9 Rational Coping Strategies to Navigate Political Differences in 2020 Using REBT
“Even injustice has its good points. It gives me the challenge of being as happy as I can in an unfair world.” – Albert Ellis, Founder of REBT
At Keys to Counseling in Tampa, FL, I specialize in a specific type of therapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Established by Dr. Albert Ellis in 1955, REBT is an active, directive, solution-focused, and goal-oriented approach to counseling and it is recognized as the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
There is no denying that the United States of America is in the midst of a historical and politically polarizing time. Whether we are discussing the use of face masks due to the prevalence of COVID-19, debating how safe it is send our children, as well as our teachers, back to school, sharing posts on social media, choosing a news network, or openly speaking about a cause that is important to us, everything appears to be more and more politicized by the day. As a counselor, I have come across countless individuals who have expressed that politics is beginning to have a negative impact on their romantic relationships, friendships, family dynamics, as well as their professional lives. This is when REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy) can be most beneficial, as it helps us to acknowledge and accept that while we cannot control the opinions and actions of others, we can focus on that which is within our power to control, such as our own attitude and beliefs.
REBT helps each of us to understand that we possess the individual power to choose whether we will allow an adversity outside of our control to unhealthily disturb us emotionally (resulting in anxiety, depression, hurt, anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, problematic jealousy, and problematic envy) or to healthily upset us (resulting in healthier negative emotions such as concern, worry, sadness, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, regret, remorse, sorrow, non-problematic jealousy, and non-problematic envy). This is important to understand, because it is our healthy negative emotions that will serve as our motivation to strive to change that which we have the practical ability to improve, as well as help us to accept that which we cannot control; thereby, cultivating emotional solutions for our challenges when practical solutions are not immediately available to us.
For those who wish to run for political office or work within media, it seems that irrational thinking is almost a prerequisite at times, because inflexibility, catastrophizing, intolerance, and judgement often appear to most strategically grab the attention of society, especially within an election year. That being said, for those outside of these fields, who most significantly value our relationships, our professional aspirations, and our mental health over winning a political disagreement, we can learn to apply the principles of REBT to our lives to help us think rationally about the challenges we face interpersonally, the socio-political differences we have with people we care about, and the injustices within the world that are outside of our control.
Based upon the principle ideas of REBT, here are 9 rational coping strategies to successfully navigate political differences within romantic relationships, friendships, families, the workplace, and on social media:
1. Clarify What Is Most Important To You
“People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.” – Marcus Aurelius
Let us ask ourselves, what do we value most in our lives? Is it our relationships with those we care about, our career, empathy and compassion, logic and reason, diversity and inclusion (which can also indicate embracing and including diversity of thought), our mental health, and a sense of inner peace or is it “winning” a political debate above all else? We all have an innately human susceptibility to allow our passion for a cause we deeply care about, our dislike of a politician, or our grief regarding an injustice that we sincerely wish to bring awareness to, to temporarily take us out of our character, thereby permitting our healthy disappointment and frustration to quickly escalate into unhealthy and unproductive anger and rage.
No matter the nature of a disagreement, and especially when it pertains to politics, it is quite helpful to remember what is most important to us in the long-term. Once we identify our most important values, we can establish goals that move us closer to attaining what we value most within our lives, and in these moments when we begin to feel both our emotions transition into ones that are unhealthy, as well as our behaviors on the cusp of becoming unproductive and potentially harmful, let us stop and ask ourselves: how are my current attitudes, emotions, actions, and reactions going to move me closer to achieving my values and goals in the long-term?
Whether we are about to publicly align ourselves with an issue on social media that we know very little about, create a combative dynamic in the workplace, or omit someone from our life solely because they disagree with us on a political matter, consider how our present attitudes, emotional state, and behaviors are helping us to achieve our values and goals beyond the 2020 election. This could prevent us from making decisions we may deeply regret in the future.
2. Resist Resistance
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.” – Ram Das
This is a simple, but powerful strategy! Resistance has become somewhat of a politically trendy term; however, from an REBT perspective, I view resistance as a dangerous combination of demandingness, catastrophizing, intolerance, and anti-acceptance. While there are people on all sides of political debates that sometimes resist exposure to perspectives that differ from their own, to adopt the attitude that we must not or should not tolerate another person’s political point of view is an irrationally stubborn and demanding attitude to hold. It is indicative of unhealthy anxiety, because it exhibits unproductive behaviors, such as avoidance. It also highlights a secondary irrational attitude, which in essence, is rooted in the belief that we cannot tolerate or cope with anything that causes us to experience discomfort or frustration. REBT challenges these inflexible and intolerant attitudes by presenting us with the conscious decision to adopt rational and effective alternative beliefs.
