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A Psychologist's Guide To Talking Politics — Or Not — This Thanksgiving

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COMMENTARY

Thanksgiving is often more complicated than pictures of overflowing cornucopias and glowing roast turkeys, beckoning for families to gather round, would suggest.

More commonly than we acknowledge, our sense of belonging is diminished by past and present conflicts, annoyances and hurt. This year, the painful rhetoric of our presidential election has heightened anxieties about Thanksgiving gatherings. The suffering, anger and fear associated with the election — on all sides — may strain existing fault lines and exacerbate these difficult feelings.

My patients, students and friends have wondered whether to celebrate as usual or change plans to avoid the emotional challenges and potential conflicts. How can we navigate the holidays when the melting pot feels more like a boiling cauldron? How can we feed and be fed, but avoid burning or getting burned by loved ones?

Divisions lie at the heart of suffering in this post-election season. Connection is the only antidote.

While that sounds simple, finding ways to create connection is not. My own family, like many, is no longer mono-ethnic, mono-religious, mono-political. I have been moved to see how, in three generations, my four Irish and French-Canadian immigrant grandparents have created a family that is now infused with ties to Judaism and Islam, with grand- and great-grandchildren who are Indian, Latin, Asian as well as Northern European. The queer teens in my family are more comfortable in their skin than any gay or bisexual family member in older generations.

However, this past fall, my family’s Facebook feed showed that multiculturalism predicts nothing about political preference. Various family members supported Clinton, Trump, Sanders and Johnson. Some brothers, mothers and sisters stopped talking to each other. A millennial was reluctant to tell his family that he would not exercise his right to vote in his first presidential election — he disliked all the candidates and believed that his ballot would not matter.

And this is not just my family; I hear similar stories from others. An African-American student wonders whether she can comfortably visit her white boyfriend’s family for the holiday at their home in the South. A gay man asks himself if he can sit at the table with his parents, who voted for Trump. A young girl worries that her aunts and uncles will be deported.

The task that lies before many of us at the Thanksgiving table is not unlike the task that faces us all as Americans: How do we connect across difference, especially when that difference truly hurts? Psychotherapy strategies for improving relationships, especially coping with strong feelings, might be useful.

One tenet suggests, “It is better to be effective than to be right.” At holiday gatherings, being effective translates into emotionally connecting with someone, even though you disagree with them. Listen without judgment. Sustain interest and curiosity about the other person’s point of view. Nonjudgmental, deep listening can lead to validation for him or her –- the ability to communicate your understanding of the other person’s point of view. Keep in mind that we can understand another point of view without agreeing with it. Listen to as many divergent voices as possible.

Of course, understanding and validation are not always possible. Sometimes, the best you can do is to leave your differences at the doorstep and connect only over what is mutually loved -- good food, small children, a game of Scrabble, art, music or movies. Every family has its own idiom, and the familiar rhythm of our rituals may bring some comfort.

Sadly, there are times when connection with another person is not possible. There may be too much pain or hostility. Then, the most effective strategy is to let go of a connection that feels too hurtful. You might take a break, shift to a different conversation partner with a gracious, “I’ve had my fill of political talk for now.” Such a release can offer you a chance to direct your compassion inward and connect more deeply within yourself.

Thanksgiving is a time to come together in pleasure, to offer gratitude for all that is good in our lives, even as we know that there is more to be desired. This holiday gives us a chance to relax into the immediate present. If difficult conflicts bubble up this week, it may help to hold the long view, to remember that over time, the good usually prevails.

Dr. Patricia Harney is the interim chief of psychology at the Cambridge Health Alliance and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School.

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