Making America Great Means Facing Our Pain
Why we must heal wounds to build a culture of productive political interaction
American democracy is in jeopardy. It likely can’t survive continued gridlock on issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and environmental injustice. Our failures stem from a lack of both policies that improve collective well-being and political discourse capable of generating them. This extends to government and the now mostly online “public square,” where we commonly debate by:
- Being self-righteous
- Shaming people who think or act differently
- Building like-minded “bubbles”
- Resorting to name-calling and other personal attacks
- Focusing on partisan fights rather than more inclusive larger struggles
Improving on this requires understanding impediments to productive political interaction. The press has mainly focused on pollution from conspiracy theories and domestic and foreign propaganda. Purveyors of those often seek to divide and spread confusion and chaos in order to advance exploitative, undemocratic agendas. But garnering less attention have been underlying personal issues and lack of skills that can also sabotage discussion and debate. These include:
- Unmet emotional needs
- Limited levels of emotional skills and intelligence (defined by Google as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”)
- Lack of information consumption and communication (including debate) skills
Our polluted political environment poses a serious challenge. Democracies depend on a healthy marketplace of ideas. To maintain one, members need the cognitive and emotional skills to distinguish, obtain, process and share quality information. This article focuses on addressing emotional wounds that can fester and derail this process. Popularizing constructive therapeutic actions is a national imperative. Until then, external and self-sabotage will continue to corrupt both our discourse and policy development.
Checking ourselves: Considering behaviors and wounds within us
Goals for taking this on:
- Individual level: To encourage personal therapeutic approaches (how we seek to feel good or better) that promote collective well-being
- Societal level: To build capacity for productive interaction in order to address common issues effectively, namely through policies that overall increase good and reduce harm
Eight underlying assumptions and definitions about productive interaction, pain, and therapeutic actions:
1. In functional societies, members work together to overcome challenges through productive interaction. This includes conversations and debates that yield greater understandings or connection among participants. For governments it also results in policies that overall do more good than harm (e.g., increasing access to clean air or other basic resources). Achieving such outcomes requires:
- Participants having basic levels of accountability and emotional intelligence
- Elected officials taking the time and effort to debate in good faith and listen to constituents’ concerns, as well as to share quality information with them
2. Life inevitably involves emotional pain. It may arise from our own traumatic experiences or disempowering interpretations of events. For instance a break-up can hurt. Concluding that one indicates we are unworthy of love compounds that hurt. Emotional pain can also be passed on (e.g., across generations), may occur directly or empathetically, and can be experienced individually or collectively. Open wounds elicit efforts to reduce pain and take varying amounts of time and work to heal, including by growing stronger and wiser from them (signs of resiliency). Scarring from old wounds tends to elicit pain avoidance behaviors.
3. Our natural desire to feel good or better translates into various forms of self-expression and medication. These therapeutic behaviors differ in nature and impacts:
- Healthy — causing more benefit than harm
- Harmful — causing less benefit than harm (e.g., by causing others pain)
- Counterproductive — impeding healing or blocking opportunities to produce benefits
4. Applying Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s framing, expression of the Self (a person’s spiritual center/”soul consciousness”) tends to promote collective well-being. Signs of this include curiosity, a sense of connectedness or oneness, compassion, inclusiveness, openness, calmness, and awareness of impacts on others. Mindfulness training tends to support such expression, as can consistent access to resources like food, clothing, and shelter.
5. Expression of the small or egoic self has fewer shared benefits. It often stems from sympathetic nervous system activation (see fight or flight response) and can produce a sense of isolation or separation. Other signs include defensiveness and zero-sum, binary and judgmental thinking. Its predominance on a societal level can be linked to four major American cultural legacy burdens: racism, patriarchy, individualism, and materialism. Common examples include lashing out verbally or physically, bullying, clowning, trolling, and seeking to “pwn” others (often triggering similar responses).
