As if life isn't hard enough; who needs perfection to ruin the decent? There is a cruelty to perfectionism. It takes something that could be enjoyed, even celebrated, and turns it into failure.
It isn’t sustainable. The ongoing shock, panic, horror and emotional devastation resulting from the daily barrage of thoroughly unbelievable atrocities and absurdities promulgated by Trump and his administration. Besides having to somehow try to metabolize the insanity of policy and tweets coming from the white house, congress and house, there is the trauma of watching our fellow Americans spew hate and ignorance at everyone to whom Trump points.
Most days of late, my friends, family, colleagues and clients, are in near panic about the current state and direction of American politics and how we will go about surviving Trump. We do not sleep or eat well, have more headaches and exhaustion, and feel an overall dis-ease in our daily lives. In sessions, around dinner tables, on phone calls, we talk anxiously about the days events. We desperately seek venues and vehicles for action and change, some which we participate in or lead, some that we promote on social media, many that we feel guilty we are not doing. Every day is filled with increasing horrors and disbelief about what is happening across our country, both due to the administrations policies, as well as the “deplorables” who have come out of hiding, validated by the values of this administration.
This daily assault on our hearts, heads, spirits and psyches is not sustainable.
When our country began separating children from their parents at the border, jailing both without information about the other, revealing they had not collected data to re-unite them, I started having panicked daydreams of Americans running into the streets, screaming and demanding action, placing our bodies between and around immigrant families to protect them, and refusing to continue to operate as if we were living in a sane world. To wake up, eat breakfast, and go to work felt like an abomination. To go on with my day, reading to my son, scheduling my dentist appointment, and going through the mail when these atrocities where/are happening in my country seems grotesque and negligent.
Some people did step into the streets, screaming and demanding action. Some even went and put their bodies between immigrants and those seeking to harm them. But most of us, either that day, or the next, went to work, responded to emails and did our grocery shopping. Even those who flew to the border, eventually flew back to take care of the mundane and the joyous aspects of every day living.
I had imagined that a few months into this current administration, the left would have found a way to organize ourselves such that we could regain a sense of control of the most precious values and forward movement our country has made over the last decade and half century. I had imagined our shock and angst and rage and panic would start to subside at some point so we could better function in our daily lives and in our political activism. The level of daily chaos and destruction of this administration was unimaginable to me. I feared it, but could never have seen how fast, how cruel, how reckless the destruction of progressive gains would be. I was also naive to the level and prevalence of hate and paranoia in so many of our citizens, and how emboldened they would become.
Naively, ignorantly, and with all my white privledge in tact, I declared “this is not who we are”. I was fortunately corrected and given slews of examples to confirm that this is exactly who we as Americans are and have been since we invaded this land.
My idealization of America, which I actually always thought I was quite critical of, extended to Europe as well. Some how I had decided that horrible things like the holocaust could happen again, but not in the western world. Japanese internment camps and McCarthyism seemed like a event in our past, and that we as a nation had advanced.
Civilization has most certainly moved forward, and will continue to do so century after century. History confirms that the arch leans towards justice. As women we have more rights and social freedoms than at any other time in history, particularly in western countries. Children and workers are more protected from forced, brutal labor and working conditions now than during any other time in history, again, particularly in the western world. Those with mental disturbance, and physical and mental differences, while still treated with ignorance and fear, have more protections, rights and compassionate care than ever before. Assessing the treatment of brown and black people in western countries is much more complicated, but since their abduction and removal from their homelands, legal slavery has ended in most of the world and social liberty is in the distant horizon.
It is perhaps this view of social progressively that confused me, and some of us, and lulled us into a believe that what we are seeing in the Trump era could not happen again. With out the larger perspective of history, and its predictable ebbs and flows, including ebbs that take us far into hate and backward agendas and thinking. We well know from history that periods of great enlightenment and progressively are consistently followed by periods of political darkness, where fear, hate and persecution are the order of the day. Somehow I thought the western world was done with that. We clearly are not.
