Last week, a new client came to see me. His main concern is a paralyzing fear of human interaction. He recently found himself experiencing intense social anxiety and began avoiding gatherings and events. He also stopped dating, shunned social media, and dropped out of his hiking group.
Ever since the increasingly political polarization following the presidential election, I see many people exhibiting behaviors similar to the one described above. People feel pressured to “take a stand” for one side or the other. Being in the middle politically or even open to a debate is not considered good enough for some any longer. Intelligent conversation is largely replaced by slogans supporting severely opposite views.
It has become almost impossible to avoid political conversation. While politics used to be one of the three forbidden topics at the diner table, at work, or on a first date, it seems now that hardly any interaction happens without it. Questions about one’s political views are asked sometimes during job interviews; prospective partners will probe one’s political orientation when they first meet; and it often comes up among family, friends, or strangers at social gatherings. Kittens and puppies on social media these days have been largely replaced by propaganda or polemics from opposing political camps.
What effect has this cultural climate had on our individual psyches?
There are few aspects we need to consider:
- Under such social pressure, educated personal opinions are rarely formed. An individual is forced into “survival mode;” fear takes precedence over intelligence or facts.
- Choices are attached to opportunities: an individual is faced with the dilemma of choosing one side based on already formed relationships, access or familiarity, existing roles, potential perks, etc.
- Discomfort and anxiety trigger defense mechanisms, and the chance to grow or expand one personal’s life becomes secondary to immediate gratification. Feeling good at the moment and escaping social pressures becomes the main concern.
When choices are made under such circumstances, individuals feel the need to protect those choices. They often double down regardless of new evidence, logic, or objective change in their environment, either on the macro or micro level. This, unfortunately, limits the potential of forming new relationships and attachments unless they’re formed within a chosen side’s “code of honor.” Questioning, inquiry, and growth become a solitary, unsettling, and unwanted experience. As a result, a person finds him/herself more isolated and less open to new or different experiences and interactions. Ultimately, it can lead to depression and/or anxiety, hindering an individual’s development and limiting options for forming new connections.