griffin’s great blog post called “Talking about Talking about Teaching (Volume I)” and he posed some really interesting questions in his article.  One of the questions he asked was “Is complaining about teaching ever cathartic or helpful?”  I’d like to chime in here and add my own thoughts.  First off, I have found that complaining is not the sole domain of teachers in any one particular country. I have found that if you put any two teachers who know each other reasonably well enough in the same room, they will inevitably start complaining.  Sooner or later the topic will come around to a questionable decision made by the administration or a particularly frustrating student and even when that’s done, you can always complain about your workload or the pay.  Although I think a certain amount of complaining might be healthy (and, after all, human), I think there’s a point where people can do so excessively and without an intended resolution.  We often try to excuse these tendencies by rationalizing them as catharsis.  But I’m not sure I buy that and here’s why.

Although the idea of catharsis has been around for a long time, there is little psychological evidence to back up the idea that it reduces future aggression.  In fact, quite a few studies have shown that cathartic venting may actually increase the venter’s future hostility.  I think you’ll find that much of complaining or “venting” is actually re-telling stories and some research suggests that this is akin to “re-living” the experience and the actual stress of it all over again.  So if complaining isn’t benefitting us then why do we do it?  Researchers believe we are actually trying to look for people who agree with us in order to make us feel safer.  We feel threatened by an event or situation and naturally seek allies to shore up those insecurities.  And although that may actually feel good in the short term, it does worse than nothing for us in the long run.

This isn’t to say people don’t have a right to complain.  They certainly do and sometimes we just seek validation of our feelings because we need that as human beings. But there is a point, I believe, in every bitching session where smiles start to fade and the group begins to get worked up into an unhealthy fervor.  Somehow, an invisible line is crossed where commiseration turns toxic and only serves to feed on everyone’s anger.  I believe this point can be roughly identified when statements are made that reflect black and white thinking (“This job is terrible!”) and labeling (“That guy is a loser.”) and one-upmanship (“You think you have it bad?  Well, let me tell you…”).  At this point, nothing good can come of talking further and a group “bitch session” becomes an echo chamber for stress and negativity – a feedback loop that can serve no purpose other than nurturing resentment and hostility.  Have you ever, honestly, walked away from these kinds of sessions feeling better about yourself or your position in life?  I haven’t.

I recommend reading about the psychology behind venting in the excellent book by Eric Berne called “Games People Play”.  One of the games he describes is called “Ain’t it Awful” which is the classic bitching session we all know and love.  Berne posits that each person in a social interaction takes on the social role of a Child, Adult, or Parent. In this case, “The Child” complains bitterly about something while the Parent offers consolation with a joke or a sympathy beer.  The game stops when someone in the session takes on the role of “The Adult” and looks at things realistically rather than in entirely negative light.  The Adult’s job here is to find a quiet point in the conversation – that shuddering lull where the echo chamber pauses for a brief respite – and simply say, “…So what do you think we should do about this?”  With an end game in mind, I think the feedback loop can be cut and a “bitching session” can turn into something where everyone comes out of it having gained something.

I also recommend “Feeling Good” by Dr. David D. Burns, which is an excellent book about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Burns talks about the major causes of depression from a CBT perspective and mentions how thought patterns can become self-destructive if not monitored carefully.  Unchecked (or even worse – amplified!) negative thought patterns can lead to some very dark places.  Classic destructive thought patterns are usually evident in “bitching sessions” when they start to spin out of control.  They include all-or-nothing thinking and other distortions of reality.  I can’t seem to find my copy of it right now but it’s worth checking out if you have the chance.  Here’s a video of his TED talk that goes through his major points.