Trying To Reframe

11/21/2016 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2017

More than a week after the election, I still feel shaken to my core.  Sleep eludes me most nights and, like many people, I am filled with a sense of dread.  I desperately want to feel better, but I realize that I am also afraid of feeling better.  If I feel better does that mean that this is real?  Does that mean that I am "okay" with the state of our country?  If I feel better, will I slip into complacency?

So I am trying to focus on what I know from almost fifteen years of being a therapist. Maybe information can ground me.  I know that anxiety and fear are the enemy of clear thinking and action.  I must calm down in order to be of any use.  I was reminded of this when I read Steve Phillips' beautiful piece "Where Do We Go From Here?" in the Democracy in Color website, in which he called the election results "a temporary setback on a centuries-long march towards justice and equality."  In the mental health field, this is what we call a "reframe"--taking a catastrophic thought (like "the world is coming to an end") and trying to turn it into a more neutral or less reactive thought.  I have been reframing day and night the past week.  Sometimes it helps and sometimes I just can't pull it off, but I know it is my only hope of getting back on track.

When we can stay as factual as possible with our reframes it can help us manage our anxiety in a meaningful way.  This means we are not operating in "fight or flight mode" but can instead be in our "wise mind" to borrow a phrase from Dr. Marsha Linehan, the brilliant founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a specific type of therapy designed to help people change their thinking patterns in order to reduce symptoms like depression and despair.  Trying to stay in our "wise minds" seems essential at this time, although it also may feel impossible when fearful thoughts and feelings are swirling for so many of us.  Dr. Linehan also included in her work the concept that two seemingly conflicting ideas can exist in the same space.  For example, we can have our first black president and also have a country that is struggling daily with the impact of racism.  Coal mining can be terrible for the environment and also be the only means that thousands of parents have for feeding their children.  Everything has changed, and yet everything is just as it always was.

I am also thinking through what I know about trauma and how it is passed down through generations.  This country began with trauma -- native people were pushed off their land, exposed to deadly diseases or even murdered.  Then the country was built on the backs of people who were kidnapped from their homes and forced to live in an untenable position, where physical and emotional safety was non-existent.  That lack of physical and emotional safety is still a daily part of so many Americans' lives with issues like mass incarceration, poverty and police brutality.  As a family therapist, I have seen again and again how unresolved trauma from the past system becomes active trauma in the present system.   I am trying to comprehend what that means for our country and how that is playing out in this moment in time.

I am trying to consider how all human beings are drawn to black and white thinking, and I am no exception.  As a child I would often listen to my father tell stories about his time in the South as a reporter during the Civil Rights Movement.  His narratives provided me with a clear sense of "good guys" (MLK, Rosa Parks, the students sitting at the lunch counters, photographers willing to risk their safety to show the world what was happening) and "bad guys" (Bull Connor , police with dogs and hoses, adults yelling unthinkable things to a tiny girl on her first day of school).  But I know that things are rarely this clear cut.  All or nothing thinking is not based in reality and doesn't promote change. Thinking in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys" will keep me stuck and will mean I am not taking the concerns of many people seriously.   I have to challenge my black and white thoughts in order to see things more clearly and not leave out important information that I might not want to look at because it is too confusing or because it means that I may be complicit in the problem.

I am focusing on what I know about younger generations and how they think about things.  I can see many ways that teenagers and young people these days are much less black and white in their thinking than older generation.  Many of my teenage clients are very comfortable with the idea of gender or sexuality being more fluid than fixed -- an idea many adults struggle with.  I also can look to my own son, who is thirteen and incredibly passionate about politics.  Of all of the students in his eighth grade class, he was by far the one who cared most about electing a Democrat as our next president.  He had almost daily conversations with the student in his grade who cared the most about having a Republican as our next president.  These conversations were spirited and sometimes intense, but they were also always civil and respectful.  When my son returned to school dejected after the election, his classmate was as gracious as he possibly could have been.  Maybe we have a shot of future generations who will be able to collaborate on these incredibly complex problems without trying to oversimplify.

I am also trying to consider what I have learned about change from my years as a therapist.  First, that all systems resist change and work to maintain homeostasis, and there is always, always a backlash against change. Often that backlash is so intense that people lose hope that change can occur, and they may be tempted to give up.  Second, change takes enormous effort and persistence, and there is rarely one "right" way to go about creating change in a system.  I am trying to not to lose site of this idea when things get murky for me.  Should I focus more on supporting politicians like Cory Booker, Keith Ellison or Kamala Harris, or should I put my efforts into grass roots organizations?  Should I focus on the big picture or the people who need help in my community?  I am trying to remember that all or any of these efforts could be meaningful, as long as I don't get too bogged down to do anything at all.

When reframes go too far, they can tip over into the realm of denial or rationalization.  I want to stay vigilant about not going to that place. I realize now that if the Democrats had won the presidency and the Senate, it would have let me off the hook.  I could have rationalized that they would promote policies that would address inequality and that I didn't have to do much except keep voting.  I can see now that this is the "silver lining" of the outcome of the election -- I have to see things more for what they really are.  Perhaps seeing a "silver lining" is taking the reframe too far.  I really don't know.  So I will keep trying to focus on what I do know and hope that it is enough.