The US has a helplessness problem

A Satir Transformational Systems therapist weighs in on her country’s politics

Like many who spend the bulk of their time focusing on context and developing strategies in response to it — or in Super-Reasonable Coping as Virginia Satir would say — the Democrats have a helplessness problem.

As I watched the House Managers present their evidence to the Senate at Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial, I learned the truth and the scope of what happened in Washington, DC on January 6, right along with the Senate. The evidence was well presented, powerful, shocking, at times horrifying.

At the end of each day, however, I was dismayed to hear the pessimism of the Democratic lawmakers interviewed. They publicly expressed their belief — over and over again, from the very first day — that not enough Republican senators would be persuaded to vote to convict. Their allied pundits echoed them.

In the end, they were correct. My gut told me that the pessimism of the Democrats and their allies in the media became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The numerous and vocal statements about the Democrats’ lack of confidence in their Republican colleagues, even while they were presenting their case, denied the Republican senators their process. It interfered with the Republican senators’ chance to be persuaded, their chance to engage in the very personal reorganizational process that developing a new opinion requires. And it betrayed an unowned — and thus free floating, ready to land wherever and bring chaos with it — lack of confidence among the Democrats. More than lack of confidence, which is energetically indistinguishable from fear, it exposed Democrats’ feelings of helplessness.

The Democrats’ helplessness colluded with the Republicans’ helplessness (Bullies and their victims are always engaged in a hot-potato game with helplessness. A topic for another post). Neither group owned their darkest feelings. And legal proceedings are powerful triggers for helplessness.

We are animals after all. When we feel threatened (fear) — whether it is in the forest, in the street or in the courtroom — our bodies engage in the same physiological responses. Those neurotransmitters that flood our brains and trigger our muscles may be useful in the forest or even on the street, but in a courtroom they endanger us. What feeling does our animal-self feel in the arena of a courtroom, where brains, alliance and procedure rule the day? Helpless.

In a dramatic depiction of a similar time in our history, John Hancock said in the musical 1776 when casting the vote to agree with the need for unanimity on the vote for independence (and disappointing his allies): “either we all walk together, or together we must stay where we are!” Hancock was not stating his opinion. He was observing and giving voice to a universal truth. We would do well to understand that it applies to us now. Either we all go together, or together we must stay where we are. This is how society works.

Decisions that tap into — require our connection with and owning of — our deepest fears require bravery. One cannot be truly and powerfully brave without knowing and owning their fear and helplessness.

Some Republicans faced their own fear and voted accordingly. But even among those who have faced down many of their fears and reclaimed a perhaps slightly larger portion of their congruence — those leading this effort to hold Donald J. Trump accountable for his actions — helplessness remains largely unowned and floating free, or we would not be experiencing the situation as it is.

I’m also not here to judge the rightness of Republicans versus Democrats. We are more alike than different, and each of us is here to explore different, and important, challenges and vulnerabilities.

Of course, becoming more congruent or reclaiming our congruence (depending on how one wants to look at it) is our individual and collective lifelong task. We all have work to do. Let’s do it individually, then do it together. Every day. In fact, we are. Let’s remind ourselves that we need to develop tools to match our increasing sensitivity and sophistication.

The people we need to involve with this tool-development process may be quite unlike those to whom we have been accustomed to looking to for leadership. People who lead from congruence often don’t have a huge Twitter following. They may be quite human and humble, engaged in daily challenges — a word I prefer instead of “problems.” In fact, for those Biblically inclined, perhaps this is the energy to which the Beatitudes refer with the phrase “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the Earth (Matthew 5:5).”

Let’s invite everyone in, and sit with the energy they bring. They’re here anyway. And remember that no matter how we may disagree with them, they are entitled to their process.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Anne is a licensed mental health counselor in Iowa, US and a practitioner of Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy.

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