6. Self-medication can involve using chemicals or other distractions for short-term pain relief, often while in an “activated” state. Chronic forms tend to block opportunities to learn, grow, or express the Self. Commonly-used chemicals include:
- Exogenous — alcohol, marijuana, and harder drugs
- Endogenous/naturally occurring in the brain — adrenaline, endorphins, and oxytocin
Almost any action can serve as a distraction. Popular ones also involving one or more of the chemicals above include eating, drinking, smoking, exercising, gaming, sex, debating, video watching, gambling, shopping, working, and creating or appreciating music or art. Depending on use, a given action may serve as means for self-medication, Self- or self-expression, or a blend.
7. Signs of dysfunctional or counterproductive therapeutic approaches include:
- Clear harm (e.g., disruption or injury) from our actions, especially if feeling compelled to continue engaging in them
- Addiction or obsession with a therapeutic action that can’t actually fulfill a need but does provide short-term pain relief (e.g., by filling a void)
- General emotional detachment (e.g., lack of passion, compassion, or empathy)
- Chronic difficulty being in the moment and appreciating “the little things”
8. A significant percentage of human interaction relates to relying on one another for therapeutic purposes, making it a helpful lens for better understanding a variety of behaviors. This may be exploitative or not. Healthier instances tend to involve good friends, coaches, therapists, or counselors (see social engagement theory). How productively we interact with others is an indicator of personal and group emotional intelligence levels. Quality coaching can raise these levels by supporting members being “Self-led” (i.e., able to self-regulate and stay in a calm/centered state).
Walking the walk: Five implications for personal and public policies
Conceptual understandings alone don’t transform lives or systems. Putting them into regular practice allows access to their power. Below are ideas for that with benefits for interactions including political discussion. Dear reader: please comment on any you would like to improve this year, a way you are already taking on, or if you perceive any glaring omissions.
1. Being nonjudgmental about each other’s emotional or other struggles by:
- Choosing not to take things personally
- Recognizing that wounds can be deep, and access to resources for dealing with them vary
- Picturing how we’d all be limping around or bandaged up if our wounds were physical
2. Leading by example by:
- Asking ourselves before we comment on something “is what I’m about to add kind, helpful, true, and necessary?”
- Humanizing people who disagree with us, seeking common ground, asking questions (rather than just attacking flawed arguments), and establishing boundaries for constructive communication
- Being “Self-led”: mindful and aware, open-hearted, curious, compassionate, calm, generous in our listening, and in the present moment
- Telling an inclusive story of a society in which more people are promoting collective well-being (i.e., strengthening its “unity consciousness”)
3. Creating openings for ourselves and others to have insights, make healthier therapeutic action choices, and build resiliency by:
- Identifying how things we do to feel good or better may be covering up or distracting us from pain
- Noting the presence of any signs of dysfunction listed above
- Uncovering and facing sources of pain we’ve avoided, ideally with support (from coaches, therapists, counselors, family, or friends)
4. Seeking to align our therapeutic actions with collective well-being by:
- Celebrating signs of alignment (e.g., deepening connections with ourselves and people around us)
- Calling out signs of misalignment (e.g., name calling or other forms of lashing out, cynicism, or arguing with logical fallacies)
- Shifting approaches to address any apparent misalignment
5. Addressing traumatic conditions and otherwise promoting a more emotionally intelligent and resilient society by:
- Prioritizing general access to clean water and air, shelter, quality food, education, healthcare, and meaningful work opportunities
- Supporting grassroots efforts to increase social or environmental justice, especially those led by people directly impacted by injustices
- Supporting political leaders able to demonstrate emotional intelligence
- Celebrating public efforts to improve emotional skills and examples of other healthy approaches to experiencing anger or grief
- Expanding access to emotional intelligence training (e.g., in public education)
The prevailing political gridlock and elusiveness of productive interaction threaten the entire democratic “American Experiment.” Personal and societal challenges in dealing with pain are a key and under-appreciated contributor. Taking personal accountability is essential, as is increasing access to resources to address traumas and build emotional intelligence. These are facets of a larger strategy to build general interactive capacity. Without more of it, our discussions and policies will remain dysfunctional, and we will continue to fail to protect the Constitution, lives and livelihoods.
Special thanks to:
Alison Caswell, LCPC and Elle Snyder for their crucial contributions to this piece. Teamwork makes the dream work.