Following the highly controversial presidential election of 2016, our nation is clearly divided. A dangerous “Us vs. Them” ideology has emerged and is threatening the nation’s sense of unity and oneness. People are feeling uneasy and (more) fearful of strangers, neighbors, friends, and even family members, wondering who is on their side versus against them. Sometimes they discover that their deeply held beliefs differ from those of their friends and family. This emotionally charged political race has engaged (and in many cases, enraged) Americans in a unique and historic way. When we are in a heightened state of arousal–feeling panicked, afraid, threatened, and vulnerable, we are susceptible to making irrational, poor decisions. We may preemptively lash out or become defensive in relation to those we perceive as being in opposition. Acting without thinking about the consequences (i.e., who we may hurt in our path of righteousness) can have hurtful, even devastating, results on interpersonal relationships.
With the holidays upon us, many people are understandably feeling anxious about, even dreading, get-togethers with their families. Spending time with family at the holidays can be stressful during a typical year, but perhaps especially so in the midst of what may be considered a national crisis. This is because families are comprised of people of different generations, levels of education, ethnicity, and religiosity. They live in geographically diverse places and often have vastly disparate experiences, values, and perspectives on hot-button, divisive topics, such as LGBTQ and women’s rights, immigration laws, minority protections and legislation, taxes, gun control, international affairs, etcetera. As people do not usually choose their family members (aside from their spouses), it is almost inevitable that there will be significant differences of opinion with at least some relatives.
It has been said that it is safest to never bring up politics or religion at the dinner table. Is that possible in the aftermath of this historical and controversial election? The following are some difficult questions you may be asking yourself. Is it best to spend time with family and attempt to avoid discussion of politics or forego seeing family this holiday season in anticipation that it may become too contentious and heated? Is it healthier to avoid potential confrontation and the inevitable politicking at the dinner table and/or give everybody time and space to calm down and heal? Would it feel disingenuous to not address important current events? Is it possible to have genuine connections with family members when you know they are on the “other side” (whatever side that may be)? If you do wish to engage with family on the issues that you feel a strong personal investment in, you may consider allowing a cooling off period post-election and addressing these issues one-on-one at a later date, rather than at a big family gathering.
People naturally make efforts to preserve the important social bonds and relationships they have with family and friends. This begs the question: Is it possible to reconcile our differences when we vehemently disagree with the other side’s position, and if so, how? Can we preserve the relationship and maintain our love and respect for the other person even if it seems like their beliefs/perspectives are antithetical to what we value? Individuals may perceive that those family members who voted for/supported the “other” candidate have personally betrayed them, disrespected, or even invalidated their identities and beliefs. It may be worth remembering that a particular political affiliation does not necessarily mean that a person condones all of their candidate’s attitudes/behaviors or embrace wholeheartedly everything they represent or have promised. For instance, a Trump-supporter is not necessarily “ignorant, misogynistic, or racist,” nor is a Clinton-supporter necessarily a “brainwashed, morally depraved liberal.” Taking another person’s perspective into account and developing empathy may help decrease anger toward your loved ones. Would your parent, partner, child, or dear friend say that they were trying to intentionally hurt you by voting for a particular candidate, or more likely, that they were voting based on particular values (i.e., economic growth, equality, etc.)? You may think that this election has brought to light irreconcilable differences between you and a family member, and while this could be true, you may want to allow time to pass before making any rash decisions that you may one day regret.
There is ultimately no right or wrong decision about whether or not to attend the holidays this year and how to participate in them. If you decide to see friends and family, you may wish to reevaluate your expectations about the interactions you may have. Consider putting a ban on political discussions. You may even designate one or more non-partisan individuals to respectfully enforce the “No politics” rule and redirect the conversation to more polite, neutral, and friendly topics. Find common interests and shared beliefs. It is important to know your audience as well. You may decide whether or not it is worthwhile (and safe) to share your thoughts and feelings on a particular matter depending on who is present. Another suggestion is to pick your battles wisely, and consider your end game. Is it more important to try to convince your grandparent, sibling, cousin, uncle, [fill in blank] who has equally fixed beliefs as you to change their minds or to maintain your relationship(s) and still have that family member in your life in a week, a month, or a year from now?
