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Why Am I So Angry? Lessons from the Therapy Office for Talking Politics

After the 2016 presidential election, something happened in my therapy room that had never happened before: patients1 began to talk about politics. It certainly was a divisive election, arguably splitting the country—and evangelicals—in two. But never before, at least for me, had the outside world of politics become the inside work of therapy.

Several themes emerged over and over again in my practice. First, conservative patients seemed to believe that I was liberal, while liberal patients seemed to assume I was progressive. Second, women, especially those with sexual trauma histories, were experiencing feelings of disbelief, anxiety, fear, and grief. They wondered what kind of world this would be if misogyny was the new norm. Third, patients of color were not surprised and seemed humored that “liberal” white people were now seeing the hidden racism that was there all along. Fourth, people were divided. Not only was the nation divided, but so were organizations, churches, and even families. Evangelicals on both sides felt betrayed by their own tribe. Many patients admitted they couldn’t talk to friends, fellow churchgoers, or family members for fear of conflict. Neither side seemed capable of even understanding one another and fewer seemed inclined to try. Everyone was just so mad!

As a therapist, I was feeling things as well. I didn’t care for people making assumptions about my beliefs (this is not infrequent in therapy), and I felt grieved for my female patients and patients of color. A disturbing issue for me, however, was when I noticed that I, too, could and did become angry. I may not have always shown it (at least I tried not to), but I could be incensed by a patient’s story regarding political shaming or abuse. Or I might become silently enraged by a patient’s personal opinion that was diametrically opposed to mine.

This might come as a shock to some, but therapists are human, too, and have all the same feelings as non-therapists, even when conducting therapy. Our feelings tell us important things about ourselves and our patients, and we attempt to use these feelings in the service of the therapy and not be used by them in countertherapeutic ways. The questions therapists must ask include: What do we do when we are angry with a patient, or when we can’t even understand why they think what they do? Are there ways of thinking, feeling, and reframing a situation in such a way that we can continue to do good work with people we disagree with but are also deeply committed to helping? Can we keep talking when talking seems like the last thing anyone wants to do?

As a therapist who is Christian, I began to wonder what, if anything, did all this have to do with “loving our enemies” and “praying for those who persecute us.” It didn’t seem like any of us were loving or praying but rather shaming and insulting one another, while calling into question one another’s intelligence and moral character. 

Why are we so mad?

There is perhaps nothing like the anger and outright vitriol that emerge when people talk politics, and it only seems to be getting worse. Lillian Mason,2 a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, summarizes research demonstrating that (a) political partisans negatively stereotyping one another has increased by 50 percent from 1960 to 2010, (b) a 2012 study demonstrated that partisans viewed the other party as extreme while they considered their party not extreme at all, (c) a study in 2016 revealed that for the first time in more than 20 years, members of each party held very unfavorable views of the other, and (d) party members don’t want their party to compromise, but if they do, they believe their party should get the best of the deal. Mason postulates that when it comes to partisan politics, parties have confused “opponent” with “enemy.” Parties today, she observes, seem more intent on beating the other party—their enemy—than even winning so that they may enact their policies. Partisan politics in the United States has reached a new level: parties are more motivated to beat the enemy than to work for the common good.3

In the psychological literature, experimental existentialism has done the best job of describing this phenomenon. Richard Beck summarizes this body of literature, suggesting that politics are one part of our cultural hero system that bolsters individual self-esteem and enables one to feel part of something that will live on after they are gone (see Beck’s article on p. 70). We all unknowingly engage in these hero systems, or “immortality projects,” to manage our fear of meaninglessness, insignificance, and death. If our hero system becomes challenged by another (think Democrat vs. Republican), our self-esteem is placed in jeopardy (i.e., what if my way is wrong?) and we then engage in
“worldview defense.” Here we double down on our beliefs and villainize the “other.” In the worst-case scenario we don’t argue the issues, but instead question the moral character of the other. Our identities are deeply informed and defined by our personal politics. Because our identities are involved, not to mention our self-esteem, politics becomes psychologically personal, even while we tell ourselves we are interested in the issues. The divide grows, we protect ourselves more by lashing out, and the conversation around the family Thanksgiving table becomes more and more tense.

Can we be less mad?

