Q: I’m a therapist, and I care deeply about the outcome of the election next week. I don’t bring up politics with my clients, but they bring it up with me. I’d guess that 75% of them want the same outcome I do, and 25% want the opposite. If “my side” wins, I think I’ll be fine. I care about those 25% of clients as much as I do about the 75%, and I think I’ll be able to empathize with their heartbreak and fear if the causes and candidates they believe in should lose. (Which I hope they do.)
But if it goes the other way, if “my side” loses, I’m not sure I’ll even be able to get out of bed, let alone do therapy. I don’t know what I’ll have to offer the 75% who will be just as devasted as I’ll be. And being with the 25% who’ll be thrilled makes me nauseated even to imagine.
Part of me wants to take next week as a vacation week. But another part thinks that this is the week people will need me more than ever, and I truly want to be there for them. How are you and other therapists preparing for what happens after the election? How do we show up for others who are strongly affected by a moment when we're as affected by it as they are?
A: Thanks for this beautiful question. It’s honest. It’s human. It’s brimming with care—for the world, for your clients, and for yourself. And it’s a real-time picture of a heart trying to stretch itself to be big enough for a moment it’s not sure it’s ready for just yet.
I shared your question with some colleagues, and what follows is a blend of their suggestions and some of my own. I hope there’ll be something here that’s useful to you—and to others who are reading along. Before sharing those ideas, however, there are some preliminary comments that feel important to offer.
Let’s begin with this reminder: therapists are people first, therapists second. In every moment, we live with the same human realities that our clients do. Bodies that get sick, tired, and old. Minds that experience depression, anxiety, and doubt. Hearts that ache when someone we love dies or hurts us, or when we hurt them. We might not have lived through exactly the same thing our client is living through, but we share citizenship in the country of humanness And it’s our humanness, way more than our training, that fits us to accompany others with compassion, respect, and, occasionally, wisdom. We have drunk from, we are drinking from, a common cup.
But here’s the twist. The common cup that makes it possible to do what we do also makes it difficult. Sometimes the anguish in our client’s life runs awfully close to the anguish in ours. Maybe our client is facing a health crisis, and we are too. Or a marriage crisis, a grief, or traumatic memory similar to one we’ve experienced. Here we’re well beyond sharing the same “country of humanness.” We’re sharing the same city, the same neighborhood, sometimes, it feels, the same house.
What often helps in those “living in the same house” moments are the therapist’s practices of self-care—connection with friends and family, spiritual practices, exercise, their own therapy, and more. But what also helps is that, usually, we’re living in the same house with only one or two of our clients at a time.
What’s happening now, with the coronavirus and with the election, is that we and practically all our clients are living in the same house, facing the same stressors at exactly the same time. And the stressors are, to use the overused but no less accurate descriptor, unprecedented. With respect to the coronavirus, never before have human beings lived with 24-hour news and a social media feed and a pandemic that reminds us we are vulnerable and mortal. To borrow words from one of my clients just yesterday: “People are dying, and people are thinking about dying.” Additionally, we are walking this valley of the shadow without the in-person connection and support that ordinarily sustain us in times of grief and fear, and without a unified, trustworthy source of information and direction.
With respect to the election, of course, while there have always been political differences (and differences of belief, values, and social location that underlie those political differences), never before have the piranhas of power and profit had such access to our brains (through our smartphones) and used that access with such indifference to the common good. Not only have our ideological differences been preyed upon, but our trust in the institutions that have historically held and mediated our differences—legislatures, courts, the press, elections themselves—has been sabotaged. One of this year’s Presidential candidates has said we’re in a struggle for “the soul of the nation,” and I think that’s an accurate assessment of what people on both sides of the political chasm (it now seems larger than a divide) are feeling. This election really, really matters. You know it in your mind. You feel it in your heart. And so do a lot of the people who come to you for therapy.