If you do decide to tackle these topics around the Thanksgiving dinner table, there are ways to communicate more respectfully. Dr. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist, suggests strategies to both maintain friendships and family bonds while discussing politics (2012). She offers recommendations about effective communication skills that include listening with an open mind and curiosity, asking open-ended questions, not trying to prove you are “right,” and using a neutral, gentle tone of voice. Successful communication with those who express divergent opinions also involves remembering what you have in common and maintaining respect for one another (http://www.wikihow.com/Deal-With-Friends-With-Different-Political-Views). Avoid defensiveness, bullying, name-calling, degradation, and intimidation. Personal attacks do not help get your point across, and if anything, only make you and your perspective seem less credible.
For most, the holidays are about connecting and spending time with loved ones. If emotions are still too raw post-election, consider getting together with supportive friends for a Friendsgiving this year. Take care of yourself (and maybe preserve your familial relationships in the long-term). It is key to know your own limits and thresholds. Whether you are with family or friends, decide if/when you have had too much talk of politics and excuse yourself from the conversation. In that time, do something personally productive, such as going for a walk, journaling, playing with the family pet, calling a friend, and so on.
This sociopolitical climate feels unpredictable and uncertain, as we do not yet know what the future holds for our purportedly united nation, which many folks have only recently come to realize, is comprised of people with quite disparate experiences, beliefs, and points-of-view. As the election outcome has been highly contentious, many people are left in a state of surreality, wondering, “Is this really happening?” Uncertainty often contributes to a sense of anxiety. We want to know things, to feel certain, but this is of course not always possible. Sometimes, all we can do is tolerate the unknown and cope as best we can.
There are several things you can do to better cope and tolerate the distress you may be feeling:
Watch or listen to your favorite comedy. We can all use some levity now and again, especially when everything feels intense, chaotic, and impossible to reconcile. Positive emotions (i.e., joy, hope) are incompatible with and may even “undo” dysphoric feelings, such as anger and depression (Fredrickson, 2001).
Know your personal limits. Know when to turn off the news and pause the barrage of social media commentary, articles, videos, in-person debates, etcetera. (It will inevitably all still be there if/when you decide to tune back in.)
Connect with others. Seek the good in people and that which makes us alike (i.e., desire for happiness, health, connection, safety, justice, freedom). Do something kind for someone else.
Take action. Try to channel your energies into a cause you truly believe in, rather than worrying about all the “what ifs.”
Do what is within your control: Sleep. Exercise. Focus on your health.
Remember the temporary nature of life. Change is inevitable. What feels catastrophic in one moment may feel less so in time.
Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Validate your emotions and treat yourself with the gentleness that you would extend a friend or loved one.
Challenge unrealistic/irrational beliefs (i.e., “The world is over” and “We are doomed”). Is there evidence against this? Are there alternate ways of looking at the same situation?
Try not to panic. Anxiety is normal; honor that, but do not dwell. Panicking contributes to bad decision-making. Try to make rational decisions by achieving a state of calm via deep breathing, meditating, exercising, etcetera.
Look at pictures/videos of animals online (especially baby animals). These images can certainly lift most spirits (even if temporarily)! Or, spend time cuddling and playing with your own pet.
Think about your personal values. If you do not believe that name-calling and degrading others is helpful, don’t do it (even if provoked). At the end of the day, you are responsible for your actions and choosing behaviors that are in line with your values.
Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to the adult population in individual and couples modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety.
Deal With Friends With Different Political Views. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.wikihow.com/Deal-With-Friends-With-Different-Political-Views.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001, March). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 218-226.
Heitler, S. (2012). 8 Ways to Lose Friends By Talking Politics. Retrieved November 13, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201209/8-ways-lose-friends- talking-politics.