Every four years, we face the difficult decision of electing the person, who will, amongst other things, have one finger a little too close to the red button of boom. This process polarizes people, who spend time rallying around their specific teams. When ideologies and principles become contested, their ideas swirl, and in fear that they be swallowed into the vortex, they hurl these thoughts into the marketplace of ideas like a shot put.
The dust clears from time to time for people to open up a conversation about policies and presidential fit, but (at least in this election) eventually the conversation declines into character critiques and personal insults aimed at each candidate. Despite many well-meaning voices, friends and family, coworkers and club members, even strangers and acquaintances experience the discontent and stress of being on one side or in between conflicting viewpoints. Many of us want the election to be over, so that our relationships can be filled with just a little less negativity and a little more joy.
I have no desire to address the electoral process or the candidates running for this presidency. However, given the public outcry for practices that help them manage the stress and anxiety involved with the presidential race, I will take some time to give you some techniques to address these symptoms in your relationships, at the office, and at home.
Just when you were starting to feel fond of Candace, she starts to tell you how naïve you are in your understanding of current politics, and begins to attack the character associated with someone who could hold such beliefs. I will be honest. There is no good way out of this conversation. The more you engage in it, the greater the chance there is for conflict. As conflicting polemics begin to mount, your stress levels will increase, and the body’s natural defense system will show up, and find an exit strategy. You will not remember how great Candace is. Instead, you will feel hurt, and wonder what you ever saw in her. There is a strong likelihood that you will call someone, who unconsciously you know will side with you, and your relationship with Candace will become estranged at best.
So, what do we do? Begin by forgiving Candace. The social climate of politics, especially during a closely contested election is harsh. It takes no prisoners. It invites itself into the way people think all day, and builds as people begin to fear that the person they do not want to be elected will take office. Fear causes stress, which we all want to get rid of, and this need for expulsion finds its way into our conversations. We are simply not mindful that engaging in heated debates and fear driven rhetoric will actually cause harm to our own well being, and the well being of others around us.
Once you understand how powerful social mechanisms are in driving conflict into our relationships around election time, pay attention to your body. If you have been following along with these entries, you may have a pretty new but seemingly effective mindfulness practice going. Use this to sense when you are becoming overwhelmed in conversation, and take steps to redirect the conversation or find some way out of it to take care of yourself. Well-being is your birthright. You don’t owe it anyone to suffer, even if it is in the name of strengthening our democracy.
If you have yet to develop a mindfulness practice, simply notice tension in your body during the day, and try to soften into your body, letting your muscles slowly disengage, and letting your breathing become regular. Get to know how this feels, and use this feeling as a compass for well-being. Which is to say that when you notice yourself getting overwhelmed via conversation, notice this tension and allow it to pass, soften your body and find ways out of at least this explicit conversation about politics to take care of yourself.
The office is a tricky place because you might be forced to engage with people on a regular basis that you already are not so fond of or the office, itself, can be stressful. All this talk about politics is just enough to overextend your natural capacity for stress. In this case, locate others in the office, who do not want to talk about politics. Spend as much time with them as possible. Transition to conversations with them from the people in the office, who most actively want to discuss politics.
Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. If there is an office to which you can go and simply follow your breath until it becomes regular and relaxed, do so. If you can take some time to listen to a guided meditation or some relaxing music, do that as well. If you have read some of my earlier entries, you would know that I would listen to self-compassion music, when I got to the office and recited my self-compassion phrases until about 15 minutes before patients arrived.
The bottom line is that if conversations about politics steal your energy, and increase your stress level, then you need to find ways to decrease your stress and increase your energy. Be creative. I once had a co-worker, who would go to her car and sing with the music turned up all the way. I don’t even know if she could sing (what am I the singing police?), but she sure felt better after.
Home is a difficult place to be stressed because it is normally where most of us go to stop working at the end of the day, and to recharge for the next day. When home life is stressful, and we are not afforded the opportunity to seek wellness, illness is often soon to follow. If you heed these three words of advice, you should be ok.
First, elections are temporary. Elections are temporary, and so are their effects. Calm your anxiety by reminding yourself that like all things the situations at home created by politics will pass. Do not dwell on them as long-term problems that require long-term solutions. Think of ways to relate to each other that provides the most well-being in the short-term. Be aware of your family members’ limitations with respect to discussing politics. If everyone in the family needs home to be a safe place, agree to not talk about politics at home.
Second, nothing is more important than your relationships. Sometimes, we become so driven by our passion for ideas or events that we prioritize them over our relationships, and unintentionally take things too far and do harm to the people we love. Loud shouting or screaming matches are not unheard of, and hurtful words are also known to be exchanged during these altercations.
When these occasions occur, remember that each person came by their opinions naturally, and that hurting the other person was an unintended result of getting worked up over ideas that make all people excited. Apologize to your partner, if that is the right thing to do, and do not hold on to the harm- it will only harm you further. Instead, use your knowledge about self-compassion to acknowledge the harm, advocate for your need to be respected or your partner’s need to be respected, and make a plan to try to avoid such harm in the future. Even from a selfish perspective, remember that the politicians for whom you so fervently argue will likely not keep you warm and loved at night (at least not in the traditional sense), but your family will.
Third, it’s called self-compassion for a reason. Nobody knows how to take care of us better than ourselves. The hardest part of having the kind of claws out, conflict-laden arguments that political elections generate is that we begin to assume that our family members wish us harm, and that their actions will determine whether or not we have any well-being. You are in charge of your well-being. Do what is necessary to preserve it. It is very likely that your family members, if pressed, will say and do things that will injure you. Most of this is context driven. Politics can be very aggressive, so conversations tend to tilt the same way.
If you are on the other end of aggression, there is no escaping injury. So the question remains, how will you take care of yourself? This question is at the epicenter of self-compassion practice: How can I take care of myself? Ask yourself this question, and be prepared to do whatever it takes (less injury to yourself or others) to return to a state of well-being.
On behalf of all humanity, I am terribly sorry that you have to endure this difficult time. No matter what your beliefs, this process is hard on all of us, and you deserve well-being. Do your best to stay connected to those that love you and those who love you during this process. Invest in taking care of yourself, and make an extra effort to use your self-compassion practices. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Who knows? You might just discover something about yourself or life that helps people for years to come.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 54. In the Books.