The personal is political. As we psychotherapists have seen lately, the political is also personal. According to the APA, 52 percent of Americans suffered from significant election-related stress before November 8. Since Donald Trump’s electoral victory, anxiety has escalated, at least in the Bay Area. Clients have come into our offices extremely upset about the president-elect. His bullying, bigotry, boasts about sexual assault, and denigrating remarks have triggered past traumas and intensified fresh fears. Many have experienced deep ruptures with friends and family. Their loved ones’ support for a candidate who behaves so deplorably is reminiscent of non-protective parents who turn a blind eye to abuse.
These are some of the specific wounds. Yet the damage operates on an even deeper and more pervasive level regardless of one’s personal history. Just as families are heavily influenced by who’s in charge, so is our American family. Trump has capitalized on a yearning for a strong authority figure to take care of us and keep us safe in unsettling times. But what happens when the person most responsible for containing threats to our well-being prides himself on being uncontained and unpredictable?
Therapists know what happens in families governed by an erratic parent. Insecure, even disorganized, attachment styles generally result. Some of the most gravely injured people we treat are those who grew up not knowing from one minute to the next who they would encounter: the loving, playful father, or the impulsive sadist who destroyed through word and deed? So many of our clients were thrown off-balance by a parent sometimes dispensing favors and forgiveness, at other times exacting vengeance, and routinely playing family members off against each other. We have witnessed these dynamics throughout Trump’s campaign and transition parade. He puts his own interest above all else, toys with the truth and with the American people, and delights in his unpredictability. Such an environment distorts reality and destroys trust, worsening a pre-existing problem of a post-factual politics that enabled Trump’s rise.
This is the stuff of insecurity, not the necessary security people—and countries–deserve. Many therapists have themselves been at a loss to respond because they, too, feel unnerved. Now more than ever, though, we will be called upon to help individuals and the collective withstand the personal and political damage of unpredictability by finding and speaking truth, fostering empowerment, building resiliency, and prevailing despite a volatile head of family—or state.
Originally published in NCSPP’s Impulse