Given these psychological and sociopolitical reasons for our anger, what are we to do? Obviously partisan politics in itself is not necessarily bad, and conflict and struggle are central aspects of democracy. But is there a way, especially for Christians, to be more hospitable, less villainizing, and simply kinder when we talk politics? Perhaps there are lessons from the therapy room that may help us manage political conflict (as well as other kinds) when it arises, both inside and outside the therapy office.

Murray Bowen was a family therapist who studied self-differentiation in families. Self-differentiation is an internal human capacity to separate thinking from feeling and balance intimacy and separateness in relationships, especially in emotionally charged interactions. Bowen hypothesized that families passed down emotional illness through the generations when suffering from low levels of self-
differentiation. In a family with high levels of self-differentiation, thinking and feeling could co-occur—even in highly emotional situations—without one overwhelming the other. In other words, the “emotional” part of the brain (usually associated with the amygdala) did not become so activated that it literally overpowered the “thinking” part of the brain (usually associated with the frontal cortex).4 Individuals with high self-differentiation maintained a sense of themselves and emotional stability even when others were threatening or attacking their perspective. These people didn’t easily become tangled up in the emotions of others. In contrast, poor self-differentiation was visible in a person who was highly susceptible to taking on the emotions of others, thus losing their sense of themselves and becoming emotionally dysregulated when challenged. All persons exist somewhere on a continuum of low to high self-
differentiation. Perhaps most interesting, high self-differentiation has been experimentally linked to issues of virtue and Christian maturity, such as forgiveness, gratitude, hope, spiritual well-being, and humility.5

Imagine this scenario during a political discussion: When poorly differentiated people clash, instead of maintaining a sense of themselves and regulating their emotions, they engage in “worldview defense” (e.g., verbally fighting to prove their opinion is correct), experience emotional dysregulation, take things too personally, and lose all capacity for empathy. Once empathy is lost, neither person can even begin to understand the other. They fight to protect their hero system and to gain their emotional equilibrium, but of course this never goes well. To escape this vicious cycle, the individuals in conflict must first become aware of their feelings long enough to avoid automatically responding. This is what is referred to as emotional regulation. A self-differentiated person can still feel angry but is able to “hold onto themselves” and their opinion (when feeling attacked), not take things too personally, nor feel threatened that what the other person says is gospel truth. They can feel their emotions, tolerate them, and regulate them so as not to respond in automatic anger. Just as important, they can also tolerate allowing the other to have their opinion. In doing this, the highly differentiated person is able to have empathy for the other.

In therapy, when a patient begins to rant about something that I disagree with, I might sense my blood beginning to boil, feel threatened, and start to have a desire to prove the patient wrong. But recognizing in the moment that my worldview and self-esteem are being threatened allows me the opportunity for a different response. With time and practice (meaning, we all can become more self-differentiated), I can recognize the emotions involved and obtain some distance from them. Even though the patient might be inadvertently or even purposefully attacking something I believe, it doesn’t mean I am necessarily wrong, nor that I am stupid or morally bankrupt. I can hold onto myself and my opinion and in so doing, I don’t need to counterattack. In essence, I learn to regulate my feelings and not act on them in damaging ways. I keep thinking and feeling and managing connectedness and separateness. If I do this successfully, I can remain in the conversation, utilizing empathy to better understand how the patient feels.

How to return to empathy

The reason we can’t even “understand” why the other feels what they do is because we have lost our empathy for that person, due to our focus on defending our worldview and self-esteem. If we can hold on to our self-esteem and worldview without becoming defensive, we can move back into a position of empathy. We can ask and explore with the other why they feel what they do, moving toward some understanding. Having empathy for another is not to agree with them but simply to understand. Also note that I am saying why they “feel” the way they do, not why they “believe” what they do. This is because it is the feeling under the belief that is most important. Someone may believe something primarily because of fear. They may cling to a policy that you find abhorrent not because they are actually a terrible person, but because they are anxious and afraid of something. Think about how frequently politicians prey on our fears. Our fears are then turned into partisan beliefs that protect us from anxiety—and anyone who doesn’t feel the same we label an idiot.

Imagine this common example: Two family members are talking politics and their beliefs start to collide. Because of a lack of self-differentiation, they both begin to feel defensive. Their self-esteem is being weakened, so they engage in worldview defense, subsequently attacking and “othering” one another. Their conversation degenerates to attacking one another’s moral character, even to the point of questioning one another’s Christianity. Sound familiar?