Worse yet, I am starting to realize this dark period in our country and world history may not be over soon. Upon the announcement of retirement of a Supreme Court Justice, I realized, or came to consider as probable, that this dark episode in our country’s history has only just begun. Hate and horror and cruelty might very well rule our country for a while.
Now, I am happy to be proved wrong. I still have ongoing fantasies about us reversing every policy, appointment, and executive order Trump has been part of when he is proven to have colluded with a foreign country to undermine our democracy. I have less extreme fantasies too, including November elections, the Mueller investigation, where we pry back power and slowly repair as much of the damage we can over time. But of late, that isn’t what I am preparing for.
It seems prudent to prepare for the worst. I mean really the worst: where the Trumpsters pour out of their crevasses with all their hate and fear and persecution anxiety, in this case towards “illegal immigrants”, swarm to the polls, keeping the House and the Senate, and re-electing Trump in 2020, leaving our judiciary, Supreme and Federal, packed with right-wingers for decades.
Upon consideration that we may be in for the long haul, I found myself having a unexpected emotional response: I calmed down a bit. My level of near-hysterical daily emotional panic, anxiety, distraction and madness lessened. I could breathe a bit. It didn’t free me of my commitment to being an agent of change in the world, but it did challenge my since of urgency.
The value of facing at least the possibility that we are in for a long haul, is pacing. Right now, among my friends, clients, colleagues and community, so many of us are in full emotional crises mode. We are panicking, fully aware that we can not stop the flow of the tsunami with our bodies, or our postcards, calls, demonstrations, signatures, or maybe even with our votes. Now surely we must continue to do all of these things, as it is our actions over time that will change the direction of our country back toward social and economic justice, compassionate policy and approach to each other and difference, and ultimately towards a less divided nation.
But we must get there with our sanity and spirits intact.
I am not alone that I feel a bit guilty or torn when I am relaxed, or happy, or playful. When so many lives are in active states of turmoil due to the actions of my own country, it is hard to give way to the everyday joys of life. But the thing is, even when folks are in active crises they can smile.
Fox News shows us images of children in detention centers engaged in play and suggest their incarceration is like summer camp. Somehow their moments of levity get conflated against nights of crying themselves asleep for fear they will never see their parents, or waking in the morning with fears that maybe their parents never loved them and intentionally abandoned them.
When working with clients with histories of trauma or current traumatic life situations, sometimes they fear that if they start crying, they will never stop. In truth, not only will they stop, but they will even laugh, maybe in the same hour. And they will cry again, and laugh again. This is so because our psyche can not endure endless suffering without break. Indeed it will go to extreme measures to protect itself from over-saturation through mechanisms like dissociation.
This is not to compare living through the Trump administration to illegal immigrant children being caged in detention centers, dissociating for survival. What I am saying is that many of us are suffering during this period in our country’s history, a period which may last longer than we could have ever predicted. I am saying that self-care is the name of the game for sustainability. And I am saying that sustainability is everything.
So what does sustainability look like? It looks like chopping wood and carrying water. Like the Buddhist monk who saw the path to enlightenment in being present to everyday tasks, we must live our lives. Living our lives with awareness, consciously, embracing the everyday, both the mundane and the joyous, makes for sustainability of our political actions. Loving and laughing with our friends and family is the anecdote to the insanity of this time, and what will keep us sane. Self-care is the name of the game for sustainability, and sustainability is everything.
The topic of surviving Trump’s America is common among friends, so what can therapy offer that is any different? When we talk to our friends and others, it is typically mutual commiseration. Certainly that can offer us great solace.
But if the trauma of what Trump and those who support him are doing to our country isn’t enough, the quality of their abuse of power pulls particular strings attached to our history. A therapist can hear the particularity, the distinct way we are suffering, and what earlier wounds might be tearing open. Knowing this can help us further grieve the earlier injuries, and separate them out, so we might not go mad, and have our wits about us for the journey to reclaim our country.
Smith is and analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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I never imagined myself a perfectionist.