The 2016 election process and thinking errors
As a mental health professional and addiction counselor I am tasked with approaching political events, within the context of therapy, from an objective stance. Surprisingly this is not as difficult as it may seem, particularly if one is prioritizing the mental health of one’s client. A good therapist has the ability to establish an alliance with a client as a means to explore healthy change; a process often referred to as ‘joining’. Post graduate training, professional experience, and the wisdom of other more experienced clinicians has taught me to not only join with clients but also maintain a professional objectivity that helps identify discrepancies between client behavior and their own stated values. It is the identification and therapeutic exploration of these discrepancies that often leads to sustained healthy change.
What does this have to do with the 2016 presidential election?
Have you experienced the phenomenon of finding out from someone in your life, that you otherwise respect, that they are voting for the ‘other candidate’?
What is the ensuing feeling that you experience?
One process by which some people inadvertently engage in thinking errors is when an emotional response to a situation perceived as threatening ends up distorting future behaviors and views. Put simply; as soon as we feel ourselves becoming increasingly frustrated, angry, scared, or threatened: we are subject to thinking errors. And though it be anecdotal, there are few people I have encountered following the 2016 election process that have not expressed some form of frustration, anger, trepidation, even fear. This is where I have to tread very lightly because my goal in writing this is simply to use the 2016 election as an example of how cognitive distortions (i.e. thinking errors) can cloud anyones judgement when they find themselves experiencing a strong emotional response.
A heated debate or argument with a family member, a strong physiological urge to use alcohol or drugs when trying to moderate, the feeling of jealousy, and even politics are examples of triggers that can elicit our fight or flight (survival instinct) response. There are many names for this phenomenon including ‘emotional reactivity’, being ‘flooded’ (referring to hormones flooding our system), fight or flight response, survival instinct, lashing out, etc. The common denominator is that during this process our ability to think clearly is greatly diminished. . .why?
Think back to our ancestors: when being chased by a saber-toothed tiger; it is essential that one quickly obtain a narrow thought process: run!!! Stopping to evaluate multiple options or attempting to sympathize with the tiger’s plight would obviously lead to becoming a big cat’s meal. Thus, when the primitive parts of our brain (limbic system - specifically the amygdala) have determined that a given situation warrants a fight or flight response (often at times we would love to veto that decision . . . e.g. giving a speech, first date), the more evolved parts of our brains (cerebral cortex) are often compelled to make sense of it: which leads to cognitive distortions to bridge our survival response with our values and convictions. People typically do not like sustained inner conflict.
A few examples of common cognitive distortions that may be applicable to this November include:
• Polarized thinking
‘All or nothing’, often expressed as all good or all bad; particularly when attributed to people. If our emotional response is strong, subtitles and nuance can be lost and the person causing this response tends to become the hero or the villain. “She always does this, or “he never does that” is most likely unintentional hyperbole.
• Thinking with your feelings
“I feel unsafe, therefore I must be in danger”, “I feel angry, so somebody must be to blame”. This thinking error goes back to equating our feelings with objective fact.
“End of the world”. When future oriented, this thinking error can lead to self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you were anticipating this post to include specific thinking errors of particular presidential candidates, I am sorry to disappoint. The attempt is more reflective and exploring a phenomenon that we all fall prey to assuming we are capable of an emotional response (i.e. we are human beings). I do not call into question the political views of the reader and definitely do not assume the reader experiences thinking errors in relation to the 2016 election process. I simply submit the notion that some of what we are witnessing on the news channels, at political gatherings, and perhaps in our personal social circles can stem from cognitive distortion. Insight of this physiological phenomenon might help enhance empathy in what has thus far, in my nonprofessional opinion, been a rather stress inducing political season.