In my last article, I wrote about using anger as fuel and offered an exercise to help you move your anger up, through, and out so that you can then become proactive about the things you feel strongly and most passionate about. I also touched on the recent rise of ‘Trumpism’ in the USA and how outraged citizens are rising up to fight against this huge threat to democracy. I have been following US therapists closely to get their take on the whole situation and was pleased to find one of my family therapy idols, William Doherty on the forefront and taking serious action.
Doherty has started a huge collaboration of psychotherapists in the US against Trumpism called Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism. To give you a flavor, here is what they are all about:
As psychotherapists practicing in the United States, we are alarmed by the rise of the ideology of Trumpism, which we see as a threat to the wellbeing of the people we care for and to American democracy itself. We cannot remain silent as we witness the rise of an American form of fascism. We can leverage this time of crisis to deepen our commitment to American democracy.
One of the things I keep rolling around endlessly in my head is the following question:
Who on earth voted for Donald Trump (so many apparently that he became President of the United States) and why?????
Doherty gives me the answer and I thought it worth sharing here so that we can all put our heads and hearts together and heal what is broken so that democracy can become the standard in our neighbouring country. Doherty says that it is largely a white, working-class group of people who voted for Donald Trump who have fallen from grace over the years…
Unlike truly poor people and people of color (who’ve always been outliers in American society), the Trump people did count: they were part of respectable, respected, hard-working communities, which saw themselves as America’s backbone. So Trump tells them they still count, that they’ve been betrayed, that they’re part of a great all-American community, dedicated to a great cause, and should rise again. While it’s hard to tolerate a lot of what they say and do when they’re angry and activated by Trump, there’s real pain there, with a belief in a higher purpose. Nostalgia is homesickness, grief for what’s been lost—or, as many seem to believe, stolen—in a world of globalization, immigration, and affirmative action for every group but their own, with the federal government the chief perpetrator and punisher. The kindling was ready for Trump to strike the match, and similar movements are occurring in many of the world’s democracies…Trump’s ascendancy revealed that a large group of people feel that their society is moving on without them, that they’re not valued anymore, that there’s nothing left for them. They’re deeply alienated, and some feel temporarily more powerful by expressing or excusing expressions of racism and xenophobia and sexism…
Where Do We Go From Here?
One thing I’ve studied repeatedly over the years as a therapist is the brain and the nervous system and how these two parts overlap. Let me go over a brief synopsis to help us figure out what to do with the current Trumpism taking over at least half of America:
Humans share a ‘primal brain’ with all other animals. This brain is all about survival and instructing us to do whatever we need to do to stay alive. It’s connected to the nervous system which is constantly sniffing out potential danger and helping us be on the ready to get ourselves out of dangerous situations. It is responsible for our “fight or flight” response to perceived threat and enables us to fend off attackers or run away from a giant animal intent on eating us for their next meal.
What distinguishes us as humans from other animals is our neo-cortex; that giant blob of grey matter taking up most of the space inside our head. The difference with this brain (let’s call it our ‘second brain’ for clarity) is that it offers us the ability to think, ponder, and imagine- WITHOUT REACTING ON FIGHT OR FLIGHT as our first means of defense. To illustrate, I’ll use an example all of us can relate to:
There is an exciting job opportunity at your current workplace which would be an advancement from what we are doing now: More responsibilities, challenges, and a significant increase in salary. You nearly salivate when you hear it’s coming up and that you can apply for it. So you quickly update your resume, highlighting all of the qualifications and skills you have which you feel make you a perfect candidate for the position. You know a couple of your colleagues are also applying, but you chuckle inside to yourself, reasoning that only you are the qualified candidate and are confident you stand a good chance of getting the job.
A week later, you hear the great news that you’ve been picked for an interview. You sail through said interview and are called back for a second one. You’re sure you’ve totally nailed it and that job is just waiting for you. You’ve even bought a wall hanging to go in the new office! You are in such a good mood for the next week as you anticipate the good news that the job is yours and you’ve made all kinds of plans for the fabulous changes you will make once you acquire your new position.
Your colleague ends up getting the job. She somehow made the cut and you didn’t. You’re shocked, devastated, even outraged…That was YOUR job dammit! How the hell did she take it away from you?
*Sidenote: the colleague in question is someone you really got along with and admired before you were put in a position of competition.
What do you do if you’re like most of us?
You start to feel angry at this person even though it’s not their fault that you didn’t get the position and they did. You start getting resentful and bitter. You may even go so far as to turn against them and see them as the enemy. It’s a very common scenario and one that many of us find ourselves playing out somewhere along the journey of life.
My question to you here is: Which brain are you using here when you’re all riled up and angry and bitter and hateful?
Hint: It’s not your neocortex!
It’s all reaction, survival-based stuff you’re going on in this example. Your cognitive functioning (i.e., second brain) has gone out the window and you’re using your primal brain as your first line of defense. It’s like having a gas pedal and no brake! What sets us humans apart from other animals is our ability to THINK ABOUT HOW WE ARE GOING TO RESPOND TO PERCEIVED THREAT AND EMPLOY REASON TO OUR INITIAL EMOTIONAL REACTIONS.
I believe that Mr. Trump and his supporters are coming from a place of fear-based reaction (i.e., the primal brain) and leaving out the bigger picture which can only be seen when we metaphorically ‘sit on our hands’ in terms of our initial reactions, ponder and take some space from it all, and then apply our second-brain capacities to see all sides, reason, and come up with a peace-based approach.
Esther’s Tips for Practising Peaceful Resistance under Trumpism
Get really honest and clear with yourself about your own tendencies to strike out and attack when you feel threatened. Do a writing exercise wherein you answer these questions:
What issues/rhetoric get my back up and I find myself becoming outraged and defensive and attacking of someone else’s point of view?
When I get like this, how am I acting similarly to those angry and defensive people I disagree so strongly with?
Who are my favourite role models of peacekeepers and why? What were their strategies to bring harmony to deep-rooted areas of conflict? Were they successful and if so, how did they eventually help to bring positive change and peace to that particular issue?
What do I want the legacy I leave behind to look like? What do I want to be remembered for and why?
Secondly, allow yourself to have your initial ‘reptilian brain’ response when you hear whatever the latest tidbit concerning Trumpism happens to be, talk nicely to yourself as you react and validate that reaction, and then use the trick of ‘buying time’ to avoid a reactionary action which you will later regret (hint: sit on your ‘Twitter finger’ for a bit).
Then practice sitting silently in stillness and become mindful of the present moment, drinking up all of the sensations you experience in your body. Breathe long and deep. Now is also a good time to send out a prayer to the Universe. You could ask that your actions be guided by a Higher Purpose for peace on the planet. Practise the Loving Kindness Meditation again, praying for yourself, then Donald Trump and all of his supporters, and lastly, for everyone in the United States of America- that all of you be bathed in loving kindness, free from harm, and peace. Then see what happens…