Like many of you, I went to bed in the wee hours of Wednesday morning feeling heartsick. The festive “Hillary” Magnolia Bakery cupcakes were sadly in the freezer, untouched. Bottles of champagne sat unopened. Throughout the night I felt despairing that, what seemed to me, a narrow opportunity to prevent unnecessary suffering on a global scale, had been lost. So painful. I felt for the countless immigrants who would likely be harmed by this result, for the generations of women who would struggle to access healthcare and respectful support they deserve as sentient beings, for people of color suffering the anguish of watching a country support a blatantly racist candidate. I felt for all the people throughout this country and abroad who have worked hard throughout their lives, only to watch a person of privilege garner yet more undeserved power, wielded with so little empathy for those who lack privilege.
And then, like many of you, I went to work. Truth be told I felt the need for a day of mourning. But others were mourning, too, and in my line of work, this is when we try to practice the Bodhisattva’s way of showing up for others until all suffering is tended to with attunement and compassion. As a therapist I have learned to make room for the feelings and needs of others even when my own feelings are running high. Even when I am heartsick.
What I found surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. Not everyone felt the same way. Of course there has been outrage expressed, and tears shed. It is upsetting, especially for those who have been personally victimized, or who have children who have been harmed, by someone with a psychology similar to the president-elect. But some, and we know this now with striking clarity, are happy.
So I find myself this week trying to implement what I have learned from my Buddhist teachers and psychoanalytic mentors about holding as much reality as possible, and responding to it skillfully. As a therapist and practicing Buddhist, I understand this as a call to hold otherness, even as I prepare to speak into my authentic feelings and response. Doing so improves the chance of seeing others more fully, and, of being seen in return. This is the quest for otherness that seems missing in our political conversation and cultural development. And it is my hope, that the healing traditions of Buddhism and psychotherapy might offer a way to understand why this is so, and what can be done.
Like many, I recognize that misogyny and racism were two primary factors in the election outcome, and they are complex realities that should be explored from myriad perspectives. I would like to add a psychological and spiritual perspective that suggests we are collectively needing an increased capacity to claim more otherness from within. Doing so is protective against the very expressions of hatred and obvious prejudice that have disheartened so many of us.
There are reasons why gender and racial identities evoke charged feelings that seem to defy exploration. I believe this has something to do with how we seek to manage what is “split off” in the psyche. For example, men are still largely discouraged from consciously owning their wish for emotional dependence and intimacy, women are still largely discouraged from being too assertive or ambitious, people of color are still largely discouraged from being too intellectual or too angry. To tease out the point, if we have been raised to value individual power and dominance, we will typically evacuate into others our own split-off unconscious vulnerability and dependency needs and then, often, go about condemning them for being or appearing vulnerable in any way. Oppressed groups – women, people of color, and the gender-non-conforming – are frequently on the receiving end of projected split-off qualities that would render those in dominant groups less powerful. These are sweeping generalizations, I know, but clinically and personally, they feel true and in need of exploration. Because no one wins when fundamentally human capacities and needs are disowned, not the oppressed or the oppressors.
It has seemed to me, that children and families need support in wrestling with otherness, their own and others, instead of bracing against it. There is still very little psychological education offered in schools where children might easily learn about what it means to “project” unwanted qualities onto others, and then seek to destroy the other for holding this condemned quality. With a little help, most children could wrap their minds around the idea that what we hate in others, is usually lurking in our own unclaimed shadow. This was Carl Jung’s sage insight, and it is an understanding that when grappled with, offers needed protection from the “othering” we have observed throughout this election cycle, an othering that fuels misogyny and racism.
What is it about a powerful woman that riles us so? Why is it that some of us felt inspired by Hillary’s capacity to run on equal parts service and personal ambition, while others felt a visceral hatred toward her? Might there be a way to help us, especially early in life, understand that we can be curious about such feelings that seem to overtake us? We can ask ourselves: Why does this person make me feel so bad? Is it because she harbors qualities that I long for in myself but cannot safely access, or have felt harmed by in others? Am I at odds with my own femininity, whether male or female? Can I stay curious when I most want to act out feelings that overtake me? And most importantly, can I do so in the spirit of knowing myself better, and doing less harm to others?
In Buddhist practice, students are encouraged to tap into deep reserves of friendly curiosity, especially in response to highly reactive feelings. This is a lot to ask, I know, in the face of injustice. I have always appreciated Harry Stack Sullivan’s wise suggestion that the appropriate response to injustice is outrage. But I am now asking myself if I can be outraged skillfully. Can I address what feels and seems to me, a harmful situation, without doing more harm? Can I respond with the wisdom and compassion I have been encouraged to access in my spiritual and clinical training?
I hope so. This doesn’t mean that I won’t stumble along the way. But I will try to do my part, as I encourage you, to respond to this election and the questions it has raised about our need to become a more reflective country, a place that can tolerate otherness even if we don’t understand it, because we have grown more curious about our own, for the benefit of all.