As a therapist, I view it as part of my job to look at issues from all sides. This is because the issues that bring clients in for therapy rarely have a simple answer; life is not black and white. When I had a brief stint on the debate team in undergrad, I learned that there is truth on both sides of an argument, and that the solution to any given problem often lies in the middle, or as a combination of the two sides. Seeing the middle ground has become increasingly more difficult as our political climate has become more disrespectful, hateful, and polarized. I have been longing to write something about politics for quite some time now. The topic permeates all of my discussions with clients; not only this, but with the growing tension politically, it has been a hot topic among my family members and myself as well. I have typed several drafts, only to start, hit backspace, backspace, backspace, and then finally, DELETE. As a therapist, writer, woman, and human being, I fear that by not writing about politics what I do write will become more and more irrelevant. It feels almost disrespectful to not address this topic in some fashion. So: why is the topic of politics such a hard topic for most of us? Why is it so emotionally charged? Why are families and friendships suddenly being torn apart? In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions, keeping in mind that my expertise is in psychology, and that I do not have all the answers.
Reason #1: People are naturally driven to identify with groups. This feeds our (very healthy!) desire to meet our needs for love and belonging. This becomes problematic when people value being accepted over personal values or serving the greater good. This strong desire to feel accepted is what causes people to join cults and “drink the Kool-aid” so to speak. Community is a human need that we all have, and especially now since community can be hard to come by.
Reason #2: People form their political opinions based off of personal experiences. As a cis-gender, white, female, my experience does not even come close to capturing the totality of the human experience. I can recognize that I have no idea what it is like to be a person of color. I can sympathize with the experience, and those I care about have lived it, but I will never fully understand. As a therapist I choose to believe when people tell me that someone or something is hurting them. It would be preposterous for a client to tell me, “I lost my father in a car accident” and for me to say, “Well he should have been wearing a seat belt” or “Maybe he shouldn’t have been driving at night without his glasses.” Are those things true? Maybe…but there is still no telling whether or not him changing those things about his driving could have prevented his death. Most importantly, in situations where someone is telling you about what hurts them, it is best to empathize. That split second between when someone tells you something vulnerable like “I’m being oppressed” or “I feel rejected and afraid of losing my rights due to my identity”…take a second to think about how to empathize/sympathize instead of thinking about how to be “right” (which is so subjective anyway). After our lives are over, we will NOT be remembered for how right we were. We WILL be remembered for the relationships we built and for being there for people in their most vulnerable times. Make that split second be about relationship.
Reason #3: We are often drawn to what is familiar, not necessarily what is healthy or helpful. If someone grew up in a household with a punitive parent, they are going to be drawn to political leaders and ideologies that reflect that worldview. This worldview may alienate people from their lives, but perhaps this is something they are used to, especially if this pattern has persisted throughout their lifespan. In addition, there is an entire political ideology and people within it who have had similar punitive experiences. If someone grew up in a home where their parents were manipulative, it might be harder to see the signs of manipulation and gaslighting in a political leader because it just feels normal. Identification of this subconscious attraction to unhealthy patterns can take people many years to grapple with, if they ever do it at all. Therapy is a good place to look at subconscious patterns that repeat themselves over and over again (shameless plug). In therapy people can learn how to identify safe and healthy behaviors in others, and associate themselves with those people instead. The old saying “you can’t change who you are around, but you can change WHO you are around” applies here.
Reason #4: I know this one is probably the most unsavory, but it is an undeniable fact that many people take mental shortcuts when it comes to thinking critically. Many people align with political parties because it is what their parents taught them. The reasoning usually goes like this: “Well I respect my Dad, and he thinks xyz about blah blah political party; therefore, I think xyz about blah blah party also! Blah blah party must be respectable too.” This is usually a logical fallacy of the youthful, one that many grow out of once they leave home, gain a sense of independence, and experience life for themselves. Most youth leave home, question the values and parenting skills of their upbringing, and finally come to their own conclusions. If I have said it once, I will say it a million more times: there is no such thing as perfect parenting. If your kids are critically thinking, they will find something wrong. Yay! Rejoice! (Side note: The kiddos will also be able to have a healthy and adult conversation with you about it if you have done your job well). Furthermore, many academic institutions teach critical thinking skills, but unfortunately not everyone has access nor the desire to engage in this type of discourse.
Reason #5: “Black and White Thinking” (also known as “All or Nothing Thinking”) provides people with a sense of certainty and safety. During these increasingly uncertain times, people are clinging to political extremes as a means to feel secure. This type of thinking is most prevalent in those who grew up in households where there was much instability and/or abuse. Certainty gives those with anxiety and past trauma an inner sense of calm. We all can engage in black and white thinking to a certain degree at times (examples: “she’s a good person”, “he cut me off in traffic and is a bad person”, “that there is a bad therapist”) but in its extreme forms, black and white thinking can be detrimental. The extreme form of this type of thinking is known as splitting, as in splitting a person as “all good” or “all bad” based on their behaviors, thoughts, actions, feelings, etc. I could write an entire article on splitting alone, so if you are not familiar with it, do a google search for “psychological splitting”.
Reason #6: Different generations can have wildly different experiences of life. These experiences are unique, varied, and all are equally important. Towards the end of our life, we will go through a stage which Erik Erikson calls the “Ego Integrity vs. Despair” stage. This stage begins at around 65 years old, and it is when we evaluate if our lives were meaningful and contributed to the greater good (ego integrity), or if we caused a lot of harm and destruction (despair). Those in despair can handle this difficult emotion in a number of different ways such as denial, aggression, depression, so on and so forth. While it is not okay to lash out at younger generations and feel bitter and resentful at us for changing things so much, it is also important for younger generations to understand perhaps where some of this is coming from. The world would be a vastly better place if we could all learn to understand each other better and empathize. That being said, I want to be clear that empathy does not necessarily equal close relationship. There are some wounds that are too deep to move beyond in a relationship, and while we can learn to empathize with the one doing the wounding, it does not mean we need to accept or tolerate it. Sometimes learning to empathize with a harmful person is more about our own ability to forgive and move on than it is on repairing the relationship.
In conclusion, I have listed some possible theories on why this topic is so hard to breach on Facebook (insert eye roll), let alone at the family dinner table. Someone’s political identity is often deeply ingrained as part of who someone is, and as we have seen, these beliefs can take years or decades to change if they ever do at all. I may not know everything about this topic, but what I do know is that we are getting nowhere by posting our opinions on Facebook, hoping that the one family member will see it and change their mind. I have never personally seen this happen. Where change will occur is within relationship and within the individual through grueling and often tiresome education and self-reflection.