(Trigger warning – this post contains the “F” word – “Feelings.” A lot.)
If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen reports of colleges cancelling classes or postponing exams because of election grief. You’ve probably also seen the responses – those students should just suck it up and turn down their sensitivity. Some of the “advice” has turned into outright mockery.
First, a reminder that it is never helpful to tell another person – or yourself – how they “should” feel. It is tempting when emotions strike us as inappropriate, weak or wrong and we want to explain them away. It is a natural inclination. But especially now, we need to look deeper, listen harder. I know that I’ve caused myself a lot of suffering by insisting that something “should not” upset me, because…. whatever.
After getting requests to help lead post-election emotional support groups, I’ve been asking myself if the election really is a subject for crisis intervention as I know it. My answer is a qualified “yes.” It is yes, because people are having strong reactions. We never base our decision to intervene on what happened, we base it on reactions. But it is a qualified “yes” because we are in new territory. In all of the crisis intervention training I’ve had, nobody ever taught me how to respond to a political event that impacts everyone, in which so many people have strong beliefs and feelings. We’re at an intersection of psychology and sociology where I doubt anyone really knows what’s best.
For those who are bringing people together for emotional support, I’ve compiled some guidelines.
Here’s what we do know about holding strong (often unconscious) beliefs – they can be the source of great emotional pain, frustration and anger when reality disagrees. Today, people who strongly believed that the United States could never, must never elect someone like Donald Trump (regardless of who or what they think he is), are having that kind of stress. The more certain they were that “someone like Trump” could not or must not win, the stronger their emotions probably are. Notice that this is about “facts” they believe, not judgments. It is quite different to believe “Trump cannot, must not win” versus “Trump should not win.” The latter leaves room for acceptance and disappointment – perhaps deep, deep disappointment – rather than the confusion, anger, frustration, resentment and even violence that the first one can trigger.
An “unenforceable rule” is the name that psychologist Fred Luskin, author of “Forgive for Good”, calls this kind of belief. We need rules to make sense of the world, but when we hold onto unenforceable rules in the face of conflicting reality, we’re stuck – painfully, often angrily stuck, often with no clear sense of why.
For those who had the unenforceable rule “Trump cannot, must not win,” and now believe that his election will cause pain to them or to people they care about or identify with, the feelings are amplified. When the effects are personal, pain, anger and frustration are stronger.
Well, say the critics in social media, those people just need to get in touch with reality! But that doesn’t work – logic doesn’t wipe out feelings. In fact, saying things like “You’re out of touch with reality” will probably make the feelings worse – broadening the divide – because it amounts to telling them how they should feel.
In a Star Trek episode, a senior officer yells, “Lieutenant Worf, I order you to calm down!” It doesn’t work. It never works. Not with Klingons. Not with humans.
A supportive response starts with nothing more than acknowledging the pain, frustration and anger that many people feel, quite naturally, now that world has refused to go along with how they think it’s supposed to be. If you believe that’s just catering to weak-minded wimps, hang on. Those people have a great challenge before them. They can hold a grudge, build resentments, perhaps even cross the line from political protest into criminal behavior. Or they can take a more difficult, positive path for which Luskin’s book can be one of the guides. His book can be especially meaningful to those who were already mired in resentments against their political opponents.
Resentments are like taking poison and waiting for the other person – or political party – to die.
If you were one of the “Trump cannot, must not win” people, your choice is between getting stuck there or aiming for connection and compassion. I would invite you to start with compassion for yourself – the world really did suddenly stop making sense – on a global scale! – and that truly is difficult. You will find that compassion for others is a great source of peace.
If you’re one of those who is tempted to issue orders – “It’s reality, deal with it” – you’ll find that compassion will go much farther.
At some point, healing and growth call us to take action. In my opinion, the most important action we can all take these days is the hard work of reconnecting with one another. We are so disconnected. Our American individualism has been an ally, but it has also meant we were always a less interdependent society. Technology – from highways and TVs to the Internet and smart phones – has prompted more disconnections than connections. The election outcome surprised us because we are so disconnected. Most of us had no idea of the depth of discontent and anger, in our nation.
Far fewer of us would have held the “Trump cannot, must not win” unenforceable rule if we knew each other better. Too many voices are unheard, too many faces unseen – and although Trump tapped into the politics of disconnection, this is far from merely a political problem. When we are disconnected and dispassionate about each other, we are weaker. The more isolated we are, the less stress we can handle. Creativity and growth thrive on exposing ourselves to others’ ideas, even – perhaps especially – ideas that disturb us. “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes the neighbors you feel uncomfortable around.
We need creative solutions today and disturbing ideas are often fuel for creativity. One of the most creative people I have ever known, who often seemed to most people (including me for a long time) to be a narcissistic, egotistical prima donna, invited me back to his company, over and over, for years, to criticize his ideas. It was my job – I was an industry analyst. But I wondered why he encouraged me, even though I would often publicly challenge his cherished ideas and products. If he really was a narcissist, why expose himself to that? After he died, when I read his biography, I realized that he was in the habit of keeping people around him who disagreed, who would argue. In fact, if you agreed with him regularly, that would get you fired. I can’t say that I ever really liked him, but I respect the way he embraced the challenge of people who would tear apart his ideas. His name was Steve Jobs. One more thing about Steve that many people either don’t know or don’t appreciate – he practiced meditation. Nobody should try to imitate Steve, but I think we would all benefit by following both of those habits, especially these days.