How the Highly Sensitive Person Can Survive (and even Thrive) in an Election

Nov 15, 2016 | Blog

Presidential elections stir up emotions for everyone. That’s true under just about any circumstances in this country (regardless of the candidates who happen to be running.)

But this one? This one seemed to have really slammed people. I know it definitely slammed me. 

It’s challenging for anyone to navigate the world when everyone in it is swimming in a torrent of fear, elation, devastation, joy, terror, relief. No one walked away from the announcement feeling neutral. At least no one that I know, personally.

If you think it’s hard on the average person, it’s especially hard for us sensitive types. What with people running around on all cylinders protesting, cheering, exploding, tearing…and then trying to safety pin those rips back to a cohesive sense of security…it’s overwhelming.

BUT…I think we should stop seeing that as a problem. It’s not a problem to feel things (even if it feels intense). No matter how you wanted the election to turn out and irrespective of whether or not it went in your favor, no emotion is a wrong one. The question is what to do with those emotions. If handled well, your over-active nervous system (the same one that made you lose sleep on Tuesday night) may actually be an asset. At least in the long-term.

First – STOP seeing your emotional response as an over-reaction. It’s not. There is no such thing as a wrong emotion. Just as we have the freedom to speak our minds in this country (a freedom, I might add, that includes volume) we are also free to feel how we feel about its outcome…and feel it in the volume that is our nature. Your emotional response is likely a combination of your feelings on the subject and a reading on those who are reacting around you. See this as a gift.

People are uncertain. Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear breeds violence. We see this on both sides – with Trump supporters taking advantage of what they believe is a free pass to make those who are unlike them to feel less than human…less than American. We see it from Clinton supporters who are quick to assume those who voted for Trump are uniformly xenophobic and hateful despite the fact that most of them are neither.

Because you feel ALL of this, you are in a unique position to reach out. To assuage. To connect. You feel the pain of those around you. If you can stay present with that, and stay curious about it…you might be able to connect in a way that we rarely get an opportunity to do in our day-to-day lives. Fear might breed violence. But pain and vulnerability, when allowed to express itself, breeds compassion.

Second – Take care of yourself. Here is the thing about sensitive people. They already have a rather porous energetic boundary. Having an ability to feel subtle nuances in their environment places them in position to feel, perhaps, too much. Ironically, when overwhelmed, people in with this trait often tend to lean even more toward helping others. They expend themselves ever further (rather than doing the rational thing and giving themselves some space). Either that, or they shift to the other extreme. They shut the world out. They say “I’m turning this off” shutting off the TV and reaching for something to numb the sensation. Food. Alcohol. Marijuana (Proposition 64 did pass after all).

It’s not that either of these responses is morally wrong or even necessarily unhealthy. Maybe it’s exactly what you need right now. Its only a problem if whatever action it is that you take is coming from patterning. In other words…you aren’t the one in the driver’s seat making the decisions. You’re going on auto-pilot. You’re checking out and basing your actions on habit. THAT is when warning bells should be going off.

Instead, as Glennon Doyle says….ask.

“What is the next right thing I can do right now?” Perhaps it is turning off the TV and gifting yourself with a glass of wine. Maybe its not. Maybe it’s going for a walk and allowing your thoughts an opportunity to settle. Maybe its taking a bath. Maybe its going for a run. Maybe its calling a friend. Maybe it really is smoking pot so that you can just get some sleep and start fresh in the morning. I don’t know what your answer is. But the power isn’t in the answer. The power is in being willing to ask the question. What is the next best thing I can do? What do I really need right now? How can I refuel? 

The Apocalypse isn’t going to come tomorrow. And for those who fear for their safety right now (many with good reason)…it’s even more important to take care of yourself. You’ll be no good to the world if you’re exhausted, wired, wilting, angry, and suspicious of those around you. There are those who will try and taunt us. But there are also those who will reach out to support us. You will not be able to discern between them if you haven’t slept the night before.

Third – Pay Attention, so that When Appropriate, you can act. I have heard a number of people lament that Trump will be the new Hitler. I’m not inclined to think so. Or…at least, I’m not inclined to make that assumption. He’s said some terrible things. He’s been insulting to a number of minorities, to those practicing Islam, and to women. And in voting him into office, it does seem to say “We condone that behavior. Go for it!” And THAT is unnerving to say the very least. The word that comes to my mind (given that I am more sensitive than most) is terrifying. Ironic, given that he’s supposed to be representing a stand “against terror.”

But take heart. Given that we are more sensitive than most, we are in a unique position to assess and judge nuances – both in our environment and in the individuals who occupy our space. The upside to that is that we are, as Doyle suggests…the nation’s canaries. When the winds shift in a way that doesn’t bode well for our future, we are the first to detect it. We are the ones who feel it even if we can’t describe precisely what it is we are feeling.

The downside is that we don’t always respond appropriately to those sensations. It is never a good call to assume the worst in those around us. It tends to incite the very behavior we are nervous about. But DO pay attention. Since being announced as President, has Trump done anything to cause pain and suffering to anyone around him? Thus far, the answer is no.

