By Kelly Hearn
I am sitting on a flight back to California for my annual summer trip ‘home’ (I am an American citizen, but after 16 years in the UK consider London my adopted home). As I have watched the long run-up to the November US Presidential elections with increasing dismay, I am nervous what it will feel like being physically surrounded by the toxicity. Viewing it from across the Atlantic Ocean has been stomach-churning enough. Ditto living through Brexit up-close-and-personal. The themes behind both are similar: anti-immigrant movements that are roiling nearly every western democracy, economic disparity between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalization, and generational divides in voting. But I’m not here to write from a political science angle. As a psychotherapist, I’m much more intrigued (and disturbed) by the psychological forces at work, specifically the repression and projection of ‘unsavoury’ shadowy emotions. On a surface level, it’s hard to look at the anger-cum-rage omnipresent in both the Brexit and US election debates and talk about repressed emotions in the same paragraph. And yet what is less noticed and talked about is that behind this all too evident anger are two emotions much harder to express: fear and sadness. Perhaps because these two are particularly uncomfortable to sit with, maybe because they can be seen and felt as kinds of ‘weakness,’ anger is their preferable front man. But all of these emotions have a common denominator – anger and sadness are both reactions when we feel we have been hurt or wronged. Anger is active, aggressive. Sadness passive, vulnerable. Western society doesn’t do vulnerability very well. We are much more comfortable taking the ‘fighting’ stance. But in doing so, we relegate all of the sadness to the shadow; the anger becomes distorted, the fire uncontained.
The themes behind both are similar: anti-immigrant movements that are roiling nearly every western democracy, economic disparity between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalization, and generational divides in voting.
This distorted, uncontained anger is what’s fueling an increasingly dangerous polarization, an ‘us vs. them’ thinking that continues to gain momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. The battle lines are stark. Leave vs. Remain. Trump vs. Clinton. The language in all camps is aggressive and hostile. To take the as-yet undecided US election, the parties and their rival candidates do not just disagree profoundly. They deny each other’s legitimacy outright. Look at the demonization of Hillary Clinton that took the place of policy discussions at the recent Republican National Convention. There was a ‘show trial’ of Clinton, in which her imagined ‘crimes’ were listed and the thousands in the crowd encouraged to roar ‘guilty’ after each one. The audience soon erupted into what became the mantra of the convention: ‘Lock her up!’ All before another leading Republican compared Clinton to Lucifer and yet another said she should be shot (!) for treason. The distorted emotions running the shop – on centre stage at a national convention – are alarming and deeply scary. They are but one example of how we project all that is wrong in our world onto specific people or target groups (the opposing political party, immigrants, ISIS to name three big ones) without any sense of our own role in fuelling the divide. The pattern of behavior is deeply unconscious. We could even go so far as to say it exhibits pathological symptoms because it is disassociated from any awareness of guilt or regret for suffering inflicted on others.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I was staunchly with the Remain viewpoint in the UK and will vote Clinton without hesitation this November. But in both debates, my personal anger is less about the ‘other side of the vote’ and more to do with the fact that we, collectively, don’t engage with each other any more. Or if we do, it is in pithy FaceBook or Twitter posts and comments rather than measured, thoughtful commentary. We don’t even seem curious about any viewpoint other than our own. Rather, we just keep repeating our same points, ever LOUDER IN ALL CAPS, often not really taking any additional perspectives into account. The conversations going on in the US right now are more oversimplified than ever. They are driven by soundbites manufactured by a small number of people on both sides in order to convince each that they are the ‘good guys’ while the others are nothing short of evil. As long as we reject entire groups of people outright, the aggression never ends.
Commentators who share my political views are quick to dismiss the Leave and Trump supporters as ‘racists and idiots’ rather than acknowledging any genuine concerns these individuals have. There are communities in America devastated by factory closures; families who feel forgotten in the march towards globalization. There are parents struggling to provide for their children, and scared that even if they do, racial prejudices and terrorist threats still make for a deeply unsettling existence. They feel ignored by elected politicians, particularly those seen as the ‘liberal elite’ in the Democratic Party. Those backing Trump assert he is ‘saying what others are too politically correct to say. He is blunt, to the point, and speaks the truth. In a world run by slick focus-group tested politicians, Trump is a breath of fresh air.’ While we may have deep concerns about the candidate himself, we’d have to be pretty stuck in our own opposing views not to at least acknowledge this appeal. Even in typing this, I can imagine many Democrats’ indignant response; ‘Speaks the TRUTH??!! TRUMP??!! Have you fact checked his statements lately?’ To which I’d merely point out that there are legitimate concerns about Clinton’s trust-worthiness as well, a truth the Democratic candidate herself acknowledges.
