Emotional Survival Skills for Dangerous Times
It is a frightening thought that man has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism ... and let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster.
-- Carl Jung, "On the Psychology of the Unconscious"
Nations and individuals have shadows, those parts of us that are usually unrecognized and unspoken but, when projected onto others, become a powerful and destructive force. Our nation's shadows have been dramatically exposed: racism, sexism, homophobia, vulgarity, fear and hatred of "the other." This election has been a tremendous challenge to everyone's emotional resilience. Emotional pain has been reignited for anyone who has experienced violence, abuse, shaming or stigma because of who he or she is or desires to become. As a mental health provider, I am getting frantic texts, calls and emails from clients in fear and despair. Addicts in recovery are being triggered, abuse survivors are re-experiencing trauma, and for many, an overwhelming sense of darkness and fear has descended.
I am also in shock and fear: as a gay man, a recovering addict, a person living with HIV, and a person who cares deeply about and works every single day on behalf of the very populations that have been targeted, stigmatized and dehumanized in the recent campaign. I am struggling with a strong sense of alienation from half of my fellow citizens who feel (finally?) a freedom to hurl hatred and bigotry towards me and to project onto me and "the other" their fears and frustrations.
The very personal nature of the election has been tremendously challenging, but these tools help me sustain my emotional resilience:
- Actively manage feelings
The disturbing statements of this campaign elicited strong feelings within me that, if I hold onto them, will become toxic. I know I must acknowledge, experience and release them in a healthy way such as sharing, journaling or physical movement. Such strong emotions can resonate with other painful life experiences, causing many people to numb them through self-destructive behaviors such as substance misuse or sexually acting out. While it is normal to focus on feelings of anger and outrage, it is also necessary to recognize the emotions that lie beneath: hurt, fear, sadness. These deeper feelings must also be acknowledged, experienced and released. Doing so is ultimately an act of kindness for oneself.
- Limit media
Throughout the campaign, I have been aware of the addictive nature of the news cycle. Every detail has been breathlessly reported in a nonstop binge of shock and fear. After the election, my social media feeds lit up with despair, sadness and outrage. I have found it helpful to limit my exposure to news and social media. It's not that I don't care -- I care deeply, but becoming clear of my own emotions and intention requires less intrusive "noise."
- Practice mindfulness
Keeping my thoughts in the present moment while managing strong feelings becomes a major challenge. Mindfulness, the process of simply noticing thoughts and feelings without judgment, is important to keep me balanced. When I observe my thoughts projecting into the future, I make note and bring my attention back to the present. When I experience anger, I acknowledge the feeling and try to identify what lies beneath it. When I have a physical symptom such as tightness in my chest, I attempt to connect it to a feeling, in that case usually fear. While there is good reason to be angry and fearful, mindfulness helps me avoid simply reacting and enables me to be fully present.
- Connect with others
One reaction to strong feelings such as fear, hurt and anger is to pull back and isolate. At such moments, we all need the love, support and wisdom of others around us. We need to be reminded that we are not alone and that connecting with others not only soothes our emotional pain but also, in fact, helps others. Empathy and compassion for ourselves and others are powerful forces for healing.
- Support and empower
In my work as a writer, therapist and advocate, I am constantly aware of the intelligence, creativity, commitment and consciousness of the people around me. "Stronger together" is much more than a campaign slogan -- it is an essential truth. Today I may be able to help someone struggling with hopelessness or fear; I know that tomorrow they will, in turn, be able to support me. Resisting divisiveness while supporting and empowering each other is the only way forward.
I don't know what lies ahead, but it has become extremely personal. I will not have my marriage to my husband delegitimized, or once again become uninsurable, or remain idle while people are abused because of the color of their skin or their religion. But standing in my power in the face of these challenges requires these tools to ensure the self-care necessary to keep me grounded and the awareness to know that I am not alone.