So it’s no wonder that you care so much about what’s happening. It’s no wonder you are feeling the weight and strain of this moment, personally and professionally. And it’s no wonder you’re wanting to prepare yourself now for the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Here are some thoughts and practices for you to consider. Take what’s useful to you. Leave what’s not. You’ve said you’ll be fine if the outcome goes as you hope, so it’s the other outcome and the you who won’t be fine that I’m addressing.
1. It’s OK to take time off to grieve. Several of my colleagues have already blocked their calendar and told their clients they’ll be away next week. Some are taking a wait-and-see approach, giving themselves the option to work if they can or take some mental health days if they can’t. Others are planning to be selective about which clients they see.
Only you will know how bad it is for you, and you’ll need to trust yourself. There’s not a blood test to measure the degree of suffering we’re experiencing. I appreciate your loyalty to your clients and the way you want to show up for them. But we all reach a point sometimes when our own hurt is unbearable. And when we do, it’s often best for us and for others if we tap out.
2. It’s also OK to show up grieving and be vulnerable with your clients. We can tell our clients all day that “everybody hurts,” but when they see it, hear it, and feel it in us, when they witness us accepting the truth of our own experience, it can make it easier for them to accept the truth of theirs. Approach this on a person-by-person basis, and be as sure as you can that your self-disclosure serves some therapeutic purpose. But don’t assume that a broken you is a useless you.
3. Double down on self-care. Starting yesterday. This was the idea I heard most. Do as many things as you can that nourish you and ground you. Eat well. Sleep as much as you’re able. Get outside. Exercise. Play music. Read poetry. Make art. Meditate. Pray. Slow down and savor moments of goodness and beauty. Connect with your spiritual community. See your own therapist. Write in your journal. Be intentional about gratitude. Take a deep breath. Let it go.
4. Avoid all nonessential heavy lifting. Spend your energy on what’s important to you, but be careful not to overdo it. Rest as much as you can. One colleague says he’s actually been scheduling an hour or two a day to rest; he writes it in his calendar. Another put it this way: “Throw all the excess cargo off the ship.” If it makes you feel good to rebuild your website this week, or develop a new therapy group, or start writing a novel, then go ahead. But the days and weeks ahead are likely going to require tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Be intentional about how you use yours.
5. Care for yourself like you’d care for a client. If any form of anguish arises in you—grief, fear, anger, and the like—love it. I don’t mean take pleasure in it. Hurt is not pleasurable. Hurt hurts. I mean: Accept it, welcome it, give it as much space as you safely can. Notice the thoughts that come with the hurt, the emotions, the sensations in your body, the impulses you have to move or moan or shout or sigh. Whatever that is, treat it like a yoga pose customized just for you. Go to the edge of what’s bearable, be there, soften, and breathe.
I also mean: See the good in it and appreciate it. Anguish is the sound our heart makes when we lose something we cherish. The anguish about this election, even this anticipatory version you’re experiencing, is a sign that you can care about something other than yourself. That’s good. Love it.
6. Ask for help. You already do this. (See your question above.) I’m just reminding you to keep doing it. When we reach for help, even before somebody reaches back in response, we’re doing something powerful and healthy. That’s called agency, and it feels great. And when someone reaches back, and we’re in connection with another human who understands what we’re going through, that feels even better.
7. Relatedly, but slightly different, seek the company of those who feel spiritually or energetically strong to you. This might be other people. It could be a pet. For some people, and I’m one, it’s trees. Other people, and I’m one of these, too, believe there are spiritual beings present with us. But whoever and whatever the strong conductors of spiritual energy are for you, whoever and whatever affects you in a grounding and empowering way, as often as you can, bring yourself into proximity with them.
8. Lean into your spiritual capacities. Our physical capacities include things like hearing, seeing, breathing, digesting, and moving muscles. Our spiritual capacities include things like courage, kindness, hope, intuition, moral discernment, willpower, and forgiveness. Like physical capacities, spiritual capacities aren’t entirely self-generated. But also like physical capacities, some physical capacities, anyway, the more we exercise them, the stronger and sharper they become. So if you notice a little courage, or kindness, or intuition, follow it and see what happens. Often, the more you lean, the more there is to lean on.
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me through my website, russellsilerjones.com.