Smashing Symbols: Exploring Destructive Therapies

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There’s a particularly memorable scene in Office Space in which three of the main characters go out to the middle of an empty field and take their rage out on a misbehaving printer. They attack with baseball bats, forceful kicks, and even a few punches with their bare hands—all of their work frustration and anger symbolized by this one piece of office equipment. The scene is wonderfully cathartic and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it who hasn’t wished for a similar opportunity in his or her life.

Why is it that overwhelmingly negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, make us want to scream into pillows, throw things on the floor, and punch walls? Is it the sound of a glass smashing or the powerful thrust of our arms throwing things that makes it feel like our emotions are being released into each shattered piece? Reasons for doing it may vary, but for many people, engaging in some sort of destructive therapy alleviates pain like nothing else.

Smashing Symbols Is All the Rage
Even if we’re not all taking bats to printers, many of us have experienced a surge of emotions that made us want to destroy something. The cathartic release found in taking down an object that represents all of one’s outrage and frustration is almost unparalleled. In some situations, small-scale acts of symbolic destruction almost feel necessary, such as when you’re wondering what to do with the remnants of a particularly disastrous relationship. I’ve had quite a few friends who’ve thrown out every memento given to them by an ex in therapeutic purge sessions. For them, it’s a mandatory final step toward completely moving on. Roxy, thirty-three, says that putting letters from her ex-girlfriend into a recycling bin cemented the fact that relationship was over for her. “It was like the final click of the lock on the door shutting,” she explains.

For those looking for a similar release but lacking the strength or motivation to do it on their own, there’s a shop in San Diego that can help you out. At Sarah’s Smash Shack, people can bring in items that have negative energy, rent a room (private or group, depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for), and go to town on the offensive objects. Customers can also bring their MP3 players in and play music in the rooms, creating a soundtrack to fuel their smashing. The shop also sells glasses and plates if patrons needing catharsis don’t have specific items—you can even write messages on them with Sharpies to make the event more personal.

The Power of Shredders and Sledgehammers
I have to admit, after reading that the Smash Shack sold items for smashing, I wondered what the point was of destroying an object that held no previous attachment. Could it have the same affect? But as it turns out, sometimes it’s not just about what you’re breaking but the act of destruction itself. A study done in February 2009 found that 47 percent of people who were asked to shred papers felt less stress afterward. A whopping 80 percent felt like they had more power over their lives. For full disclosure, this study was conducted by Staples, Inc., a company with a vested interest in shredder purchases, but as anyone who’s had to shred something can attest to, there’s something oddly enjoyable about watching papers become reduced to strips.

Therapeutic practices centered on destruction are constantly popping up in the news—not only because the methods are unique, but because it really does seem to work in some cases. In Castejon, Spain, three men came up with a business they call Destruction Therapy (or Destructotherapy). In a large, vacant field, there are rows of cars, televisions, and household appliances. People pay in advance, don construction hats and protective suits, choose their tools, and break down or beat up whatever they want to.

Hard Blows to Soft Surfaces
There’s not a lot of direction during the event in Spain; people are free to destroy at their own pace and are responsible for whether it works or not. Other similar exercises offer a little more guidance, such as the program offered at the Hoffman Institute, a nonprofit with locations all over the world (including one in Napa, CA). Patients stay there for eight days, one of which involves an hours-long pillow-hitting session. An instructor hands each person a wiffle bat and directs him or her to a giant pillow, which is supposed to symbolize someone who causes that person a lot of stress or anger. The program itself is supposed to help patients work through their repressed feelings, particularly when it comes to their parents.

I recently heard a woman talk about her experiences at the pillow session, where she watched people’s gentle taps turn into raging swings amidst crying and yelling. She was drawn to the program because of the issues she had with her mother, but by the end of the pillow session, she realized that she held a lot of repressed anger toward her father as well. She felt like she worked through a lot of the neuroses and destructive tendencies at the Institute, but that it was also far too easy to fall back into old habits soon after she left. So whether the program ultimately “worked” was still up in the air for her, but it did allow her to release a lot of pent-up emotions, many of which she wasn’t even aware she had.

Objects can hold a lot of power over people. They can represent the best or worst times in our lives, and when the case is the latter, it tends to cast a black cloud over the rest of our affairs. When we actively remove items from our lives, whether it’s throwing letters into a recycling bin or throwing keepsakes against a wall, we’re not only cleansing our lives of the bad energy—we’re taking the power back as well.

And for those times when we’re so overwhelmed with forceful emotions that we can’t even pinpoint a specific cause, we need a quick way to bring them to the surface, and that’s where controlled destruction, like what’s offered in Spain, Sarah’s Smash Shack, and the Hoffman Institute, can really benefit us. That’s not to say that violence is the answer to our problems, but every now and then, it seems like a little managed rage is the cathartic release we need—especially if we can do it to some good tunes.


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