Editor’s Note (11/23/2017): This article was originally published on November 23, 2016 following one of the most polarizing presidential races in modern American history. A year later, it is being resurfaced to address the political divide that remains in the country since the election.
This holiday season, I’m reminded of a scene from 30 Rock in which Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon, alone on Valentine’s Day and high on post-dental-surgery painkillers, says to the camera, “Happy Valentine’s Day, no one!” That feels about right: Happy Thanksgiving, no one. Someone said to me the other day that the new Civil War isn’t being fought out in the fields, but around the dinner table. In addition to the usual holiday weirdness and misunderstandings, this year we can add post-election fear, depression, glee and/or white-hot political rage to the turkey-day spread. (Which reminds me: if you haven’t watched Saturday Night Live’s “Thanksgiving Miracle” sketch from last year lately, or seen the new Holderness Family song parody, do yourself a favor.)
As much as I love my own family, I’ve heard enough horror stories this year to make me almost glad that we live so far from each other: A friend of a friend told me that her Democrat brother won’t attend Thanksgiving unless it’s moved from her Republican brother’s house to more neutral ground. A former colleague set up an escape hatch for herself in case she feels trapped by couple of conservative Republicans who will be at her usual holiday dinner: “I have a backup Thanksgiving lined up with friends who understand that at some point I may need to leave my regular place and join them mid-feast,” she told me. Another woman I talked to, who supported President-elect Donald Trump, said an entire branch of her family pulled out of their gathering because they couldn’t stand the idea of being around so many “racist” Trumpers.
Like so many others this year, my loved ones are also sharply divided over the results of the presidential election—so much so that I fear some of the relationships may never recover. I want to learn to separate my family members from the votes they cast, to talk about things that matter without resorting to accusations, and honestly, to get through one family event without somebody crying. So in advance of my own mother coming for a visit, I asked a truckload of experts for wisdom and advice. What they shared has already made me feel more accepting of my family’s political differences—and even some of their objectively “bad” behavior. I hope these seven insights can make a difference for you, too:
1. Remind yourself that the person in front of you is more than this one vote, however significant a vote it was. “Any individual is so much more than their choice of party or candidate,” says Chicago psychotherapist Bernard Golden, author of Overcoming Destructive Anger. “Remember, we are all driven by a need for safety, connection with others, and the means to have a good life. We just have different opinions as to what can help us achieve these goals.” Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean condoning someone’s beliefs or actions, says Katie Krimer, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist in New York City. “It's a choice you can make to acknowledge and understand that the person in front of you is different than you are, that they have a different history, a different family experience, different influences, etc. When we expression compassion and understanding for someone's experience or stance, it's easier to defuse anger and resentment for ourselves.”
2. Don’t gloat or whine—respect feelings. Some have said that Democrats need to put on their big boy pants and move on from this defeat. But it’s important to acknowledge each other’s pain right now, says Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and author of Loving Bravely. Whether you think someone’s emotional reactions are “reasonable” or not, the defensiveness, grief, and fear are real. Solomon advises us to “stay curious, even if you feel defensive. Stay open to the hurt that others are feeling.” That empathy can be healing, for both of you. Also, this may be obvious, but: For god’s sake, don’t gloat. “There is an urge for many Trump supporters to strike back and rub [the election results] in the faces of Clinton supporters,” admits Tom Kersting, a psychotherapist in Ridgewood, New Jersey who cast his own vote for Donald Trump. He says that many Republicans have gotten so tired of “far-left political correctness, propaganda and media bias that they naturally want to flex their muscles.” Whatever the motivation, it’ll be helpful for Trump voters to refrain from expressing bald-faced delight in mixed family company, Solomon says. “Even if your intent is not to be invalidating and hurtful, that is the impact that your enthusiasm is likely to have,” she says.
3. Meet hostility with calm. We must hold ourselves accountable for civility and lowering emotional intensity even in the face of open hostility, Krimer says. “I personally make a choice to calmly tell the other person that I disagree, and gently ask that we switch topics. This comes from years of huge blow-ups at family dinners—impassioned arguments where I'm often the one screaming and crying and feeling like I'm talking to a wall. Bottom line: A wall will remain a wall until they choose to soften or open their mind. We cannot change someone with sheer force of will or a screaming match.” If you do find yourself drawn into an argument, or sense intense anger coming on, remove yourself for a moment. “Sneak off to the bathroom to cool your alerted nervous system down,” says Krimer. “Take three deep breaths, four counts in through the nose, eight counts out through the mouth.”
