We’re only a little more than three weeks away from the Presidential election, and passions are running high, passions stoked by both of the parties and their candidates. The hundreds of millions of dollars of attack ads and the virulent commentary routinely featured on MSNBC and Fox are all designed to “stoke up” the electorate, primarily by creating anger and/or fear. Differences that are often quite small are magnified, and similarities are ignored. It was revealing (and surprising) to me that when I Googled several variations of the phrase “similarities between Obama and Romney platforms” there were virtually no entries, other than angry diatribes from the “far left” and “far right” about how they both stink.
Unfortunately most people spend too much of their energy on noticing flaws in others, or on areas where they are in disagreement with them. This black-and-white thinking provides a temporary sense of satisfaction (and, often, superiority) but winds up increasing anger and upset because the focus is on conflict: how people are in opposition to us rather than in agreement.
I’m going to ask you to take a simple test. If you have a strong preference for one candidate or the other, think for a minute or so about how the opponent is misguided and doesn’t understand what’s the best direction in which to lead our country. Note how you’re feeling as you think these thoughts. A while later, think for a minute or so about ways in which both candidates share similar points of view (e.g. on the need to reduce the nation’s debt, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security), and notice how that feels. You’ll probably notice that it’s much harder to think of similarities than differences, but to the degree you are able to identify similarities I’m betting you feel calmer when contemplating those. If you don’t have a strong opinion about the candidates, think about a policy of theirs about which you do feel strongly (e.g. global warming, Obamacare, free trade). Again, easy to think of differences, harder to think of similarities, but you probably feel more at peace contemplating the latter. Taking it a step further, can you put yourself in the shoes of the other and try to understand why they might have the point-of-view that they do?
You can apply this technique much more broadly than just to the field of politics. It is particularly valuable in soothing anger and upset that arise in relationships (romantic, social, or work related). Here’s how: first think of the behavior of another that is angering or upsetting you. For example, you might have a boyfriend or girlfriend or partner or spouse who routinely slants the truth, or a friend who is flaky when it comes to fulfilling commitments, or a boss who is a bully. Next, think of a time, or times, when you yourself have exhibited that very same behavior. Although your initial reaction to this may be “I never behave that way,” upon closer examination I suspect you’ll find that you have indeed, at least occasionally. Then, even if you’re unable to think of a situation in which you exhibited the behavior you so dislike, try to think of a reason why the other person might be acting the way he/she does.
Black-and-white thinking simplifies life by reducing the complexity of issues, but the fact is that issues do tend to be complex, otherwise they wouldn’t be issues. The angle from which you’re viewing any given situation will determine your perspective on it, and your emotional reaction to it. Examining situations from at least a couple of different angles will tend to even out the reaction, reducing anger and upset and providing you with a greater sense of calm.