Before I go too far down the road of ‘he said, she said,’ I return to my real interest – the psychological factors on display in the US election. Here I found the words of the late psychiatrist Gordon Livingston instructive: ‘Just as in psychotherapy (in politics), there is no substitute for looking below the surface of the stories we are told, identifying the sadness and fear that underlies anger, the insecurity that expresses itself in arrogance, and the sense of meaninglessness behind most unhappiness. If we can apply this understanding to our political battles we might be able to disagree with each other with a little more humility and a little less certainty that only those who believe as we do deserve to be saved. And in this process we might just find more to like and admire in each other – and in ourselves.’ This inspired me to take a ‘news break’ as all the purely surface mud slinging was taking its toll on me – I found myself feeling utter despair and helplessness in the face of so much anger (coincidentally, I noticed the same phenomenon going on in the therapy room with one of my particularly rageful clients – I would sit in session with sadness she was repressing. Perhaps the same was going on for me on a macro level?)
Just as in psychotherapy (in politics), there is no substitute for looking below the surface of the stories we are told, identifying the sadness and fear that underlies anger, the insecurity that expresses itself in arrogance, and the sense of meaninglessness behind most unhappiness.
I saw a cartoon that perfectly summed it up: My desire to be well- informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane. So I ‘opted out’ of the news cycle. Spent some time considering different ways of working with this anger of ours, and also the vulnerability lying beneath, with the aim of channeling it more productively. I turned to my ‘go-to gal’ for working with difficult emotions, Pema Chodron, and listened to her lectures entitled ‘Don’t Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions.’ In these talks, Chodron takes and interprets teachings from The Way of the Bodhisattva. Turns out the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva’s counsel is entirely relevant and applicable to life in the 21st century, whether we are talking about politics or psychotherapy.
In these talks, Chodron highlights three ways to work more productively with anger: 1/ Reframing our attitude towards discomfort, 2/ Seeing the complex reality of situations, and 3/ Developing tolerance.
Reframing our Attitude Towards Discomfort
So let’s start with the genesis of anger. Something occurs and we’re irked, irritated. This happens, obviously, and quite frequently. There is nothing innately destructive in getting angry about something. Anger, like all of the emotions, has its place and its wisdom. It calls our attention, energises us; alerts us that one of our boundaries may have been crossed. The question is what to do with this energy; the challenge to use it as fuel to do something that will make us feel better rather than the opposite. More often than not, this doesn’t happen. Instead, we start fanning the ambers of irritation with our thoughts as reinforcement. Pretty soon this legitimate anger of ours has morphed into something pretty explosive. Our views are fixed (‘This is wrong!’ ‘This is bad!,’ ‘They are bad!), and we respond with aggression. The problem is that aggression begets aggression so our habitual response to anger is actually unproductive at best, and pretty destructive in reality.
if our anger escalates to the point where we’ve made the person wrong, or evil or a psychopath, we can’t work with that
If we can instead recognize this chain of events doesn’t serve anyone, we can opt for a different response. One that, when we are triggered, calls for a pause. Some space that enables us to catch ourselves and ask ‘What’s happening here?’ while acknowledging, ‘I don’t like it.’ If we can remain curious and open, even when things feel pretty intolerable, we can avoid lashing out. In the pause, we can separate out the thing we’re upset about rather than letting it become the person. Because if our anger escalates to the point where we’ve made the person wrong, or evil or a psychopath, we can’t work with that. We’ve all seen this in our personal lives and more broadly on an international level. War after war has been about making the other side wrong in order to do otherwise unthinkable cruelty. Yet this friend and foe divide is largely made up in the mind. If we can avoid spinning off into polarization, demonizing the person (s); If we can instead look at the specific actions, or policies, we can engage. We can open a dialogue. We can be brave enough to listen to a perspective other than our own. Sometimes we may even find that if we were living the life of the persons in question, we might have had similar views or made the same decisions. Even if this isn’t the case, we can keep our own views while disagreeing with someone(s), but there won’t be the same emotional charge, the ‘hook’ that incites aggression. We are no longer fighting a foe but instead reaching out and connecting with one of us.
When the restless and painful energy hits, we can recognize that there is always going to be injustice and cruelty and people doing things in extreme self-interest, but instead of getting ‘righteously indignant,’ we start asking the questions: ‘How did he/she/they get like that?’ ‘Do I want to get like that too?’ If not, the whole concept of making the other side ‘wrong,’ of seeing the outside as the sole problem has to be acknowledged for what it is – only half of the equation. We turn our attention to working internally, on the personal, the only ‘side’ we can control. The questions continue: ‘What am I missing here?’ ‘Where might my words and actions be contributing to the aggression?
Seeing the Complex Reality
As noted above, modern society has developed a bad habit of oversimplification. One hundred and forty characters (Twitter) don’t make space for complexity; we humans must. Working productively with anger means recognizing this truth. There are not, innately, ‘bad people’ and ‘good people,’ it is our messed up means of interaction that creates and sustains aggression. And even when we find ourselves in a pretty stuck position, we can remind ourselves that nothing is fixed. We’re not all victims. Yes, we are vulnerable – and owning up to this feels pretty important – but being vulnerable doesn’t take away our power. If anything, it invites us to use our power to engage more collaboratively with all.
