Last week a new client came to see me in the hopes of getting some relief from intense anxiety and a paralyzing fear of social interactions. Even though he was attractive, intelligent and thoughtful, he had become so nervous in recent months that he avoided almost every gathering or event. He stopped dating, went silent on social media, and dropped out of his hiking group.
There are many causes of social anxiety, but after a brief conversation, one of the major contributing factors for him became clear. He had reached the point where he felt unsafe expressing any kind of political view that didn't line up perfectly with what he thought the people around him wanted to hear. This led to a series of fruitless efforts to steer conversations away from "dangerous" topics. In the end, he found it was easier to just avoid people altogether.
As a therapist and life coach, this is a problem that I see firsthand all too often these days. Ever since the last presidential election cycle, I've met with numerous clients who feel intense pressure to “take a stand” for one political side or the other. These clients have come to believe that being neutral or even open to opposing views is no longer socially acceptable. Intelligent conversation has been replaced by canned opinions and slogans on both sides.
These days, it's extremely challenging to avoid political conversation. While historically, politics were one of the three forbidden topics at the diner table, at work, and on a first date, now hardly any interaction happens without someone bringing up the latest outrage in the news. Until very recently, even the cute kittens and puppies of Facebook were being crowded out by propaganda from both political camps.
Of course all of this polarization has tremendous (negative) consequences for the social fabric. But what effects does this climate have on the individual psyche?
Here are a few:
Under heightened social pressure, it's much more difficult for someone to form educated, independent opinions on anything. As people are forced into “fight or flight" survival mode, opinions formed in fear take precedence over thoughtfulness.
What once would have been a less-than-consequential stance on this or that issue becomes attached to real-world outcomes and opportunities. People feel forced to vocally support opinions that they may or may not agree with or face estrangement from existing relationships, exclusion from cliques, loss of perks at work, and so forth.
Discomfort and anxiety triggers defense mechanisms. The immediate gratification of feeling safely "in group" supersedes the need to individuate by thinking through one’s own opinions. However, this can easily create cognitive dissonance, stress, and anxiety.
When political opinions are formed under the kind of social pressure our society is currently experiencing, people will feel the need to protect those views, regardless of new evidence, logic, or objective change in the environment.
Under these circumstances, forming new relationships and attachments is often impossible unless they are under the safe umbrella of one's "tribe". In this context, genuine questioning and growth becomes a solitary, unsettling, and ultimately unwanted experience. As a result, people will find themselves more and more isolated and less open to new experiences and interactions. Ultimately this can lead to depression and/or anxiety and hinder personal development.
So what is to be done?
If a person is lucky, he might find a good therapist, life coach, or other confidant where he can feel safe to express and work through his own thought processes. Others, however, may find solace on anonymous online forums where they are just pushed toward further extremism.
However, it is possible for all of us to be open to a different approach. Recent studies and initiatives on conflict have shown that there can be more productive ways to approach contentions issues. In formal settings, conflict negotiators find that dialogue on the most difficult social and political arguments is most productive when it emphasizes nuance and complexity rather than looking at issues in a simplistic "pro versus con" way. Simply framing a conversation differently can make a huge difference in someone's openness, learning and satisfaction in a conversation.
In addition, these studies have found that the more cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural complexity a person invites into his life, the more the more tolerant he tends to be, and the more effectively he can argue for a position.
Of course, adopting such an attitude takes courage, thoughtfulness and a willingness to let go of the immediate gratification of both self-righteousness and the perceived safety of being “in group”. It's not easy. But I fear the alternative that we are currently experiencing is much worse.