In a couple of days, millions of people across the United States will be coming together with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. This year the inevitable political discussion will likely pop up around dinner tables all over the country. Given that this election has been one of the most divisive in recent history, it’s natural to worry about what conversations may arise while passing the potatoes. A recent article in the New York Times described people canceling plans, moving wedding venues and cutting ties with family members with opposing political views. This may seem extreme but anyone who has ever gotten into an argument about hot political topics understands how fast they can devolve. By having some strategies in your back pocket, you can still enjoy a nice meal with family and friends, even if you don’t see eye to eye on who won the election.
Many psychologists, myself included, utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when working with patients. CBT is an evidence based approach that, in a nutshell, is about changing how you think about something in order to then change how you feel about it. By extracting some of the basic tenets of CBT, you can have a few strategies in your arsenal to diffuse some potentially sticky situations.
Automatic Thoughts – Aaron Beck, the psychiatrist who invented CBT coined this term as a component of CBT. Automatic Thoughts are the ones that naturally pop into your head. For example, you can have a thought about something someone has said or even his or her demeanor and these are often skewed by our perceptions or underlying assumptions called ‘schema’. By being aware of these thoughts when they happen, identifying them and then moving beyond them, you reduce the odds that you will remain stuck in them. Almost like letting a balloon go, let the thought float away so that you don’t absorb it.
Re-framing – This strategy is when you take a negative thought and put it in a new light. Hence you are removing the old frame and replacing it with a new one. Perhaps you and Uncle John don’t see eye to eye on this election. For instance, you can say “I have no idea why Uncle John voted for so-and-so and yet I also know we can connect in other positive ways.” By seeing more than your family member as all bad we can understand the nuances rather than having an all or nothing attitude about it.
Mood Monitoring – Awareness is a powerful tool. Try a few days before you head into a situation where opposing views might be flying around the room to see how you are feeling. Are you angry? Are you sad? Whatever mood you have, by labeling it and noticing it, you can then work on changing it.
If you are triggered by a comment or conversation, you can also try these suggestions:
Don’t react immediately – Until you have had a few moments to reflect, try not to respond. If you feel like you’re being baited, then even better to hold your tongue. If need be, excuse yourself. Better to leave than blurt out something you may regret saying later.
Check in with your body- Is your heart rate elevated? How are you breathing? Take a few long, deep breaths and count down from 10. Keep doing this until you feel calmer.
Try not to personalize what someone says – Realize that this election has engendered feelings that may have lain dormant in some people. If you feel insulted or slighted realize that the person may also feel the same way. Try and move on. If you need to address it, do so when things have cooled down and in private.
Hopefully, by using some of the strategies I’ve mentioned you can navigate some of the tricky scenarios that may come up during the holidays. By understanding what might be a trigger for a potential argument, you can diffuse it before it reaches a boiling point. And if all else fails, remember this Mark Twain quote: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
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