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Psychotherapy for Post-Trump Election Trauma (P.T.E.T)

By Enrico Gnaulati

Talk therapy
Photo credit: Bliusa

With Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, I have become inundated with clients using therapy time to process their shock, disbelief, dismay, and outrage. I live and practice in perhaps the bluest of the blue states, California. Many of my clients are liberally-minded writers, artists, college students, professors, and movie-industry folks who typically are drawn to therapy as a cherished space to address questions of personal meaning, value, and purpose in their lives. In the consulting room, they prefer to keep the focus on their personal lives and refrain from discussing politics. However, given Trump’s personae and policies, “the political” has truly become “the personal” for many of my clients, and therapy a place to confront the emotional effects of his rise to power, as well as realize the need to get more politically involved.

In the days after the election, several clients presented with the type of shock clinicians generally associate with trauma—numbness, disbelief, obsessional reliving and retelling of events as if to retrospectively convince themselves that what was completely unlikely, was indeed possible: “Why did I not see this coming?” One general definition of trauma is the sudden, unexpected onset of a disturbing event where a person is psychologically unprepared for its occurrence. Based on this definition, Trump’s election was quasi-traumatic for those clients who wrote him off as unelectable for all the usual reasons: his “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” rhetorical style; questionable business dealings and refusal to release his tax returns; pandering to right-wing causes; and crude, dismissive treatment of women, immigrants, and the press—to name but a few. Being able to use therapy time just to acknowledge their disbelief and express anger, sadness, and confusion seemed valuable just to de-numb themselves and absorb the reality that the unbelievable had just occurred. If Trump was still not going to be their president, at least they could grasp the basic reality that he was going to be the president!

Knowing the political twinship between myself and these clients was palpable, I offered some of my own formulations as to why I also was traumatized by Trump’s election: “Perhaps you are feeling like I am, that your value system just got assaulted and you are in shock. When so many of the hard-won virtues and values that make up your identity are derided and dismissed by none other than the President of the United States, I think it’s normal to feel deeply bewildered.”

As the weeks leading up to the inauguration wore on, many clients confessed to me that they constantly checked the news  to see what new controversy had erupted based on Trump’s Tweets. There was embarrassment admitting to finding it all comical and entertaining. There was the new wave of astonishment and outrage realizing that the pre-election Trump, true to style, was the selfsame post-election Trump. There was irritation that their obsessional interest in news bites was becoming a giant distraction at work and unwittingly playing into Trump’s perceived insatiable appetite for attention.

For some clients there was a new-found urgency to use therapy to speed up the attainment of a goal based on the implications of a Trump presidency. One young couple seeing me to address the boyfriend’s slowness to propose marriage (even though there was every indication that marriage was in the cards) had a rude awakening the day after the election. As an Iranian national in fear of deportation, the boyfriend softened his position overnight and no longer used therapy to address his resistance to marrying his American girlfriend, but to think aloud about how best to plan the quickest marriage!

For other clients, appreciating the absurdity of it all—a businessman/TV personality with no background in politics, brazenly bragging about sexually grabbing women, Tweeting on trivial matters, becoming the next President—allowed them to avoid paralyzing disillusionment and cynicism.

By far, the greatest concern about the Trump presidency voiced by my clients involves parents who worry that indecency is the new norm in our culture. These are parents who devote themselves to raising children to speak respectfully of others, refrain from lazy use of profanity, and act and speak thoughtfully and tolerantly. These parents fear that, given Trump’s track record of mocking the disabled, sexualizing women, being vain, self-referential, and boastfully materialistic, the general public might find these inexcusable attitudes and behavior somehow excusable. If the President of the United States can mock a disabled person, make lewd comments about women, speak disparagingly about dissenting journalists, and the like, doesn’t this work in the direction of normalizing shameful behavior? Concerned parents worry that their job of raising decent, sensitive, inclusive-minded children just got a lot tougher under a Trump presidency. Therapy has become an important venue for such parents to remain strong in the face of new cultural pressure giving license to boorish, arrogant, provocative, dogmatic attitudes and behavior.   

My parent clients seem to benefit from the viewpoint that maybe their kids need to be reminded of the difference between true and false confidence. A truly confident person is not unduly reliant on outside praise and recognition to feel self-assured; acknowledges and learns from mistakes; is not threatened by periods of self-doubt; tolerates, if not invites, dissent; is not inclined to conspicuously act superior to others; does not need to surround him or herself with material signs of success; refrains from over celebrating a victory. Trump’s overreliance on outside admiration to maintain his sense of self-importance; quickness to shame and blame others when his plans and projects run into trouble; seeming fullness of conviction and lack of self-doubt; and need to surround himself with material signs of success, all smack of false confidence. Knowing that Trump seems to embody false confidence might just be the disincentive kids need to act like him.

 

About the Author 

Enrico GnaulatiEnrico Gnaulati Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, KPFA Berkeley, and online at the Atlantic and Salon. He is a nationally-recognized critic of mental health practice and policy and the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. His new book, Saving Talk Therapy: How Health Insurers, Big Pharma and Slanted Science are Ruining Good Mental Health Care, will be released by Beacon Press in January, 2018. Visit his website.

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