Quickly try this exercise: Think about where you were 15 years ago, in the Spring of 2001. Where were you working? Where did you go for lunch? Who was your favorite co-worker? Who was your least-favorite co-worker? Now, who was President? (I bet that took a second, right?). Because when we think about the course of our lives, the events that we remember, and the people and feelings we associate with them, the fact of who is President at that time isn’t at the top of our minds. We have to search for it, and recall. I don’t mean to encourage apathy about our duty and right as citizens to vote in presidential elections (and others), but my point Is that our sense of ourselves, and our quality of life, are separate variables from whoever is in the White House. And yet, right now, in an election season, we are all collectively pressured from ubiquitous and overwhelming election coverage, at the time of this writing among Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump.
As a clinical social worker and even as a gay male activist and advocate for the LGBT community, I am quite invested in public policy. Social workers usually have an interest not only in helping people as individuals (or couples), but also being the “agents of social change” and working for social justice. I’m also a history buff, and enjoy seeing how patterns and cycles play out over and over. So I’m the last one to encourage you to ignore what’s going on. However, I am aware that many people are very stressed out by this election season. Because any kind of stress can undermine your quality of life, I wanted to offer some ways to cope and to protect yourself against a pervasive social stress right now. I believe it’s about achieving a balance between being an informed citizen who is fulfilling a social obligation and civic duty to be informed, along with your own self-care and self-compassion to avoid being overwhelmed. Here are some tips:
1. Limit Your Exposure: Decide how much of the election season controversies you want to be exposed to. Let’s say you’re driving in your car, and you realize that your car radio is too loud. You would reach (safely) for the audio volume control and turn it down a bit, so that you’re comfortable and the sound level isn’t hurting your ears. Now, think about this in regard to election coverage on the radio, TV, Facebook, or other news sources (I think especially Facebook!). If the “noise” is too loud, ask yourself how you can “turn it down”. You’re in control. Maybe you simply limit time on Facebook to morning and evening. Maybe you listen to music stations on your car radio rather than news stations. Maybe you focus on watching your TV shows on a DVR and skip through commercials where you might see political ads. If it’s too little, and you want to feel more informed about the status of the nomination process, maybe you could use Google (or other search engines) to find the specific results you want (who won the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, and by how much?) without getting distracted or overwhelmed by all the rest.
2. Trust in History: If you’re very invested in a particular candidate, that can be exciting to experience your own passions and your own values. But if your support of one candidate is to the point of being very anxious about how they are doing, you might be forgetting that you’re going to be OK regardless of this year’s election outcome. If you look at the history of the United States, it tends to be moderate politically, even if the pendulum between the ideological Left and Right swings a bit. As a Western country, the USA tends to have very similar lifestyles across many generations. We get up, we work, we do a little something (the gym, TV, other hobbies), we sleep, and then we enjoy the weekend – for years on end, with only some variations. It is unlikely that whoever wins this next election will change American life very significantly, either way, good or bad. If you’re currently an adult, you’ve probably had many Presidents in your lifetime, of the Right (Reagan, the two Bushes, etc.) and the Left (Clinton, Obama) and your daily American life as an adult has probably had a certain “constancy” to it. That is likely to continue, so you can relax a bit, even now, in the heat of many debates.
3. Use Critical Thinking About Media: If you’re overwhelmed by Bernie this, Hillary that, or Trump that, remember to consider the source of where your information exposure is coming from. Whether it’s from a newspaper, online news outlet, Facebook, TV news, radio news, or even a bumper sticker, remember what ALL of these sources have in common: they are private, for-profit information products that are sold to people. The material that you’re exposed to are products that have a price. Professionals are paid to create that information product, and they are under tremendous pressure to “sell” that information at a profit to huge numbers of people, any way they can grab your attention (even if they have to lie). They aren’t doing a public service as volunteers. So, take everything you see in any form of media with a grain of salt, and remember that someone’s JOB is behind it to grab your attention at all costs. The media MUST create “drama” between Sanders and Clinton, because, as my old drama teacher in high school used to say, “There is no drama without conflict.” Conflict SELLS. And the more the media ratchets up the rhetoric, the drama, the conspiracy theories, the hero/villain dynamic (which changes constantly), the more media product (newspapers, magazines, “online clicks”) they SELL. What’s your defense against stress and overwhelm? Critical Thinking! Say to them, when it gets to be too much, “You can’t fool me, you smarty-pants news source. You’re just out to make a buck by saying that.” Take back your power from for-profit media news outlets who are vying for your attention and to “get a rise out of you”, so that you’ll say to your friends and co-workers, “Look what I heard on CNN! Hillary did this! Bernie did that! And you won’t believe what Trump did twenty years ago, OMG!” Guess what? CNN just got you to be one of their advertisers without paying you. I’d send them a bill.