3. Take Responsibility For Your Emotions & Behaviors
“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” – Epictetus
The political opinions of others (as frustrating, uncomfortable, and egregious as they may be) do not directly cause us to feel anxious, depressed, ragefully angry, or hurt, nor are they responsible for making us behave in an avoidant, dysfunctional, or a maladaptive manner: it is the beliefs and attitudes we hold about the political opinions and actions of others that result in our unhealthy negative emotions and unhelpful or unproductive behaviors. This means that the rational and helpful decision to make as we psychologically advance is to take responsibility for our own emotions and behaviors, and to strive to understand how much influence and control our deeply held core beliefs and attitudes have over our emotional and behavioral well-being.
4. Transform Your Demands Into Flexible Preferences
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
When we sustain stubborn demands, we essentially attempt to treat our strong wants, wishes, desires, and preferences as though they are absolute and essential needs, which generally works against our own best interests. Demands manifest themselves into language that sounds like: must, should, have to, got to, ought to, and need to. Demandingness is a form of irrational thinking that is closely linked with anger, and anger is an unhealthy emotion that is commonly associated with poor behavioral decisions, such as physical violence, verbal attacks, social withdrawal, and isolation, as well as unproductive avoidance, which is also closely related to the anxiety and hurt that often exists below the surface of anger.
It is perfectly healthy to have intensely strong desires, but when we attempt to treat those desires as though they are absolute needs, we typically develop an irrationally demanding attitude that undermines the values we care about most, as well as the goals we have set for ourselves. Consequently, instead of helping others to be curious and interested in our perspectives, we tend to push them further away from us, which works against the prospect of bringing forth political change and progression.
In moments where we feel ourselves becoming unproductively angry, let us try to look beyond our anger, and instead, look deeper into the core of our emotions. Let us remember what our values and goals are and use them to motivate us to surrender our stubborn demands, and to transform them into flexible preferences that put us in an empowered position to achieve more of what we wish to achieve. Instead of the musts, shoulds, need tos, and have tos, let us learn to think and speak in preferential terms, such as using words and phrases like desire, prefer, want, wish, and it would be helpful.
5. Develop Tolerance Of Frustration
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca
There are generally four ways in which we resist tolerating frustration, and this is applicable in all areas of life, including politics:
• Achievement intolerance – when we hold the belief that we are unable to cope with not achieving our goals and aspirations
• Discomfort intolerance – when we tell ourselves that we cannot handle difficulties, obstacles, and physically feeling uncomfortable
• Emotional intolerance – when we adopt the mentality that we cannot withstand emotional distress
• Entitlement intolerance – when we develop the attitude that we cannot bear to deal with unfairness or another perspective that we believe is morally unjust
Though it is understandable why human beings prefer not to experience frustration, there is virtually nothing beneficial or progressive that is derived from believing that we have to avoid, resist, or refuse to ever be frustrated. Frustration is a healthy negative emotion that can serve as a successful source of motivation to bring about tremendous positive changes within the world, leading to practical solutions, negotiations and compromise. That being said, sometimes practical solutions are not immediately available to us, and it is within those circumstances that developing an “I can cope with this” mindset (which does not indicate an attitude of enjoyment regarding frustration, yet one that rationally accepts it as a part of life, relationships, and politics), is going to help to create an emotionally resilient and psychologically stable belief system that is best equipped to exhibit political passion in an effective and productive way.
6. Abolish Black & White, Extreme, & Catastrophic Thinking
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions not outside.” – Marcus Aurelius
Strive to think deeply and cease to jump to extreme ways of thinking! Life is much more enjoyable when we stop viewing our differences of opinion as black and white. I often encourage people (myself included) to put on our grey colored glasses in order to achieve a better understanding of the human experience, both by acknowledging our similarities, as well as open-mindedly and tolerably speaking about our differences. Catastrophizing that the country will fall apart if a certain candidate does or does not win may encourage more people to obsessively watch the news, as well as gravitate to others who share our opinions, and battle it out with friends and family on social media whose views differ from our own, but at some point, after the election is over, where does that truly leave us?
The fact of the matter is, we have three branches of government, each with their own separate powers, and none of which have absolute almighty power. This is because we have a system of checks and balances, which wisely does not permit one branch to have total control or power over the others. While I understand that many of us are aware of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and the separation of powers that exist between them, it is my belief that an increasing number of us are forgetting the precision through which our government is carefully set up, in order to avoid one branch (and one leader) taking total control and suddenly dismantling our country. Instead, we appear to be jumping to black-and-white absolute extremes as to what will happen if our preferred candidate wins or loses the 2020 election, which is not entirely logical.
