Therapy Blog

Post Election Irritability

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Election anxiety has been in local and national media recently. And it’s a very good discussion to read up on. But I’d like address another troublesome dynamic that has reared its head this year more than any other year in my memory: Election irritability. Friendships are being strained, marriages are being thrown into chaos, even job sites turned into verbal boxing rings where management struggles to keep people focused on doing their jobs, not to mention doing them well. This is extremely visible behind the false anonymity of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Please be careful with your words in these places.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but because of things like Political Confirmation Bias (where we selectively pay attention to information that supports our political perspective, at the exclusion of evidence to the contrary–it’s a bias that confirms our own political view), if somebody disagrees with us, we can be stubborn enough to not allow their perfectly legitimate points into our consciousness; sometimes even in the presence of overt, measurable evidence. You can see how obnoxious this could get. Now consider that BOTH people or each person in a group (again, think about all the replies on Facebook threads) may be engaging in their own political confirmation bias. Tempers flare, insults get hurled, anticipatory defensiveness likely contributes for some, which only furthers the impact of people taking things personally.

Can’t we all just get along?

In a word, Yes, we can get along. We create tension to try and motivate people to change their perspectives to ours. It’s natural enough, and arguments and such are generally healthy as “pressure vents,” and as ways for people to learn more about each others’ boundaries. Typically, we will lash out at the people we trust the most: Friends, family and significant others. We see them more, they know our buttons better than anybody, and we are freer to let our shadow personalities to have a voice around them. But things like self-righteousness are slippery slopes that quickly descend into judging and shaming. This kind of implied criticism on people’s character genuinely hurts feelings, and could easily be considered as passive-aggressive bullying under the guise of thinly veiled “venting,” or “joking,” or “expressing 1st amendment rights.” And while these labels for the behavior are technically correct, nobody is being fooled; we all see right through it, and this is part of why feelings get hurt.

Dealing with our own defensiveness

When we practice mindfulness, we are able to notice that our defenses are often protecting our ego. Think about it: Just because a friend has a different opinion and is trying to change yours, it doesn’t mean that you have to actually change it. Using effective communication skills to make sure that both of you are aware that this is just a friendly debate or an exchange of ideas, rather than a personal attack, helps keep things civil. It is the criticism of a person’s character that leads to damage in any relationship, so be sure to focus on the ideas, not the human being that holds them.

How to have a healthy debate

Mindfulness will help you notice when you are moving from a relaxed debate to defensiveness, and from defensiveness to argumentative. The sooner you are able to feel yourself moving from the proverbial green light to yellow light, the sooner you can head it off by re-directing the conversation. Here are a few tools to accomplish this:

  • Seek to understand before being understood – Great advice by Covey. When you show understanding, you are not saying that you agree. By showing that you are open to understanding the other person’s perspective, they are more likely to return the favor
  • Find common ground – In all likelihood, both of you want the same thing: a better place to live. Remind yourselves of this and see if you might be able to expand your perspectives
  • Agree to disagree – Your relationship with each other is far more important than your differences, and both of you have the right to feel and believe whatever you feel and believe
  • Change the subject – Sometimes, gracefully changing the subject provides a great out; it allows both parties to maintain their beliefs without having to continue to defend them
  • Respectfully say how you feel – The other person may not know that they are hurting your feelings. If you calmly let them know that you are feeling a bit uncomfortable with the conversation, you will likely get a softer tone and even an apology. Not always, but it is worth a shot, and you always have the right to say how you feel!
  • Give  benefit of the doubt – This one can be tough when we are entrenched in our own perspective, but by offering the benefit of the doubt, you will show the other person that you respect them more than you want to fight with them
  • Take a break – A well-timed bathroom break can do wonders as it gives both people a chance to reconsider their words, and it provides a natural break for a subject change

Because we can only control our own side of things, we would do well to keep our own defensiveness in check while not engaging in criticism, judging, and shaming. Other red-flag behaviors to avoid are:

  • Exclusive language – Words like ‘always, never, and all’ tend to lump people together into unfair categories that elicit defensiveness
  • Propagating “False News” – There is no shortage of news stories that turn out to be untrue. Many offensive pictures turn out to be photo-shopped in an attempt to rile up the masses
  • Confirmation bias – Where we selectively pay attention to data that only supports our perspective while ignoring facts to the contrary
  • TYPING IN ALL CAPS – Some people are not aware that this is implied to be shouting. Many people are simply trying to emphasize something with all caps, but using bold font, italic font, underlining, different color font or putting *an asterisk* on either side of a word can accomplish this much better
  • Name calling – Calling people names is hurtful. This includes classifying them into derogatory political groups
  • Being passive-aggressive – I’ve mentioned this already. Nobody is being fooled. It is obvious when you are using a joke as an attack on a group of people. Self-righteousness is a particularly tempting version of this . . . nobody can argue with a moral truth, but when it is weaponized as a way to look down on people, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution

In the end, we are more similar than different

Once the dust settles, friendships will recover from the hurt feelings, marriages rebound from the conflict and the workplace will return to running like a well-oiled machine. We all care deeply about the society that we live in, and because elections directly impact this society, we will have strong feelings about it. Remember to practice gratitude, compassion, and optimism to help restore the balance of our common ground.

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