Politics and the Psychotherapist

By | March 2, 2016

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The world has changed drastically since the results of the November 8th election, and with it the psychotherapist’s task. The focus on our personal lives has been subsumed by the political climate. Triggered by Donald Trump’s extremism, many of us are struggling with the intense emotions of:

Anger/Rage
Hate
Confusion
Doubt
Fear
Hopelessness
Inertia

We’ve been taught to refrain from saying bad things about people, to abhor bullying, to resist the tendency to ostracize people based on their skin color or religious beliefs. Trump flaunts these rules. In addition, he seems inconsistent and intent on overturning policies that we have regarded as progress in our democratic society. More unsettling, he inspires hate crimes and causes rifts in our country and within friendships and families. He remains popular in spite of his divisiveness, seeming to get away with “bad” behavior.

As a result, people’s responses range from fear of bullying, to a dread of a Nazi Germany-style dictatorship, to concerns of a nuclear event, or destruction of the Earth from global warming.

We therapists respond to our clients in various ways–from a neutral stance to explore an individual’s particular concerns and fears to personal sharing. Both approaches have proved to be helpful.

Ms. P. spoke spontaneously about her deep-seated beliefs in the integrity of the government, and her present concerns about corruption. By contrast, Mr. W. hesitated to share the details of his distress until I shared my own unease. Then he chimed in, sighing in relief, “Then I’m not crazy.”

Here are a few tactics that some have found helpful:

Focus on what we can control. For example, deep breathing into the base of our lungs can reduce anxiety.

Find a reliable companion. Therapy dogs have helped to calm students, and we pet owners experience the soothing power of our animals on a daily basis.

Draw limits. Many people find that limiting their exposure to the media helpful in reducing their anxieties.

Avoid fruitless talk. Friends and family members, divided on their opinions, have agreed to avoid political conversations.

A wonderful poem by the poet John Godfrey Sax (1816-1887) relates how each man creates his own version of reality from limited experience and perspective.

Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
is very like a wall!”

The Second feeling of the tusk,
Cried,-“Ho! What have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,”quoth he “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,
“This clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL,
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Each person perceives a different part of the elephant, which at this point in time, seems impossible to piece together into a whole animal.

The philosophical parable warns us against promoting an absolute truth or making exclusive religious claims.

The theological truth instructs that although each blind man has a limited perspective, that doesn’t mean that an objective truth doesn’t exist; instead, we should be spurred on to search for and define truth in its entirety.

Conclusion: In the present political climate, psychotherapists must be sensitive and aware to respond to each individual. Some clients want to ventilate without a therapist’s intervention, but in my experience, many welcome the therapist’s personal reaction. In these troubling times, the psychotherapist’s goal remains to encourage dialogue.

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