This election is the most contentious and dramatic one that has taken place in my memory. Like many Americans, I have a strong preference for the outcome. I haven’t been quiet about this and wouldn’t be surprised if I no longer have one facebook friend from the other side. I suspect that’s true for a lot of folks at this point. There are reports that higher numbers of people are entering therapy for “a new kind of mental disorder”; severe election anxiety. (Goldberg, 2016)
There is at least one upside to the turmoil: This election season provides a wonderful opportunity for emotional growth.
In May of this year, The Atlantic Magazine featured an online article giving tips for people who are suffering from election angst. (Meyer, 2016) Every tip, from “the need for self-compassion” to “meditation” was oriented around self-care and soothing. None of the suggestions were growth oriented. If you want to use this election as a vehicle for personal change, the only sensible way is to engage with the other side.
Shunning those who think differently is one way of managing yourself, by avoiding the reactivity stirred when listening to someone with whom you disagree. When you do this, you are using emotional distance to maintain an internal equilibrium. Here is a list of what might be gained by going into the lion’s den and having conversations with the lion:
- Increased self-regulation. Listen respectfully while managing your external reactions. (No eye-rolling, sighing, head-shaking, or other outward signals of disrespect.) The ability to listen respectfully to someone you are not particularly close to will help you to self-regulate when you have to interact with someone you are close to, when the stakes are higher.
- Lowered reactivity. Reactivity means the activation of the stress response. Many people struggle with a stress response that is frequently and automatically activated, which leads to all kinds of adverse life consequences from relationship problems to ill health. Listening to someone who’s views differ from yours provides one significant avenue for working on reactivity. Everyone has a point of view. In my experience, when someone is allowed to freely express their thinking, it becomes understandable. That understanding leads to compassion which leads to a decrease in reactivity.
- Increased objectivity. Objectivity is seeing things as they really are. The narrower your frame of reference, the more likely it is to be subjective-that is, seeing things just from your own, personal point of view, (or the shared point of view of you and a few close friends and family). Getting out of your own personal “bubble” will give you more and new information. Information leads to increased objectivity. Again, increased objectivity leads to lowered reactivity, which leads to increased emotional and physical health.
- Experiment with different ways of being. When you engage with someone from the other side, you have the chance to try out all kinds of new behaviors. If you usually avoid conflict by withholding your opinions, ask to state your own thinking about the issues. If, however, you are used to “holding forth” for an audience, refrain from doing so. Check out what the change in behavior feels like. There will be something worthwhile to learn from your discomfort.
- Represent your own thinking. If you decide to give your perspective, do so using “I” statements. Don’t speak for anyone else using “we” statements, or make accusations and assumptions by using “you” statements. Above all,don’t attack and don’t defend; consider that the golden rule of representing your own thinking.
- Increased ability to stay connected to people with whom you disagree. I, for one, have many good friends, family members, and clients, who differ from me politically. I’d rather be able to talk about our differences than ignore them, or, worse, cut off from the relationships completely. After all, these people will be in my life long after the election, or even the next presidential term, is over.