4. Use Facebook with care—for the next few weeks, if not forever. Facebook is where most of my family’s political arguments have played out: It’s the place where a loved one publicly told another “you disgust me,” the place where one auntie of mine said she “enjoy[s] hurting feelings.” It’s the place where my smart, funny father posts such extensive comments on family members’ and strangers’ political posts that—while his arguments are generally well-reasoned and factual—it makes him seem like an insane person. Even if you’ve been steeped in Facebook throughout the campaign and election, taking even a short break over the holidays could help calm family friction, says University of California, Los Angeles psychiatrist Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom, who recommends a full-on social media fast this Thanksgiving Day, and for the upcoming winter holidays, too. “Social media can aggravate fear and hatred,” she says. “It inflames people’s fears and anger. It brings out the worst in people. The result is your stress hormones increase, adrenaline is surging through your bodies and you are biologically primed for a fight.”
5. Think about your values. “What I’ve been talking to clients about lately is this: If you’re going to have discussions about politics over the holidays, think about what your values are around how you treat the people in your life that you care about,” says Shadee Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. “Most people would not say, ‘I really value yelling at my family or being super judgmental of them.’ What are the values that you have around treating those you love? Remind yourself of those and use them as a guide to how you approach these conversations.” That makes total sense—but, I asked her, what if you also have strong values around justice, values that tell you to speak out when you see examples of bigotry, bias or mistreatment in the world? “Values have to be prioritized,” she says. Is it more of a priority to press this issue right now, or, perhaps to do some self-preservation and excuse yourself? Perhaps you have the ability to speak up and be kind. (For help with that in particular, Hardy has been recommending the Thanksgiving tools and discussion guide from the group Showing Up for Racial Justice.) Another thing to consider: “Just because you aren’t able to have that conversation on Thanksgiving doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can do to promote social justice if that’s a value for you,” says Hardy. “It may be that your family is not how you move people and affect change.”
6. If necessary, set some ground rules. While psychotherapists generally don’t suggest avoidance as an ongoing relationship strategy, many I talked to said that agreeing to a “no politics” rule in advance could be really useful for some of us this year. “Family togetherness may feel especially sacred during this tumultuous time, so I am in full support of families creating the kind of boundaries they need so that they can savor what is sweet and good and plentiful between them—traditions, caring for elders, celebrating new additions, laughter,” Solomon says.
7. Take the long view. “Here in D.C. you could feel the mourning in the air [after the election]—it was palpable,” says Vinita Mehta, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. “It's remarkable that this election has stirred up so many intense feelings. I wonder if these are in part the growing pains that go along with figuring out our national identity—and who we want to be as a country going forward.” Taking the long view could also help you avoid catastrophizing and moderate your own feelings of “in your face!” triumph or paralyzing rage, says John Mayer, a clinical psychologist in Chicago. Remember, “election rhetoric—those angry and bombastic statements—are often techniques candidates use to draw attention and votes, and the reality of what will change is often very small.” Finally, he says, “As a country we have survived many trying conditions and we will survive changes that will come from this.”
Right after completing an interview for this article, I texted my mom—it was the first time we’d “talked” (except for a very brief, stiff, but civil exchange on Facebook about the Electoral College) since Mr. Trump became president-elect. I’d been too scared of my own reaction to reach out. “What is so difficult is that for many of us, the state of our nation occupies the vast majority of our thoughts and feelings these days,” Solomon says. “It doesn’t feel like politics. It feels like the entirety of our lives. But I think it’s really okay to say, ‘I want to be together. I want to show up. And, I am having a really hard time. I know that bridging difference is how we will make it through, but I am not open for that kind of dialogue yet.’” That’s exactly what my mother and I have done—lovingly promised each other that we won’t discuss politics on this trip. Instead, we’re going to bake pre-Christmas cookies with my daughters, do a little vintage-store shopping, and, as much as possible, simply be.