4. Focus on You: If we learn from history, we can look at how people survived different times that were tough. In World War II, French people survived the years of the Nazi occupation by focusing on themselves, their own families, the things they put their faith in, and waiting patiently to be liberated. English people survived the relentless German bombing of London by focusing on the day-to-day survival tactics. Even Germans, frightened into submission and pressure to “look like” they supported the Nazi regime, even when they secretly didn’t, survived by focusing on their own relationships, spouses, children, home-making, and jobs, and for the ones that survived, they lived before, during, and after that political nightmare. When you really focus on your own life as an individual, whoever is in the White House becomes less important. Sure, it can have influence – more American families have prospered under Obama than the hardships of Bush II – but the day-to-day differences can actually be very subtle. Don’t be complacent – certainly, go out and vote, and get involved in campaign volunteering if you like. But no one is going to do your job for you. No one is going to sustain your relationships for you. No one is going to be responsible for your household budget but you. If the din of election season drama and noise gets to you, remember that it IS finite and it will settle down quickly after November and even well into the new President’s administration. Until it’s time to do it all again 3 years after that.
5. Honor Your Values – In a democracy that holds elections to determine its leaders, we hold a philosophy that people’s values will determine public policy on many different issues in a representative government. It is a covenant that the governors derive their power from the governed. This is not always ideal; if we had left civil rights up to a popular vote in the South in the 1960’s, we might still have African-Americans without voting rights and even more discrimination than we already have. If we had left women’s rights to a popular vote in 1920, we still might not have votes for women. That’s why we have a Supreme Court, because sometimes American people can be hateful bigots, and a civilized society has to set limits for the good of all in order to function. But, imperfect as it is, it’s still a reasonable form of government that is probably superior to dictatorships or monarchies. But you need to balance election season din and drama with expressing your values.
I have a friend who is very much a fiscal conservative, when I believe in robust public funding for social services. But we get along and share an affection as fellow Americans, and both of us bond around a strong commitment to LGBT rights. We live in a diverse society, and while the media would like to paint the situation in big, black, dramatic strokes, the truth is that American life on a day-to-day basis is moderate and diverse. As an LGBT advocate, I have strong — STRONG — feelings that the right to life, health, equality and dignity for LGBT Americans should be reflected in public policy and that our community’s access to public, civil, and social resources should be 100% equal to others, and I vote this way consistently, and engage in other forms of activism to make my own vote “go further”. Others are sadistic with a strong antipathy against any and all LGBT Americans and believe we should be legally and civilly oppressed and severely punished for who we are, and some (many) would actually support systematic extermination of their fellow LGBT American citizens. Many “conservative” and extremely religious activists (ironically, calling themselves “Christians”) have proposed this, and the organizations they lead have hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dues-paying members. This concerns me. So, I use the power of my vote, and education/advocacy/activism, to limit the legal and social power those people have and persuade others to use their vote in the same way.
In the United States, like in all popular elections, the majority rules. If you largely ignore the hype, at the end of the (election) day, you vote with your values. Think about what is important to you, on the spectrum of Right versus Left, on any issue, and determine how you want to use the privilege of your vote. This is a part of self-empowerment (which is the title of my book, by the way), and what we shrinks call “self-efficacy”, which is our own ability to improve our lives by our own determination and will, and by our own consistent beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Celebrate your ability to improve your life by the thoughts you think and the actions you take. One of these is to express your values by the power of your vote, celebrating the opportunity to make your voice heard.
This article today is similar to my article about coping with the ubiquitousness of social media, and that article is here. Part of your quality of life is about what we shrinks call “affect self-regulation”, meaning that your emotions are moderated by your own ability to soothe yourself when you’re stressed, or focus yourself when you’re overwhelmed, or take care of yourself when you’re challenged. Make election season a privilege and a joy about living in a Western democracy, but for the sake of your own mental health, remember that election season drama is its own stressor that requires you to mount an adaptive, healthy coping response. And that always wins the popular vote.
If election season stress, or any kind of stress, is challenging you, consider getting some extra support. Therapy and coaching services at GayTherapyLA primarily focuses on helping gay male individuals and gay male couples, but we see other people, too. Your problems don’t have to be severe to benefit from support. Learning techniques that we teach in Mindfulness, self-care, and other schools of therapy theory such as Cognitive-Behavioral, Existential, and Developmental psychology, or life/business coaching, can improve your outlook and functioning. For more information on these services in person in Los Angeles, or via phone or Skype anywhere in the world, call 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.