Ultimately, it is perfectly healthy and rational to have an incredibly strong preference for who we wish to win any election, as well as a vision for how we hope our country will progress in the coming years, and for the generations that follow us. It is not; however, healthy, accurate, sensible, or helpful to demand that our preferred candidate must win and that; therefore, if they do not win, it will be an absolute catastrophe. This type of catastrophic and extreme thinking undermines our ability to discover practical solutions, such as finding areas of commonality that lead to negotiations and compromise. Additionally, it moves us further away from cultivating emotional solutions that help us to productively withstand healthy negative emotions, such as frustration, disappointment, concern, and sadness, which, we will inevitably experience in life. Consequently, it is within our best interest not to catastrophize about what might happen and instead, learn to accept differences, disappointment, and frustrating outcomes.
7. Advocate Anti-Awfulizing By Calling The Bluff Of Your Worst-Case Scenario
“Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don't magnify them in your imagination.” – Marcus Aurelius
Awfulizing goes hand-in-hand with black and white, extreme, and catastrophic thinking, but it takes it a step further. When we awfulize or catastrophize, we develop an “end of the world” mentality, where we anticipate whatever we are fearing to be the absolute end of the world; thereby, labeling it as entirely terrible, tragic, catastrophic and awful.
Now we can spend time debating whether our specific fear, real or imagined is actually awful, and/or what the likelihood is that it might truly occur; however, as an REBT-based therapist, I encourage people to cognitively address their deepest fears directly by calling the bluff of their worst-case scenario, and imagining how they would cope with it and move forward, if their darkest hour came to pass. This is very helpful for those of us who struggle with anxiety regarding instances that, if they were to occur, would genuinely be considered terrible, tragic, catastrophic and awful. This is because the key to anti-awfulizing is not to discourage us from ever acknowledging that some instances are indeed awful; rather, it is to learn how to stop making a tremendously challenging and potentially awful situation even more difficult by further awfulizing about it; thereby, causing ourselves additional and unnecessary pain, anxiety, and re-traumatization.
In essence, the process of awfulizing (as a noun) is more complex than simply acknowledging that something is indeed awful; however, when we actively awfulize or catastrophize (as a verb), we generally convince ourselves that something unpleasant, bad, or unideal is absolutely awful and the end of the world. When it comes to politics, I believe that we tend to awfulize (as an action) about something that is not actually the end of the world. Regardless of whether we believe that we tend to awfulize and catastrophize about politics or engage in the process of awfulizing itself, I encourage all of us to consider what is most distressing for us in regard to imagining our worst-case scenario pertaining to our political views and fears. We can do this by asking ourselves:
• Why are we so afraid of engaging in political discussions with those whose views differ from our own?
• What are we telling ourselves will occur if our preferred candidate wins or loses?
• Why do we experience anxiety at the thought of hearing someone say something we firmly disagree with?
• What are we telling ourselves about our political concerns that are causing us to panic and engage in avoidant behaviors?
• What can we tell ourselves instead, so that we are more emotionally equipped to address our concerns in a constructive way?
• Is what we are fearful of truly awful, and even if we firmly believe it is, are we making it harder on ourselves by engaging in the process of awfulization?
• If we imagine our worst-case scenario occurring, how could we learn to cope with it in a healthy and helpful way?
8. Contest Contempt & Embrace Unconditional Acceptance
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
As a counselor who works with both individuals and couples, I believe that the presence of contempt within a relationship is the most significant forecaster of divorce or break-ups. In essence, to be contemptuous is to be critical of someone or something from a perceived position of superiority. In romantic relationships, contempt from one partner generally yields defensiveness from the other, which over time can result in emotional withdrawal from the relationship, especially during conflict. When discussing political disagreements in any relational dynamic, contempt is just as toxic and unproductive. None of us are without flaws, and a much healthier way of cognitively addressing all differences (including political ones) is to embrace an attitude of unconditional acceptance. We can do this in three ways:
• We can strive to unconditionally accept ourselves, while acknowledging that we are deeply imperfect beings, i.e. born mistake-makers. This means that we can choose to evaluate our own behaviors objectively, without condemning our entire worth as a person, despite our individual actions and reactions falling short of our standards.
• We can also aspire to do the same for other people by unconditionally accepting them as fallible human beings who are equally as susceptible to thinking irrationally, feeling unhealthily, and making mistakes. By adopting the attitude of unconditional other acceptance, we acknowledge that we can objectively evaluate another’s behavior without appraising their entire value. This is because, empirically, all standards for rating human beings are subjective; consequently, human worth cannot be tangibly measured and defined. In other words, by majority standards, there is such a thing as bad behavior; however, REBT argues that all people perform a different degree of good and bad deeds within their lifetime, and while we can rate behaviors in the context of goals and values, people are intensely complex and constantly evolving, which makes global ratings and permanent labels scientifically invalid.
