5:00am on November 9. Wake up heart pounding and check my phone. Shock. Disbelief.
All I want to do is put my head under my pillow. I don’t read the news for three days. There must be some mistake!
I wasn’t surprised that I went to avoidance and denial when Trump won. That’s where I go when trying to block out feelings of grief.
As a therapist, I help people to recognize their patterns of defense, their habitual ways of responding: their default mode. We all developed ways of adapting and protecting ourselves in our early years when our brains and nervous systems were developing. These ways of coping can become hard-wired.
Of course it’s okay to use our default mode to help us cope in the moment. But it’s also important to connect to what is really happening. Why? When we don’t allow ourselves to feel grief or pain, we can’t fully heal. We get stuck. We can’t move forward.
This isn’t only about politics. It’s about all aspects of our lives.
So how did you respond to the fear or grief or trauma of Trump winning the election? What is your default defense mode? And where else does this show up in your life?
Some common habits of defense include:
Avoidance or Denial -- We may not literally hide under a pillow, but we refuse to face what is really happening. We don’t read the news or we won’t even want to talk about the “T” word. Or we tell ourselves, This can’t be happening. There must be some mistake! Some of us still can’t believe that Trump will actually take office in January. Like in the face of a dismal health diagnosis, or evidence of a spouse’s betrayal, we grasp for any possibility that it’s not real, that it will somehow go away.
Minimizing or Dismissing -- We pretend to accept what is happening by telling ourselves It’s no big deal! Or It’s going to be fine. With Trump we may tell ourselves, He probably didn’t mean all those things he said about immigrants and women. Maybe he’ll surprise us! Similarly, when a relationship turns abusive, or when our parents berate us, we tell ourselves it isn’t that bad or s/he didn’t mean it.
Keeping Busy or Distracted -- If we just stay busy enough, we won’t have time to worry about Trump’s impact on the environment or human rights. We also won’t have to think about our break-up, or our empty nest after the children leave home, or the deeper pain of our childhood that we never want to face. Our mobile phones make this even easier: we now never have to deal with our feelings. At the first twinge of sadness or fear we can scroll or tweet or text.
Gathering Information -- Loss often involves something over which we have no control. Gathering information offers the pretense of control. How many of us rigorously read the news, trying to learn as much as we can about Trump’s intentions? We have an ex-spouse alienating our children, or our parent has a degenerative disease, so we seek all the information we can. In some way we believe there will be a solution to our pain in what we are learning.
Hope and Striving -- It’s not that we deny what is happening, but we hope it will resolve itself if I just keep trying! We post articles and attend protests and get passionate about vote rigging, all the while hoping something will change. It’s like hoping our partner or parents will change, if we can only convince them, or if we try harder. Yes, great change can come from conscious engagement and activism. But sometimes, individually, we keep trying so we don’t have to accept the reality of our loss, that we may never have the relationship we desire, or that we have lost our sense of security in the world.
Anger and Blame -- The world and everyone in it is to blame. It’s Comey! Putin! Fake news! When we fail a performance review, our boss is to blame. When our relationship falls apart, our spouse is at fault. Oh how powerful anger makes us feel -- so much better than sadness or fear.
To be clear, these defenses serve a purpose. They protect us.
But when we’re aware of our default defense mode, it means we have a choice. We can continue to protect ourselves if that is what we need. Or we can ask ourselves, what feeling(s) am I trying to block out?
If we feel stuck, we can choose to respond differently. We don’t have to carry out the same pattern that may keep us closed down. When we block out the painful feelings, we lose connection to other feelings as well: empathy, intimacy, trust. Recognizing our fear or grief can help us connect to others, no matter what we are going through in our lives.
No matter what our loss, or pain, or what Trump continues to threaten, we are well-equipped to cope… and we can also move forward and heal.