Post election, you may have noticed a spike in anxiety and depression. There certainly have been plenty of opportunities to get worked up (or down!) since November!
In this article, I’d like to address anxiety about the polarized nation and political stalemate that has calcified during and after the election.
Specifically, I’ll pull from a concept from psychoanalytic theory, which I think can shed light on what’s happening psychologically, and I’ll offer some ways you can work with your anxiety that can help counteract its effects.
Gridlock: The Doer-Done To Dynamic- One (psychological) way to look at the political stalemate between a polarized left and right is the Doer-Done To dynamic. (I borrowed this term from Jessica Benjamin, a New York analyst who has written extensively about the therapeutic relationship and how to move beyond therapeutic impasses where progress cannot be made).
Doer- Done To is an unconscious dynamic that is very damaging to relationships. It is a mutual dance (“it takes two to tango”), where one side does something harmful to the other side, and that other side takes on the position of victim or “being done to.”
Some characteristics of this dynamic include:
- It is typically an unconscious dynamic where both sides have difficulty listening to each other. We can see this dynamic often in conflict between couples.
- The dynamic is co-created by two parties, both of whom bring this particular blueprint for relating in this way from their own personal and/or collective histories.
- It can take the form of victim/perpetrator, dominant/submissive, sado-masochism, or right/wrong.
- It can occur between two people (therapist-client, couples), groups of people (liberals and conservatives), countries (Israel-Palestine), etc.
- It can be perpetuated from generation to generation and from one side or group to another, as, for instance, when someone who is abused then abuses another.
Doer-Done To as a Therapeutic Impasse- In trying to understand the psychological underpinnings of the national political polarization, I’ll use the analogy of an impasse in a therapy treatment caused by a Doer-Done To dynamic.
Impasses in therapy occur when a therapist and client, fused by a Doer-Done To dynamic, cannot make progress because both people contribute their own unique but interlocking unconscious, unresolved, conflicts to a stalemate that is difficult to recognize.
It can seem as if therapy is going along swimmingly, but actually, progress has stalled because both therapist and client are locked in defensive, Doer-Done To postures.
If impasses remain, they can lead to further emotional wounding and, if not addressed, a failed treatment.
Doer-Done To as Political Impasse- Politically, we certainly seem to be at an impasse.
During the campaign, Trump used the Doer-Done To dynamic to his advantage, consistently fanning the fear and anger flames of those who have felt “Done To”, particularly a white working class who fears that they are losing jobs and suffering due to the Obama Presidency, the shifting demographic tides, and, until now, expanded rights and opportunities for LGBTQ folks and women.
Now that he has won the presidency, Trump continues to mask his “Doer” behavior with being “Done To” (the media, Obama wire tap claims, leaks, etc.), whereas many Democrats and others on the other side now feel “Done To” both in the perception of a stolen election, Russian interference, the potential repeal of the ACA and other budget concerns.
And this Doer-Done To dynamic playing out in the Federal Government seeps out through the polarized media and into the water to the general public.
We’ve certainly suffered from this impasse. Are we, as a country, headed towards our own failed treatment?
A Possible Road Out of the Impasse- In therapy, working through an impasse takes tremendous effort. Because of the deep unconscious conflicts at play, it is difficult for a therapist of any level of experience to easily recognize, communicate and work an impasse through with his client without causing further pain.
It takes courage to step into the unknown (out of a familiar if not painful dynamic) and a desire to grow and change for therapist and client to accept the tension and conflict that has resided under the surface in order to revive the treatment.
Similarly, in the current political stalemate, where a Doer-Done To dynamic keeps the country locked in an entrenched battle, its going to take that same faith, courage and desire to grow and mature for our country to accept each of our roles in this and find common ground with which to move forward.
The following are some steps each of us can take to lower our anxiety, and do our part to step out of the polarity of the Doer-Done To dynamic:
- Explore in what ways you have fallen into the Doer-Done To dynamic, either politically or in your relationships. If you notice that you have, learn more about the dynamic and how you play a part. Are you the one doing to another? Or being done to? Recognize that this is a very limiting, painful story. Recognize the pain and particular elements of your role.
- Ask yourself a deep question: what do you want? Not necessarily the latest I Phone or haircut, but more in terms of your lifestyle, your purpose, your relationships, your passions, and how you might want to participate as a citizen of this country. Once you identify some of these things, take tangible steps to achieve them. This will empower you and take you out of a stuck, anxious place.
- Find ways to engage with the “other side” of the political aisle. Read an article that you may not agree with. Find organizations such LivingRoomConversations.org and chat with a Trump supporter. Cultivate compassion for those you disagree with, even if you passionately disagree. This will be edgy but it will take some of the edge off your anxiety as you engage.
- If you’re not in therapy at the moment, consider starting. Therapy is an effective way to explore the unconscious dynamics that can cause you (and our nation at large) to suffer in this suffocating dynamic, and find ways to liberate yourself from it.
 Benjamin, Jessica, “Beyond Doer and Done To: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness”, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly (Jan 2004)