We Need an Emotional Revolution

How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

Oh, 2020. The problems that we all face during this terrible, remarkable year continue.

It’s completely normal for us all to be dealing with very strong emotions; mounting isolation, anger, frustrations and fear can overrun even our favorite coping skills. How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

It seems to me that learning to manage ourselves is the work of a lifetime and our earliest teachers are parents, siblings, grandparents and other close relationships who model how to deal with life’s challenges.

As we move toward the expanding social network of school and neighborhood, we inevitably take one of two emotional directions: we either gain the skills of self-management of distress tolerance and cognitive emotional understanding (sometimes chronically soothing our pain with less-helpful substances like alcohol) or, we seek relief by pushing our pain onto others. That displacement looks like blame, denial, verbal or physical intimidation, bullying, or violence.

No doubt you’ve noticed as I have a recent cultural shift toward externalizing fear and frustration that fuels the rhetoric of division, cynicism, judgment and hate. Whether it is the dangerous rise in hate groups, shootings and public violence against others or the distrust and bitterness of partisan politics in governing, none of us have been spared the real results of people who don’t deal well with frustration and pain.

This cultural and personal failure to manage our struggles has dangerous, real life consequences. Minimizing public health science has meant we have continuing, dangerous exposure to pandemic. Not acknowledging our national bias toward white, European history and our legacy of slavery means people of color are still judged as less worthy, less human and experience bias and bigotry every day. Not being willing to look at the mythology of capitalism and the American Dream means the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer — the poorest ending up homeless on our streets, in our neighborhood parks and our prisons.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Coddling of the American Mind) study moral reasoning and ethical leadership. They research and study the way we behave together. They have helped me better understand just what has been stoking our country’s increasing violent speech and actions in recent years. And it is no one person or political party’s fault.

One of the most shocking findings of their research is the way social media has impacted our shift toward emotional acting out and political extremism. Social media platforms are designed to keep us spending time on the site as a way to generate income (in the way of paid advertising) for the media companies.

How have sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest been engineering our attention? By creating easy ways to form interest groups and ways for us to react to one another with comments, like buttons, emojis and post sharing, all rapid emotional reactions that tend to fuel more responses.

The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, describes this strategy with candid interviews with the engineers who designed these sites. For the last 10 years, millions of us have spent untold hours reading, reacting and sharing information online, and now bad actors, including foreign governments, are exploiting these sites to stoke anger, despair and distrust during this bitter election and pandemic.

So, what can you do about it? Take a look at how you communicate. How do you manage your interactions in real life as well as online? If there is ever a time in our lives when we all need to hold ourselves accountable for our emotions, for the way we think, comment and react to other people and their ideas, it is now.

Assess how you show up in public spaces. You are in charge of your emotional responses, in person and virtually. Bring your best self to your Facebook page, your news article comments, the internet memes you share.

It’s time for an emotional revolution. One that values honestly, humility, toleration and facts. We can turn our national mood around, but it will take every one of us to grow up and manage hard emotions better.

Originally written for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in the Savage Pacer newspaper.