But what if one of the participants could say to himself or herself, “Wait, I’m feeling angry and defensive, and I’m automatically counterattacking and belittling my family member. I’ve lost empathy for them and consequently can’t even understand how or why they might believe what they believe. But I don’t have to defend myself to this person; I’m not what or who they say I am. I don’t have to agree with them to return to empathy, which doesn’t mean agreeing with their position, but allows me to understand what they feel even if I have a hard time understanding what they believe.”

What if instead of countering our family member’s argument we ask them, “Why is this important to you?” or “You seem to feel strongly (e.g., afraid, anxious, passionate, upset) about this; help me understand.” Isn’t it possible that the outcome of the conversation might be different?

As a therapist I am not naïve. I know that this is easier said than done. This kind of self-differentiation requires practice and patience, as well as community support from others who are trying to find a different way without mudslinging and othering. It almost sounds like “loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.” In reality, these people are not our enemies. As Mason said above, they may be our opponents but this doesn’t mean they are enemies—or that they cease being our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sometimes it isn’t we who get upset, it’s the other person. But in both cases, I’m reminded of what Paul writes in Philippians 2: We are to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and humbled himself even to death on a cross. Jesus’ self-emptying didn’t make him less Jesus. It didn’t mean he gave up his perspective or mission. And it certainly didn’t mean he agreed with everyone. What his self-emptying did show was that he could see and put the other first, empathize with them, and understand their fear and anxiety without questioning their intellectual or moral character. In fact, he identified (in other words, empathized) so much with us that he died to deliver us from what caused our pain. Following Jesus’ example in this is not an easy task; it will take practice, support from others, and maybe a little therapy. It is a Christian imperative, however, that we find a way to engage in the self-emptying path of Christ, by becoming more differentiated in order to love one another. If we do, maybe we will stop being so mad all the time.

Written By

Brad D. Strawn is the Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of the Integration of Psychology and Theology and Chair of Integration, Department of Clinical Psychology, in Fuller’s School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. His most recent book is Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community (IVP Academic, 2020), coauthored with Fuller’s Warren S. Brown. He is also the coeditor of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation (InterVarsity Press, 2014) and coauthor of The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

After the 2016 presidential election, something happened in my therapy room that had never happened before: patients1 began to talk about politics. It certainly was a divisive election, arguably splitting the country—and evangelicals—in two. But never before, at least for me, had the outside world of politics become the inside work of therapy.

Several themes emerged over and over again in my practice. First, conservative patients seemed to believe that I was liberal, while liberal patients seemed to assume I was progressive. Second, women, especially those with sexual trauma histories, were experiencing feelings of disbelief, anxiety, fear, and grief. They wondered what kind of world this would be if misogyny was the new norm. Third, patients of color were not surprised and seemed humored that “liberal” white people were now seeing the hidden racism that was there all along. Fourth, people were divided. Not only was the nation divided, but so were organizations, churches, and even families. Evangelicals on both sides felt betrayed by their own tribe. Many patients admitted they couldn’t talk to friends, fellow churchgoers, or family members for fear of conflict. Neither side seemed capable of even understanding one another and fewer seemed inclined to try. Everyone was just so mad!

As a therapist, I was feeling things as well. I didn’t care for people making assumptions about my beliefs (this is not infrequent in therapy), and I felt grieved for my female patients and patients of color. A disturbing issue for me, however, was when I noticed that I, too, could and did become angry. I may not have always shown it (at least I tried not to), but I could be incensed by a patient’s story regarding political shaming or abuse. Or I might become silently enraged by a patient’s personal opinion that was diametrically opposed to mine.

This might come as a shock to some, but therapists are human, too, and have all the same feelings as non-therapists, even when conducting therapy. Our feelings tell us important things about ourselves and our patients, and we attempt to use these feelings in the service of the therapy and not be used by them in countertherapeutic ways. The questions therapists must ask include: What do we do when we are angry with a patient, or when we can’t even understand why they think what they do? Are there ways of thinking, feeling, and reframing a situation in such a way that we can continue to do good work with people we disagree with but are also deeply committed to helping? Can we keep talking when talking seems like the last thing anyone wants to do?

As a therapist who is Christian, I began to wonder what, if anything, did all this have to do with “loving our enemies” and “praying for those who persecute us.” It didn’t seem like any of us were loving or praying but rather shaming and insulting one another, while calling into question one another’s intelligence and moral character. 

