I have been hearing the words “divided,” “divisiveness,” and “discord” quite a bit lately. Additionally, I have observed it multiple times a day for months now; and rather than slowing down, I anticipate that our divides may grow deeper in coming months. Many of you have likely witnessed, if not felt divisiveness as well.
If you watch the new regularly, read social media posts and comments, or check in with friends and family about the news and politics, I am nearly certain you have. I’m not writing about politics here, but instead commenting on the toll this takes on us emotionally, and simultaneously, the divides that occur between us and others in a time when we are all feeling more alienated and are in dire need of more connection for our overall health. Being alone and feeling lonely are both associated with numerous physical and mental health outcomes.
The American Psychological Association has worked at gathering data about stress in our country since COVID-19 emerged. A poll they administered this summer suggests that 67% of Republicans and 76% of Democrats agree that the current amount of uncertainty in our nation causes them stress. 62% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats indicated that the current political climate is a significant source of stress in their lives (American Psychological Association, Stress in American 2020, Stress in the Time of COVID-19, Volume Three, July 2020). This suggests that wherever you stand in the political divide, you are likely to be feeling upset or distressed. When we are upset or distressed, we are much more likely to have a negative interaction with others who have diverging opinions or experiences.
Research from social psychology also suggests that both conservatives and liberals are similarly motivated to avoid obtaining information that challenges their pre-existing opinions (e.g., Frimer, Skitka, and Motyl, 2017). We might do this for a number of reasons, including fearing harming relationships we care about, believing that we already know what we need to know, or, experiencing cognitive dissonance (feeling uncomfortable because our thoughts or beliefs are inconsistent).
So, where does that leave many of us? We are upset or distressed about the uncertainty we are facing during a pandemic and a high stakes election. We don’t want to hear opposite or differing opinions and are actively avoiding them. We are lonelier than we have been in a long time. We are viewing a lot of news and engaged in social media, some of us even arguing in comments sections. We are also coming upon the election, followed by holiday time with our families or friends who may have very different opinions from us.
Some of us are able to have constructive, open dialogue with family members and loved ones—but this is a two (or more) way street, and for some of us, we might choose to avoid politics and related topics with our families. Since we are all primed to react and feel very strongly, this might not go so well.
In the meantime, the most efficient thing you can likely do is manage your own distress in a number of ways (American Psychological Association, 2020). You might choose to take breaks from the news and social media, remember your own values and what’s most important to you and try live closely to them, take action when you can (volunteering, helping others, writing to your representatives; arguing on Facebook will be an unlikely way to feel like you have done something helpful), do something fun (or even better, funny) with your loved ones, do what you think is right and not focusing on what others think is right, and seek out feel good news and sharing that, rather than political news, with your family or friends. Getting some exercise in also doesn’t tend to hurt when we are distressed or overwhelmed.
If you are motivated and lucky enough to have someone in your life on the other side of the divide, and both of you are willing and open to actually sharing a meaningful dialogue, here are a few tips: You may want to go into the conversation understanding your own motivations. Asking open ended questions establishes trust. Show that you’re listening and demonstrate that by summarizing what you hear. Be curious.
Manage your emotions. Talk in person or at least through video (not text or social media—you will miss too many nonverbal cues, tone of voice, etc). If both of you are willing to hear and share, without trying to convince one another to change your minds, you might have an effective conversation (Israel, 2020). However, if by effective, you mean that you have changed their minds, you are not likely to succeed. If you are both able to see one another’s perspectives while still caring for one another, you have achieved something great.
Lyn McArthur, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist and Behavioral Health Clinical Director at Health West City Center clinic.