Coping in the Post-Election World
The results are in. Like it or not, Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States. And you’re likely to have feelings — or very strong feelings — regarding the outcome of the 2016 election. For millions of Americans, Trump’s victory has been reason for celebration; for others, great disappointment. Even if you are neutral about politics, this can be a challenging time. Change is often stressful and many people are experiencing emotional difficulties anticipating the new administration’s proposed policies. For different reasons, some people have become depressed, anxious, and/or angry about the 2016 election. In this article, I present guidelines for coping in the post-election world.
A Change in Attitude
Much of psychology has wrongly taught us that past or current events directly cause our feelings. While events play a role, it is mainly our thinking about them that contribute to how we feel. My mentor Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), taught me that emotional and behavioral problems largely arise when we escalate our healthy desires into absolutistic demands. Significant people in our lives, who have also adopted these demands that are ubiquitous in our culture, explicitly and implicitly teach these ideas to us. In the absence of those who taught us these harmful messages, we indoctrinate ourselves through a process of self-learning whereby we internalize these beliefs and attach them to countless events in our lives.
If you are feeling distressed, it is likely you are escalating a strong desire for success, approval, and/or fair treatment from others and the world into a demand that typically takes the form of a “must.” This can happen in almost any situation, including the 2016 election. For example, some people who opposed Donald Trump as President may be feeling not only appropriate feelings of sadness but depression about the election results. Appropriate feelings of sadness are largely the result of the healthy preference, “I would have preferred that my candidate won.” Inappropriate feelings of depression, on the other hand, are mainly brought about by the unhealthy demand, “Donald Trump must not be the President! It’s completely awful that he is! And I can’t stand it!” The healthy preference above will likely motivate one to change what can be changed and to otherwise move forward constructively in their life. The latter unhealthy demand tends to be self-defeating because, unlike the healthy preference, it results in disruptive feelings and behaviors that block one’s goals.
There are many variations and applications of self-defeating demands that individuals may hold about the 2016 election. Anger and blaming toward others is especially common and arises from the demand, “You must not act in ways I dislike and you are a bad person who deserves severe blame for doing so!” This is to be contrasted with the more self-helping preference, “I would prefer you not act in ways I dislike, but this does not make you a bad person.” Adopting the latter view means giving up anger, retaining appropriate feelings of annoyance, yet holding others accountable.
Giving up anger requires taking a profound philosophical stance against self-rating. There is value in rating qualities in order to evaluate and improve performances, so do not give up aspiring to do well and winning the approval of others. Humans generally get along better in life when they succeed and are approved. Self-acceptance means not ascribing global ratings and recognizing that you and others are a process, not a product. Self-acceptance can also help individuals develop a capacity for healthier relationships. We often hear the adage, “You can’t love someone until you learn to love yourself.” By learning to accept yourself, we can learn to accept others (and vice versa).
Acceptance is also a key to understanding and overcoming bigotry and racism which have become highlighted during the 2016 election. Although there is debate about what, exactly, these terms mean, there is a consensus among many that bigotry and racism refer to the erroneous belief that some groups of people are superior and inferior to others. Again, this is a form of rating people, which is always dubious. To label individuals who engage in bigotry and racism is also a form of self-rating and hence bigotry, but we have a choice for how to view and deal with such persons. We can ignore them or try to educate them without hostility. Becoming aware of one’s own bigotry is not always easy. A first step is to acknowledge that we all have biases and to persistently look for our own and eliminate them.
From Insight to Action
Recognizing that we largely create our feelings is a major insight (see above), but an even greatest insight is that insight is not enough to change long-held patterns of thinking and behaving. Change often requires hard work, practice, and persistence. Following are some concrete actions you can take to work toward changing your thinking in the post-election world and to generally cope more effectively.
Take specific actions that will help change the thinking that is contributing to your disruptive feelings. In particular, actively identify and dispute the demands that you are placing on circumstances, others—and yourself. For example, ask yourself, “Why must the results of the election be the way I would prefer them to be?” Look for evidence to support your demand and convince yourself that there is none. Then replace your demand with a more healthy preference such as the following: “As much as I wish the election had turned out different, it didn’t. Too bad! This is highly unfortunate and I don’t like it. But it is tolerable and I can still work toward happiness despite the outcome.”
Repeating brief, effective coping self-statements may also help deal with disruptive thinking and stress. This is a natural coping skill that some of us already use in stressful situations. I suggest put coping statements on index cards and refer to them in times of stress until they are memorized and internalized. Below are a few coping self-statements for the post-election, but it is advisable to create your own so they fit your unique situation.
- “No matter how much I would have preferred a different outcome in the election, I don’t need it.”
- “It’s difficult but not impossible to deal with the election results.”
- “I don’t like this person’s behavior, but it doesn’t make them bad person and they don’t deserve to be severely blamed.”
Various coping skills may be effective for post-election stress, including deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Resources on these and other coping methods are accessible online. For many of us, taking a break from social media and being more selective regarding what media we consume is also an effective way to reduce stress. Research found that consuming positive news can help increase feelings of acceptance toward others, community, and motivation to contribute to social change and activism.
While strong negative feelings (e.g., irritation, annoyance, frustration, sadness) can help inspire one to work toward solving problems related to the election, severe negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, and depression) may interfere with working toward one’s goals. For some, a key to coping is to identify techniques that have reduced stress in the past and to repeat these tried and true methods. Once you are able to identify and use these coping skills and manage stress, it is likely you will be more able to tackle practical problem-solving strategies in a more effective and efficient manner.
Relationships are often a source of support during stressful times yet they are often strained when the topic of politics arises, and this has become especially apparent during and following the 2016 election. Relationship conflicts fall along a spectrum of unfriending people on Facebook, relatives and friends who are no longer talking to each other, and domestic violence. There is no shortage of advice on how to deal with relationship conflicts related to the 2016 election and there is no perfect formula either. Following are some general guidelines for coping with relationship issues relating to the post-election world that I have found helpful.
- The only person you can change is yourself. Changes you make, however, may influence others to act different. If others don’t change, at least you can make a difference for yourself.
- Work at accepting others with their viewpoints. This does not mean necessarily agreeing with others’ opinions but, rather, separating people from their perspectives.
- If you are genuinely curious about having a discussion regarding the election, then temporarily put your views aside and actively listen to what others have to say. Seek to understand rather than educate. Talk to listen rather than listen to talk. Look for ideas that you consider interesting, try to find common ground, and communicate these understandings to the other.
- It may be best to keep political discussions at a minimum with some people or to avoid them altogether, especially if they inevitably end up in arguments. At a last resort, break off toxic relationships, especially on social media.
- Some people enjoy debating—and arguing—especially on social media. They seem to thrive on it. If this isn’t your cup of tea, refrain from interacting with argumentative people who endlessly debate about the election. This can be done on social media by ignoring, replying with a brief comment to the effect, “That’s interesting,” and, if necessary, blocking or unfriending.
Seek Outside Help
If, despite your best self-help efforts, you find that you are unable to cope effectively in the post-election world or if you think you might benefit from help, it may be a good idea to seek outside assistance. Help is available in many forms. Seek help from your support system, including relatives and friends, and be willing to offer your assistance to others. There is likely a support group available online or in person for people going through similar experiences as you. Finally, there is no stigma in seeking services from a licensed mental health professional when the need arises. I have seen mental health professionals during challenging and difficult times and I am glad I did.