Why are we so mad?

There is perhaps nothing like the anger and outright vitriol that emerge when people talk politics, and it only seems to be getting worse. Lillian Mason,2 a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, summarizes research demonstrating that (a) political partisans negatively stereotyping one another has increased by 50 percent from 1960 to 2010, (b) a 2012 study demonstrated that partisans viewed the other party as extreme while they considered their party not extreme at all, (c) a study in 2016 revealed that for the first time in more than 20 years, members of each party held very unfavorable views of the other, and (d) party members don’t want their party to compromise, but if they do, they believe their party should get the best of the deal. Mason postulates that when it comes to partisan politics, parties have confused “opponent” with “enemy.” Parties today, she observes, seem more intent on beating the other party—their enemy—than even winning so that they may enact their policies. Partisan politics in the United States has reached a new level: parties are more motivated to beat the enemy than to work for the common good.3

In the psychological literature, experimental existentialism has done the best job of describing this phenomenon. Richard Beck summarizes this body of literature, suggesting that politics are one part of our cultural hero system that bolsters individual self-esteem and enables one to feel part of something that will live on after they are gone (see Beck’s article on p. 70). We all unknowingly engage in these hero systems, or “immortality projects,” to manage our fear of meaninglessness, insignificance, and death. If our hero system becomes challenged by another (think Democrat vs. Republican), our self-esteem is placed in jeopardy (i.e., what if my way is wrong?) and we then engage in
“worldview defense.” Here we double down on our beliefs and villainize the “other.” In the worst-case scenario we don’t argue the issues, but instead question the moral character of the other. Our identities are deeply informed and defined by our personal politics. Because our identities are involved, not to mention our self-esteem, politics becomes psychologically personal, even while we tell ourselves we are interested in the issues. The divide grows, we protect ourselves more by lashing out, and the conversation around the family Thanksgiving table becomes more and more tense.

Can we be less mad?

Given these psychological and sociopolitical reasons for our anger, what are we to do? Obviously partisan politics in itself is not necessarily bad, and conflict and struggle are central aspects of democracy. But is there a way, especially for Christians, to be more hospitable, less villainizing, and simply kinder when we talk politics? Perhaps there are lessons from the therapy room that may help us manage political conflict (as well as other kinds) when it arises, both inside and outside the therapy office.

Murray Bowen was a family therapist who studied self-differentiation in families. Self-differentiation is an internal human capacity to separate thinking from feeling and balance intimacy and separateness in relationships, especially in emotionally charged interactions. Bowen hypothesized that families passed down emotional illness through the generations when suffering from low levels of self-
differentiation. In a family with high levels of self-differentiation, thinking and feeling could co-occur—even in highly emotional situations—without one overwhelming the other. In other words, the “emotional” part of the brain (usually associated with the amygdala) did not become so activated that it literally overpowered the “thinking” part of the brain (usually associated with the frontal cortex).4 Individuals with high self-differentiation maintained a sense of themselves and emotional stability even when others were threatening or attacking their perspective. These people didn’t easily become tangled up in the emotions of others. In contrast, poor self-differentiation was visible in a person who was highly susceptible to taking on the emotions of others, thus losing their sense of themselves and becoming emotionally dysregulated when challenged. All persons exist somewhere on a continuum of low to high self-
differentiation. Perhaps most interesting, high self-differentiation has been experimentally linked to issues of virtue and Christian maturity, such as forgiveness, gratitude, hope, spiritual well-being, and humility.5

Imagine this scenario during a political discussion: When poorly differentiated people clash, instead of maintaining a sense of themselves and regulating their emotions, they engage in “worldview defense” (e.g., verbally fighting to prove their opinion is correct), experience emotional dysregulation, take things too personally, and lose all capacity for empathy. Once empathy is lost, neither person can even begin to understand the other. They fight to protect their hero system and to gain their emotional equilibrium, but of course this never goes well. To escape this vicious cycle, the individuals in conflict must first become aware of their feelings long enough to avoid automatically responding. This is what is referred to as emotional regulation. A self-differentiated person can still feel angry but is able to “hold onto themselves” and their opinion (when feeling attacked), not take things too personally, nor feel threatened that what the other person says is gospel truth. They can feel their emotions, tolerate them, and regulate them so as not to respond in automatic anger. Just as important, they can also tolerate allowing the other to have their opinion. In doing this, the highly differentiated person is able to have empathy for the other.