• We can aim to unconditionally accept life and the experience of living as consisting of wonderful, mundane, and exceedingly difficult moments. When we develop unconditional life acceptance, we reject the belief that the world must always be a comfortable place and that life should never contain profound adversity. Unconditional life acceptance helps us to enjoy life as deeply as possible, in spite of the inevitable and uncontrollable challenges, loses, and defeats that accompany the human condition.
When we learn to contest contempt, and cultivate an attitude of unconditional acceptance for ourselves, others, and life in general, we become less critical (and more curios) less judgmental (and more appreciative), and less resentful (and more forgiving). This attitudinal shift can be lifechanging, and it puts us in a much more empowered and productive position to discuss our political contrasts with the ability to sincerely listen to another’s perspective, as well as to better empathize with their experience, and remain bonded in spite of a difference of political opinion.
9. Challenge & Dispute Yourself
“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” – Epictetus
Just because our political system is binary does not indicate that our political opinions must be. A rational and emotionally healthy person is one who prioritizes logic and reason over always being “right”, who is capable of acknowledging their mistakes, thinking in non-extremes, and who is willing to challenge and dispute their personal beliefs in order to psychologically mature. Therefore, whenever we feel ourselves becoming unhealthily upset, let us try to determine what we are upset about, and what about the upsetting circumstance is most distressing to us. Next, let us figure out what beliefs we are holding about the distressing inferences we have made: let us look for evidence of demands (inflexible desires), awfulizing (all or nothing, fearmongering thinking), frustration intolerance (I-cannot-cope mentality), and evaluations of worth (overly critical attitudes), which are all indicative of irrational beliefs. If we suspect that we are holding onto irrational beliefs, we can challenge and dispute our own beliefs and attitudes by asking ourselves:
• Is this belief helpful to me?
• Does this belief actually make sense?
• Is there factual evidence to determine that this belief is true?
• Does this belief lead to emotions and behaviors that move me closer towards my most important values and goals, or further away from them?
If the answer to these questions is essentially “no”, let us consider transforming our original beliefs and attitudes into more rational, logical, flexible, and helpful alternatives, which will help us in all areas of our lives, including in political discussions and disagreements.
The goal of this blog is not to take away all of our passion for activism and change, thereby leaving us emotionless and disinterested in politics, the future of our country, and humanity itself! I absolutely understand and empathize with serious concern, disappointment, and frustration regarding our current political climate; therefore, it is never my intention to minimize or trivialize anyone’s emotions or invalidate the experience of any marginalized community or individual. My intention is simply to utilize REBT philosophy to facilitate all of us with adopting rational beliefs and attitudes about the socio-political adversities that frustrate us, so that we can identify our most important values, establish long-term goals to help us achieve our values, and continue to think and behave in ways that are consistent with our values. This will greatly contribute to alleviating unhealthy and dysfunctional negative emotions, such as anger, and consequently, minimize the chances of severing ties with a person or place that we care deeply about, in spite of political differences. By encouraging us to hold pragmatic beliefs about the inevitable socio-political challenges that will arise throughout our lifetime, REBT can help us to experience and sustain healthy negative emotions that motivate us to responsibly advocate for the changes that we desire in a constructive and adaptive way without moving us further away from the people we love, the life that we desire, and the inner peace we value for our health and wellness.
Ultimately, REBT teaches us how to get more of what we want out of our lives, and less of what we do not: it cultivates psychological resiliency, emotional and behavioral responsibility, personal autonomy, and, at its best, a deep metaphysical shift within our world view, leading to a profound sense of inner peace. It is a philosophy for living that has become my greatest passion to disseminate to others, and it has gifted me with the confidence to believe with certainty that I can make a sincere and progressive difference in the lives of those I cross paths with by sharing my knowledge of REBT with them.
The reality of the world, our country, and of politics is that nothing and no one is perfect. People we care about do disappoint us, and at times we also disappoint ourselves. Politicians and political parties have both positive and negative attributes, traumatic events can and do occur, and injustices absolutely do exist. Regardless of the enormity of the world’s grief and all of the challenges that will be presented to us in 2020 and beyond, when we allow the way that we think about political differences to take us to an unhealthy place emotionally, we generally put ourselves in a less productive position to implement effective changes and progress, potentially sacrificing the opportunity to bring more voices over to our platform, and missing the chance to learn adaptive and constructive ways to cope with conflict. Furthermore, we may end up losing that which is most important to us, such as close relationships with people whose love for us far exceeds our political differences, as well as our own psychological health and inner peace, and that is the ultimate injustice to ourselves!
At Keys to Counseling in Tampa, Florida, my mission is to promote healthy living through rational thinking! I provide both individual and couples counseling, and I would be honored to cognitively, emotively, and behaviorally accompany you on your journey to living, being, and staying better!