In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election this week, it has become clear that the United States is not united. We are a deeply divided country. As a marriage and family therapist, what I find most interesting is how personal this campaign has been for my clients (and for me, if you read my post from yesterday). This election has been about personal stories as much as it has been about issues. Maybe more so, given the intense grief that many are experiencing over the results.
Society — A Massive Family
Bowen Family Systems Theory postulates that society experiences the same dynamics that families do, just on a larger scale. As we can track the emotional process in a family system, so we can follow it in a society, if we’re watching closely enough. Sometimes it takes hindsight.
The emotional process in our society during this election cycle has many people and special interest groups in grief–a particularly intense grief, because their personal stories are deeply intertwined for them with the meaning of this election. Half of our country is feeling the normal, natural reaction of human survival mechanisms. These folks have been triggered in the deepest parts of their brains, the amygdala, and they’re feeling empty, lonely, panicked, insecure, uncertain, heartsick….
For those of us who are subsumed by these painful emotions, it will take time to process them. Unfortunately, we don’t have much training in our culture about how to process our internal pain. Instead, what we more commonly do is try to get it to go away by triangulating with a substance, a relationship, a process–anything to prevent us from feeling the depth of the original wounds that registered deeply in our amygdala–the part of our brain that stores trauma memory.
Entering the Emptiness
But enter our own emptiness we must, if we want to find peace on the other side. We must grieve, we must face our pain, we must allow the harm we’ve experienced to mold us into better people. This process, as we learn from the research of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, takes a predictable course. If we allow ourselves to walk that path, we will experience first shock, denial, and disbelief. Then those feelings will eventually morph into anger, and then into bargaining. When these efforts don’t diminish the emptiness and pain, we naturally go through a period of depression. Then, when we’re tired of being emotionally overcome by circumstances we can’t control, we finally reach acceptance and hope.
This is the emotional process that has overcome half of our country. Those who are in pain over this election will find solidarity in others who are also grieving. Those who are satisfied with the results would best serve the grieving by allowing the natural process to run its course. “Weep with those who weep,” knowing that there’s no need to try to fill up or fix the pain of natural, normal grief. Having compassion without compromising your own belief system will require you to dig deep into your emotional maturity capacity.
Resistance to Grief
Of course, not everyone who’s experiencing emotional devastation over this election will allow themselves to enter their own grief, and their resistance to doing so will burden society, as they make grand efforts to avoid their own pain. This, too, is a natural process, especially for those in the deepest pain. No one really wants to enter their pain, and the deeper it is, the more averse we are to facing it. The emotionally mature can have compassion on that, too, allowing even more time for a grief process to work itself out.
How much time? Allowing a whole year to experience the emotions of deep loss is a decent gauge. Some will take less time than that, some more. Those not grieving tend to underestimate the time it takes for this process to play itself out. Have patience. Someday life will blindside your amygdala and you’ll need patience as you grieve losses, too.
In the end, those who grieve responsibly, will reach the other side, bringing with them new solutions that they couldn’t see before when their emotions were clouding their perspective. They may even do some of the same things they did in previous stages of the grieving process, but with a whole new spirit, a whole new motive–one that is full of life and hope.
And if you are mourning, if you are heavy laden, let yourself enter your grief. Let yourself return to the original wounds that leave you with weighty burdens, with damage to your soul. Tend to your wounds, mend the damage. Then bring to our society what you have to offer by way of creative, peaceful solutions that address your needs and the needs of others like you.