But let’s shift away from Trump and move on to those supporting him and those viciously opposed. YES – some of his supporters have taken his election to mean that they can do whatever they damn well please. To be fair, there have been a number of incidences from those on the other side…those who were opposed to his victory…that have behaved horribly. THAT is the piece you want to focus on. Is law and order being upheld? Are those individuals being held accountable? The answer, so far, is yes. And Trump, while not exactly moving me to tears with his plea…DID denounce it. He is not inciting more of the same behavior. (Again…not exactly a powerful and moving speech…BUT – it is something). Whether his plea was heard or not – the violent incidences do appear to be slowing down.

This is not to say that fears about the future are unfounded. NOR am I saying “Oh. Okay. He said to stop it, so he’s off the hook.” That’s not what I’m saying at all. He needs to do MORE. We ALL need to do more…

Rather, this a plea to stay in the present. Don’t think about this as “what is going to happen in the next four years?” Don’t even think “what’s going to happen next week?”Think, instead “What is happening in my world right now?” And if you are seeing victimization, harassment, prejudice, or violence the next question is “How can I help?”

And the upside to this is that many people are asking this question. The answers people are stumbling upon are not all the same. For some, the answer has been to protest. For others, it has been to support.

In Baylor University, a young woman was harassed.She was bumped, shoved and labeled a N****R.” Two students, who witness it, stopped and asked themselves..”what’s the next best thing I can do right now?” Their answer was to defend her. Afterward, 300 students asked themselves the same question. Their answer was to support her and walk out of class to show that support.

This country might be in a crisis. Nevertheless, some people are taking that as an opportunity…not to fight back, exactly. But to stand still. To say “I see what you’re doing. I will not fight you. But I will not tolerate it, either.” They are able to do this not due to some naivete about the world. They aren’t painting the globe with lollypops and unicorns and pretending hatred doesn’t exist. They ARE paying attention. They are not apathetic. But they also aren’t just getting angry with no outlet. They are paying attention, staying present and then asking “what is something I can do?”

Fourth – Connect

It doesn’t matter whether you were for Trump or against him. We are ALL human beings. We all want the same things. We want love. We want connection. We want safety. We want nourishment. We want happiness. If you see your current surroundings as being a hinderance to that for yourself or for others, then take action.

One of the best ways to do that is to reach out to those who you see being victimized and ask – How can I support you? YOU are in an especially advantageous position to see that strife. You feel it. You see it on the faces of those around you. You are going to be quicker than most to know when someone needs to be reassured. Be a part of the solution, as students at Baylor were.

Do you not want to simply sit by and wait to respond? Do you want to be proactive? Then find organizations that you can connect with. Get creative. If your sensitive nature is making this whole scene uncomfortable EMBRACE that. Use that as a fuel source to get you to do something for others that will help us move forward.

And just as important…reach out to those you see as being different from yourself. I’m not asking everyone here to change your mind about what you think is sound policy. Instead, I’m asking for you to be curious. Instead of assuming your foes are foes, be willing to ask questions of those who are different from you. You may find a nugget of something that challenges your assumptions. You may find something of value.

I read an article about Trump’s interview with 60 minutes. In it, it summarized his answer to the question he was asked “Do you regret some of the language/behavior you used during the campaign?” According to the article, he simply said “No. I won.” But when I watched the actual interview, he was far more nuanced than that. He expression was somber. He didn’t say he regretted it, but he did say it was hard to regret it when his performance lead him to a success. Those are two very different answers. Because I was curious enough to dig deeper, I found myself walking away a little less afraid.

Am I, now, going to say that I forgive the fact that he made jokes about sexual assault? Am I okay with all of his policies? Am I okay with the fact that he called Mexicans “criminals?” Or okay with the fact that he entertained kicking Muslims out of the country?

No. No way. Hell no.

But has he made a move or indicated he will make good on those promises? Also, a no.

And I will be paying very. Close. Attention. We should all be paying very close attention. Especially, once again, us sensitive types. It’s the best we can do right now.

I will also refuse to assume the worst of people and preemptively decide those around me are my enemy. I will continue to reach out and connect, rather than reject. Because THAT is perhaps the one thing this surprising turn of events could result in. Connection. When people are afraid, we can choose how to behave. We can try to understand each other. We can start the difficult conversations which, if had sooner, perhaps would have prevented some of the violence we have been seeing lately.

In Sum: If you want to not only survive this election…but come out shining…it really is very simple. First – make room for your emotions. They are real and even if they are extreme, they deserve to  be felt. No one should tell you to “get over it” or “move on” if you aren’t ready to do so. Second – Take care of yourself. Take it one moment at a time. One day at a time. You do no one any good by allowing your self care practices to dissolve. No one victimized by hate crimes feel better just because you didn’t get any sleep last night. Third – Pay attention. Be neither apathetic, nor reactive. Be curious. Once you have a sense for how you might channel these uncomfortable emotions into productive action, then move forward peacefully. And finally – connect. See yourself NOT as a victim of a highly emotional time. See yourself as the brave warrior willing to take on the brunt of a highly charged emotional scene and go on with the business of living well.