In therapy, when a patient begins to rant about something that I disagree with, I might sense my blood beginning to boil, feel threatened, and start to have a desire to prove the patient wrong. But recognizing in the moment that my worldview and self-esteem are being threatened allows me the opportunity for a different response. With time and practice (meaning, we all can become more self-differentiated), I can recognize the emotions involved and obtain some distance from them. Even though the patient might be inadvertently or even purposefully attacking something I believe, it doesn’t mean I am necessarily wrong, nor that I am stupid or morally bankrupt. I can hold onto myself and my opinion and in so doing, I don’t need to counterattack. In essence, I learn to regulate my feelings and not act on them in damaging ways. I keep thinking and feeling and managing connectedness and separateness. If I do this successfully, I can remain in the conversation, utilizing empathy to better understand how the patient feels.

How to return to empathy

The reason we can’t even “understand” why the other feels what they do is because we have lost our empathy for that person, due to our focus on defending our worldview and self-esteem. If we can hold on to our self-esteem and worldview without becoming defensive, we can move back into a position of empathy. We can ask and explore with the other why they feel what they do, moving toward some understanding. Having empathy for another is not to agree with them but simply to understand. Also note that I am saying why they “feel” the way they do, not why they “believe” what they do. This is because it is the feeling under the belief that is most important. Someone may believe something primarily because of fear. They may cling to a policy that you find abhorrent not because they are actually a terrible person, but because they are anxious and afraid of something. Think about how frequently politicians prey on our fears. Our fears are then turned into partisan beliefs that protect us from anxiety—and anyone who doesn’t feel the same we label an idiot.

Imagine this common example: Two family members are talking politics and their beliefs start to collide. Because of a lack of self-differentiation, they both begin to feel defensive. Their self-esteem is being weakened, so they engage in worldview defense, subsequently attacking and “othering” one another. Their conversation degenerates to attacking one another’s moral character, even to the point of questioning one another’s Christianity. Sound familiar?

But what if one of the participants could say to himself or herself, “Wait, I’m feeling angry and defensive, and I’m automatically counterattacking and belittling my family member. I’ve lost empathy for them and consequently can’t even understand how or why they might believe what they believe. But I don’t have to defend myself to this person; I’m not what or who they say I am. I don’t have to agree with them to return to empathy, which doesn’t mean agreeing with their position, but allows me to understand what they feel even if I have a hard time understanding what they believe.”

What if instead of countering our family member’s argument we ask them, “Why is this important to you?” or “You seem to feel strongly (e.g., afraid, anxious, passionate, upset) about this; help me understand.” Isn’t it possible that the outcome of the conversation might be different?

As a therapist I am not naïve. I know that this is easier said than done. This kind of self-differentiation requires practice and patience, as well as community support from others who are trying to find a different way without mudslinging and othering. It almost sounds like “loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.” In reality, these people are not our enemies. As Mason said above, they may be our opponents but this doesn’t mean they are enemies—or that they cease being our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sometimes it isn’t we who get upset, it’s the other person. But in both cases, I’m reminded of what Paul writes in Philippians 2: We are to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and humbled himself even to death on a cross. Jesus’ self-emptying didn’t make him less Jesus. It didn’t mean he gave up his perspective or mission. And it certainly didn’t mean he agreed with everyone. What his self-emptying did show was that he could see and put the other first, empathize with them, and understand their fear and anxiety without questioning their intellectual or moral character. In fact, he identified (in other words, empathized) so much with us that he died to deliver us from what caused our pain. Following Jesus’ example in this is not an easy task; it will take practice, support from others, and maybe a little therapy. It is a Christian imperative, however, that we find a way to engage in the self-emptying path of Christ, by becoming more differentiated in order to love one another. If we do, maybe we will stop being so mad all the time.

Strawn,Brad-Integration-of-Psychology&Theology-Chair

Brad D. Strawn is the Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of the Integration of Psychology and Theology and Chair of Integration, Department of Clinical Psychology, in Fuller’s School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. His most recent book is Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community (IVP Academic, 2020), coauthored with Fuller’s Warren S. Brown. He is also the coeditor of Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation (InterVarsity Press, 2014) and coauthor of The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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After examining models for integrating psychology and Christian faith, Strawn discusses  integration as process, relational, dialogical, and intrapersonal.