Many of us have a variety of emotional reactions to today’s charged political discourse, much of it not very “positive.” The run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election is already creating not just polarizing positions among us but sometimes extreme feelings of anger, fear, and paranoia within us.

Unfortunately, our current political climate reflects and promotes the electorate’s anxieties about a range of topics (e.g., abortion, gun control, immigration policy) that may alienate us from each other, regardless of relationship bonds whether they be family, co-workers—or even our clients.

Serial studies by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveal a worrying trend:

  • In the APA’s 2016 “Stress in America” survey, in which 3,400 American adults were surveyed, 63 percent of participants viewed the future of the country as “a significant source of stress” and 56 percent said that they are “stressed by the current political climate.”
  • According to the 2017 survey, 27 percent of adults strongly or somewhat agree that the political climate has caused strain between themselves and their family members.
  • In the 2018 edition, the number of participants viewing the future of the country as a significant stressor increased to 69 percent—and among those who saw the political climate as a source of stress, the number jumped to 62 percent.

How can we as mental healthcare professionals operate in a political climate where “choosing sides” on such polarizing issues can overshadow our relationships in terms of how we feel toward our co-workers and our clients?

When we discover that others may hold political opinions and positions that are diametrically opposed to our own, we may experience very strong negative feelings toward them despite our best intentions. Such strong emotions can harm or undermine our relationships with co-workers and clients, sometimes couched in judgmental or dismissive attitudes.

Even having strong “positive” feelings about a co-worker or a client because they share our political views can distort our judgment and responses in not so helpful ways. How can we mitigate the impact of such strong feelings on our relationships with clients and co-workers with opposing or even similar views on such politically charged topics? As mental health professionals, how can we still maintain a collaborative, therapeutic alliance with our clients regardless of differing political affiliations and viewpoints?

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Personally and professionally, I would love to share an approach that has always helped me in such moments and is still helping me to reflect and not react in the heat of those moments—mindfulness! But how can we be mindful when we have such strong feelings on these issues which may lead us to react impulsively or color our judgment and attitudes toward others? Unfortunately, I am not the cool, calm, and collected follower of Buddha that I would like to be, but I am an ardent follower of mindful practice which has helped me strengthen my relationship with clients in a non-judgmental way.

As mental healthcare professionals, most of us are familiar with mindfulness conceptually and in practice. In the most basic sense, mindfulness means to be fully present, completely aware of where we are, what we are doing, and not overreact to what’s going on around us. Mindfulness helps us to pause, slow down, and mentalize with ourselves and others.

Consider these evidenced-based mindfulness tips to help us step back from such feelings, especially in the context of conflicting values or views with others including our clients:

  • Non-judging (of ourselves and others).
  • Beginner’s mind: An attitude of openness and eagerness with a lack of preconceptions. Be open-minded to the views of others involved in the conflict. Don’t assume you know how others are feeling.
  • Non-striving: Trying less and being more!
  • Acceptance of self and others.
  • Feel what you are feeling: Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. They are natural and will settle if you don’t react to them.
  • Act of forgiveness and letting go: Holding onto anger and resentment will hurt us and hamper our relationships. Forgiving self and others for being different, having a difference in experiences, having a difference in values, and accepting the idea that by learning the differences, we grow as people.
  • Walking away or taking a pause or deep breath before we speak!

Navigating discussions with co-workers and clients around sensitive political topics such as party affiliation, racism, religion, gun control, or abortion can put pressure on any relationship. Acknowledging that you may have different ideologies or points of view than those you care about can be uncomfortable, but it is a great step towards acceptance. Routinely embracing those differences, respecting our relationships and showing humility should be a daily practice that we reinforce within ourselves. We don’t have to connect mindfulness to a faith or religion. In fact, both social science and experience support the practice of mindfulness as having therapeutic benefits for our health, happiness, relationships, and contentment.

About the Author

Avani K. Thakkar, PMHNP-BC has been an integral member of the Compass Program for Young Adults for more than ten years. She leads groups and brings hope to patients by helping them find purpose in their lives through meditation, spirituality, and motivational stories.

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