Q&A: Catharsis and Agression

What do you think of putting aggressive kids in dojos to ‘let off steam’? Does this happen? Does it help kids be more aggressive or less, or does it depend on age? I read that the Catharsis thing is actually a myth but do you have any thoughts about it? Does it not actually involve catharsis at all?

That doesn’t happen. At least, not exactly. So two things:

First: Can you stick an aggressive kid in martial arts and see an improvement in their behavior? Yes, that works. It’s not “blowing off steam,” though.

Second: Can you find catharsis in violence? No. “Blowing off steam,” through actual violence isn’t cathartic. It’s not even going to really work out the aggression.

Martial arts training can provide structure to a kid. Again, that’s not something I personally experienced, but I was already in Scouts when I first encountered martial arts. So, discipline and structure were not new concepts to me.

Martial arts training can significantly boost your self-confidence. This I can testify to. If a kid is being aggressive because they feel threatened, and are trying to use violence to create a safe space around themselves, martial arts training can do wonders for tempering those impulses. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you’re acting out because you’re afraid someone will hurt you, having the ability to actually defend yourself from unwanted aggression is a panacea.

Catharsis is real, at least in some contexts. If you’ve been (figuratively) pounding you head against an obstacle for an extended period, and you finally overcome it, the feeling is amazing. That’s catharsis.

Can you experience catharsis in the dojo? Yeah. I haven’t, but it’s certainly possible. Nail that kata you’ve been working on, finally pull of something particularly difficult that you’ve struggled with, and you could definitely experience some catharsis from that.

Does catharsis purge all your ills? No. It’s the experience of overcoming a challenge. It’s the release of that tension. It can help your overall mental state. It won’t magically dispell psychological issues, but it might help you deal with them.

Where the myth comes in is the belief that you can achieve catharsis through violence. “Blowing off steam.” That doesn’t work. At least not with real violence. You might experience some catharsis from a video game, but that is a game. The challenges are delineated in a concrete way, which doesn’t reflect real violence.

Real violence is numbing. It doesn’t feel good. There’s no cathartic release from it. Indulging in aggressive impulses won’t really sate anything. You’ll get the adrenaline rush in the moment, but that’s not catharsis. That said, violence is addictive. (Or, at least, adrenaline rushes can be.) If you’re trying to work out your issues through aggression, it will create a pattern of escalation. That kind of behavior will not fly in any competently run dojo.

It’s really important to understand, the dojo is not Fight Club. You do not throw kids at one another and let them beat each other senseless. If you’ve got a kid in a dojo with aggression issues who cannot reign it in, they’re not going to be put in situations where they can express that aggression against anyone else. You do not simply let kids “work it out” through violence. It’s a terrible lesson, a liability issue, and simply doesn’t work.

Take this into a larger context, you don’t want kids fighting one another. I don’t care if you’re in the perspective of, “boys will be boys,” encouraging violence as a problem solving tool will teach them that violence can solve problems. It can’t. It can only lead to further escalation.

So, yes, if you have a kid with aggression issues, martial arts classes are a good option for dealing with that, but it’s not about “working out their aggression.” You’re giving them self-confidence so that they do not feel the need to resort to violence to “solve” with their problems.

-Starke

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