In the complexity we find wisdom; working with the shadow we can find gold.
It strikes me that both the Republicans and Democrats are exposing different aspects of the American psyche. The ‘ugliest Republican convention in living memory’ as it was called in the press brought to the surface many shadow aspects – the anger, the fear, the sadness, and yes, some still very real racism we are all to reluctant to own up to (see also: Black Lives Matter movement). Having these presented so publicly is uncomfortable. Easier to disregard them outright, repress the darkness or project it onto others which is what the Democratic stance risks doing. At their convention, the Democrats took obvious pleasure in presenting the more optimistic aspects of the American psyche. ‘When they go low, we go high,’ said Michelle Obama in her eloquent speech. Her husband, President Obama, dismissed the Republican view of the world as a ‘deeply pessimistic vision…America is already great. America is already strong.’ Hillary Clinton went on to say ‘In the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get; that America is great because America is good.’ The contrast between the messages was so stark that The Washington Post asserted ‘anyone who went to both conventions…may be suffering from ideological and tonal whiplash….are they (Republicans and Democrats) talking about the same country?.’ What seems to be lacking is any kind of integration – let alone acknowledgement – of these two sides. In our rush to simplify all, we are missing a trick. In the complexity we find wisdom; working with the shadow we can find gold.
I hope President Obama was right in his assessment of Hillary Clinton that ‘She knows that this is a big diverse country and most issues are rarely black and white. That even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise…That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, see ourselves in each other, fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may seem.’ Cynics may say this is mere politicking. I’m more hopeful. Because, realistically, it seems the only way forward. We are so quick to go for the simple ‘faults’ in others that we overlook the always-present common ground. Maybe it’s time to turn this approach on its head. Start with the common ground: acknowledge it, respect it, promote it. Take the current President’s words to heart.
The more we utilise a certain response to anger the more we strengthen it. By getting ‘hooked’ easily and lashing out, we fortify this habitual response. By reframing our reaction and sitting with openness and curiosity, we promote doing more of the same. The former makes us quite thin skinned – everything from traffic jams to minor annoyances cue a rageful response. The latter enables us to endure the discomfort. In her talks, Chodron counsels us to practice tolerance with the ‘little angers’ on a daily basis as training to be able to endure the larger ones when they inevitably arrive.
This reminded me of a recent trip I made to Bhutan, specifically my visit to evening prayers at a Buddhist monastery. The evening commenced not in quiet meditation or chanting but instead in active debate. The older monks utilized frequent slapping of the hands in front of the younger ones’ faces – not physically touching them but still, the slapping gestures and sounds felt aggressive. Unable to understand the language and so words that were being (loudly) articulated, I asked our guide what was going on. ‘Anger training,’ he said then went on to explain that the older monks habituate the younger ones to sitting calmly in the face of aggression. There was no ‘fighting back’ on the younger monks’ part; nor did they shut down in passivity. Accordingly to my translator, the younger monks merely responded to the aggressive action with reason, lightness, and sometimes humour. No one seemed to be getting ‘hooked’ that evening. It was an instructive lesson.
* * *
Reframing, seeing the complexity, developing tolerance: three radically different approaches to anger as compared to what I think most of us have been guilty of lately. And so now that I am on summer holidays, my ‘news detox’ continues. I’m instead sitting with these three. Although I am staying in a community that voted 78% for Trump in the Republican primary elections, I’m not seeing politics. I haven’t been ‘fanning the embers’ with thoughts. So I can go for a walk in the morning and love being among those who say ‘Good morning, have a good one,’ as you pass. A place where, while I was ordering my coffee, the gentleman next to me jumped in and said ‘if you haven’t been here before, you must try the pastries, they are the best in the state!’ Where simple acts of kindness are all around (maybe the sunshine helps breed good deeds?). The few days I’ve been back in California – news free- remind me that there is so much more to be happy and grateful about in the world than the news cycle would have us believe.
Along those lines, a final thing I’ll mention is what Chodron calls ‘cheerfulness training’ (‘if that isn’t too obnoxious of a term,’ she laughs in the lectures). While most of the above has been about ways to engage with the darkness, it is equally, if not more important to pursue the light. This isn’t being Pollyannaish. It’s merely actively acknowledging the things that bring us happiness; the multitude of small things like a nice meal, a stranger’s smile, the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean. We all have the habitual pattern to emphasize the negative (and here we are helped out by a press that does the same), so it is helpful, nay imperative, to shift that balance. By actually marking and saying to ourselves the cheerful moments and thoughts, we can imprint on our unconscious these more positive aspects of our daily lives. The more we practice this, the more we become easily touched, softened. Others can feel this warmth which fosters kinship and connection. So in the face of so much anger, we can work with it but also remember the good. Instead of fuelling the anger, we can feed our happiness. This approach reminded me of the Cherokee ‘Two Wolves’ legend:
An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied,
“The one you feed.”
Wise words for troubled times.