The election of the President of the United States, a process that now essentially goes on continually, is not just the selection of a Public Servant. It is the appointment of the Head of State, the Commander-in-Chief, our leader, a human symbol of our Republic, a spokesperson for our wants and needs, a parent/grandparent-in-chief – the American substitute for royalty.
We all grow up with stories and fairy tales involving royalty, nobility, superheroes, and men and women who have larger-than-life qualities, talents and powers. We all secretly long to have such a person in our lives – directly and personally, or indirectly, such as in the person of the President.
Politicians and their campaign management are aware of these fantasies especially when trying to woo the undecided voter. All candidates on the Presidential level are overtly or covertly portrayed as individuals who, indeed, have those almost super-human traits to solve our problems, comfort our worries and lead us to glory.
Through a process I call “shared omnipotence” we are led and tempted to embrace the magical idea that if only our candidate wins this highest office, we will, essentially, live happily ever after.
No one has ever lived happily ever after. It’s not just that you don’t always get what you want, but on a realistic level, you don’t ever get what you want.
This election has involved more powerful efforts than ever to portray each of the two major candidates as possessing traits and powers, and reflecting goals and ambitions, that exceed any human capability. Each campaign attempted to portray the opponent as the furthest, lowest human being from that epitome of virtue.
This is not to get into the politics of the election or to imply that there was an equivalence of efforts by both parties in either the positive or negative directions. However, the psychological impact has been intense.
After most elections, after the winning candidate takes office and his or her humanity and lack of superpower attributes becomes clear, there is a period of disappointment, that often impacts the next political cycle, fairly or unfairly.
In this election, the stakes were unusually high and the claims of moral superiority and strength and allegations of the opponent’s moral inferiority and weakness were increased exponentially.
Thus, it was inevitable that whichever candidate lost, in addition to very real practical concerns that their supports may have, the defeated partisans were destined not just to feel the grief and disappointment of losing an election, but (on a conscious or unconscious) level to experience a devastating loss of the hope of “returning” to a magical realm of “Shared Omnipotence”, safety, and expectations that life would now go on happily ever after.
Without minimizing the very real political issues that were at stake in this election as well as the reasonable and exaggerated fears that each side harbored about their opponent (again, not to necessarily imply an equivalency), it was essentially inevitable that the losing partisans in this election would be prone to feelings of horrific loss, denigration and danger – engendering sadness, anger, rage and not infrequently, some degree of depression.
In dealing with that depression and related emotions, it is important to realistically appraise how to cope with the political reality of the situation. Which indeed may carry significant practical consequences. It is also important to recognize and mourn the loss of the fantasy – a fantasy that in actuality was never going to be fully requited regardless of the outcome of the election.
Already, we are seeing analysis attributing the results of the election to different groups – demographic, ethnic, regional – or to different persons/parties who impacted the election process such as the press, social media, and the FBI.
Politically and statistically, it is certainly valid to consider the contributions of those groups and entities to the election process and outcome. However, on a personal basis, over-focus on those issues can lead to scapegoating, misplaced rage, over-generalization, or even a tinge of paranoia – none of which actually aids in resolving depression.
On a personal level, to maintain perspective and emotional stability, it is far better to realize that very simply, each person, as an individual, is responsible for his or her vote (or declining to vote). In addition, by-and-large, each individual had a unique, personal combination of reasons for arriving at that decision, logical or illogical, rational or irrational, moral or amoral.
With that understanding, it is easier to cut through the unrealistic fantasies and, without necessarily being happy or comfortable with the results of the election, to allow oneself to experience appropriate gratitude, remorse, or grief. You can then move on, without emotional turmoil or agitation, without falling into depression or maladaptive behaviors, to stand up for your personal beliefs reasonably, adaptively and constructively – whichever side of the of the political battle you were on.
David M. Reiss, M.D. is a psychiatrist from San Diego, CA.