March 3, 2011 — 8 Comments

There is the impulse when we’re angry or frustrated to take that out on other people. To be short or cruel just to slacken the tension we’ve built up. Sometimes it is harsh words, sometimes it is violence but it’s the same release. I think about that scene in Fight Club where Jack funnels all his rage and pain into destroying Angel Face.

Obviously the appropriate response is to process it, to dissipate it through evaluation and verbalization. I realized the other day that the reason I like running is because it’s inner-directional. All athletic activity is cathartic. Running takes that catharsis out on ourselves. Which honestly, is the only place it should go.

Feel disappointed in yourself, go further than you intended. Feel angry, punish yourself by turning up the treadmill. Just fucking sick of it all, go long and hard—excel. Tired? Fuck you, go faster. You were going to stop? A few more steps.

Think about what it means to play other sports with a vengence. It’s normally characterized by aggression projected outwardly at someone else. It’s never how fast they got back on defense. Never how willing they were to dive perilously for a catch. Never the restraint they showed at bad pitches. It’s about hard they hit someone else, the punishment they inflicted on someone’s body or face, how they’re “taking over the game.”

There is this notion in philosophy about retreating inside yourself. And finding a respite in doing so. In fact, not just a break but a refueling. “Love the discipline you know,” Marcus said, “and let it support you.” The idea is to find solace in self-control, rather than some brief satisfaction in abandoning it.

What I like is the process of using the treadmill to take it out on yourself. Because you know your body can handle the brunt of it. Instead of inevitably taking it out on other people, either literally so in a different sport or in the course of daily life. To walk away and be able to look at things fresh, knowing that whatever baggage you bring to a given situation has no place on other people’s shoulders or in their laps. To have a designated place in your life where you unload and dissemble it, before it piles up unmanageably high. Running for me is the activity that best approximates that, but of course there are others. It’s just a matter of discovering it and amply scheduling enough of it.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

8 responses to Catharsis

  1. But how do you prevent taking your anger out on yourself TOO MUCH, so that you actually hurt yourself? So instead of taking it out on other people (which is not good), some go the route of self-destruction and self-harm (which is also not good).

    • It’s not taking it out on yourself as in self-flagellation, it is processing it through yourself. Running it through and out your system instead of on the people around you. But even if it was, your question implies that it is somehow more appropriate to actually hurt other people if that means saving yourself from destruction. Although that’s a false dilemma, if real, I’d say the only fair thing is to fall on the grenade since it was yours to begin with.

  2. I agree, I use running in this way too. Non-runners often don’t realize the mental stamina, alongside the physical, that you build through the sport. Part of that is that you can use running to channel almost every emotion. When I think I’m too tired or distracted to be productive, it revitalizes me; when I’m stressed out, it relaxes me; when I’m down on or disappointed with myself, it makes me realize how strong I actually am. But best of all, I like running when I’m angry, because that’s when I run fastest and hardest. When I take on the hill or speed intervals I just didn’t want to do the day before. And that just feels so damn good.

  3. I don’t think using running in such a masochistic way is all that good for your health, but I can see where you’re coming from. I go out to breakfast almost every morning and read over some passages from Marcus Aurelius. Reading these passages always wakes me up to how much work I still need to do, and serves the same purpose as your running time. I’m sure you can think of a few passages I’m talking about.

    Fwiw, Men’s health did a piece on how top CEO’s use running in this manner, which partly got me into running and exercise in the first place…

    • The point is to think about all the ways we are unintentionally masochistic in our everyday lives—by making the same mistakes again and again, by putting ourselves in needlessly painful situations, by eating and acting out of accordance for what we were born for. If you want a Marcus passage, look at the one about the animals at the games “…torn half to pieces, covered in blood and gore, and still pleading to be held over till tomorrow…to be bitten and clawed again.” That’s what we’re like. Finding an activity that is a healthy way to do this–at the expense of enduring all the others–is a nice compromise.

  4. It takes a lot of courage and strength to face your anger head on without taking it out on others. It seems that regardless of the origin of our anger/discomfort, our natural reaction is to justify it, blame someone for it, then lash out at them.

    A solution that involves inner dialogue like “Tired? Fuck you, go faster” turns that “someone” into you, and that’s admirable given the common alternative, but I don’t think it’s the best way to handle these types of emotions.

    Sure, it’s better to sick the beast on yourself than on someone else, but with that type of attitude you’re still feeding it and indulging that kind of thinking. You may end up creating a monster you one day can’t control.

    I think the key is training yourself not to react. I’m not saying you should ignore the anger, but that you should train to feel the full burn of it and still refuse to say “fuck you” to anyone, including yourself.

  5. “Retire into yourself. Nowhere can man find retirement more peaceful and untroubled than in his own soul.” Meditations 4.3

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