On Wednesday morning I dropped Mo at school with thoughts of the US election bubbling in my head. I imagined how it would feel watching Clinton accepting victory, a daydream which made me happily teary. Later I read encouraging articles about the record number of Hispanics voting against Trump, greedily gobbled up all election-related tweets, and followed a thread in a Facebook group populated mostly by Americans which explained how the electoral college process worked and kept me updated on what states Clinton needed to win. All the while I refreshed the Google page for ‘Election USA’, which showed a map of the US with each state coloured red or blue depending on who was leading there. The mood during the morning was hopeful; just before lunch (Sydney time) one member of the Facebook group wrote, “Trump is probably thinking he’s winning lol” and another, not long after, predicted that “this is the worst moment of the night for those supporting the blue team. When the big city votes come in I think it will look much more palatable.”
Over the next couple of hours, however, hope was replaced with increasing shock and despair. By school pick-up time, it was clear that Clinton’s victory speech would not be needed. I was devastated, and surprised by how much it hurt given the fact that I’m not American and Trump is literally #notmypresident. I was mostly gutted because I’m female, and I was desperate to see a powerful role going to a powerful woman, to prove that it was doable and that the times truly were a-changin’. I long for a day when a woman as president is not a news story.
One of Brené Brown’s suggestions that’s stuck with me since reading Rising Strong is the idea of starting vulnerable conversations with others about how you’re feeling with “The story I’m telling myself is…” I like how the phrase acknowledges that I may have misread a situation (thanks to my irritating tendency to interpret the confusing things others do and say as being a) caused by me and b) sure signs of my defectiveness) without diminishing the realness of my emotional reaction/s. For example, I could say to Alan, “I feel like you haven’t listened well to me this week. The story I’m telling myself is that it’s because you think I’m annoying and you don’t care about me.” And then he could respond by saying, “I’m sorry I haven’t listened well this week. I’ve been going to bed too late and work is overwhelming, so I’ve been tired and cranky. I don’t think you’re annoying, and I care about you a lot.” The story I told myself about Alan’s behaviour was all about me, whereas the actual story had far more to do with stress and a lack of sleep. The feelings still needed to be aired and processed, though.
I think this is a helpful way of talking about the election, too. The story I’m telling myself is that a woman wasn’t voted in because female is still (STILL!) seen as inferior to male by too many people in our world. The story I’m telling myself is that a lot of people thought that ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’, ‘sexual assault’ and ‘inexperience’ (among far too many other flaws) were preferable to ‘woman’. The story I’m telling myself is that my views must be in the minority and things will never change, that patriarchy will have the last word, that the struggle will continue for our daughters and their daughters and their daughters until humanity is wiped out in five billion years by a dead sun (or global warming or something… I did start reading more about possible ways it could all end, but I gave up; today I’m aiming for “relatively positive” and “anxiety-free”).
I’ve read enough analysis since Wednesday to know that sexism probably played a limited role in the election outcome. I think of Julia Gillard’s speech after losing the leadership spill in 2013 in which she said that her sex did not explain everything about the difficulties she faced as PM, nor did it explain nothing. It explained some things. Economics may have been the primary factor influencing those who voted for Trump, but I saw enough to know there were at least some who couldn’t bear the thought of a woman leading and being empowered to make (or uphold) decisions about womens’ bodies and rights. Sexism doesn’t explain everything about what happened in the US this week, but it explains some things and “some things” is enough to cause deep pain. (I’m also aware that Trump’s harmful views on those who aren’t male, white, cisgender, straight, Christian, able-bodied, etc. would cut far more deeply if I didn’t tick almost all of these boxes. I still experience a level of privilege others don’t, and I can only imagine, therefore, what the combination of insults would mean for the tummies and hearts of people in the many groups Trump offended, if mine feel this awful.)
So the stories I’m telling myself about the outcome may not be entirely accurate (certainly none of it is about me), but there’s some truth in them, and my feelings about them are valid.
I’m currently training to work as a volunteer on a crisis support phone line, for which we’re taught a model that is three-fifths listening and understanding and two-fifths problem-solving and plan-making. Three-fifths may not sound like much, but it takes effort to stick to; my natural inclination is one-fifth listening, four-fifths fixing. My biggest challenge in training has been to not rush too quickly to the solutions and the silver lining, but to sit in the yukkiness for longer than feels comfortable so the caller can purge and feel like they’re not alone in/with their big feelings.
Since the election, I’ve noticed how quickly people’s reactions have been dismissed, how unwilling many are to sit in the hard places with those whose stories about the outcome are hurting them. “It’s okay because God’s in control!” some say (as if reassuring us that God is also on Trump’s side will make us feel less like dying). “The sun will still come out tomorrow!” chirp others (thanks so much, guys! I’d briefly forgotten how science worked! My bad). “It’s not about race!” was a loud and repeated response to Van Jones’ emotional speech. I heard a journalist on the radio last night saying it certainly wasn’t sexism that got Trump elected, as if she was tired of hearing this argument. And “This wouldn’t have happened if Bernie Sanders was the candidate!” may or may not be true, but only acknowledges half of my disappointment; for me the election was less The Republicans vs. The Democrats and more The Misogynist vs. The First Female President of the United States. (I imagine that for others it was The One Who Talked About Walls vs. The One Who Talked About Bridges, or Supported by the KKK vs. Not Supported by the KKK, or Anti-Abortion vs. Abortion Rights, or - importantly, it seems - Something Radically Different vs. More of the Same. Everyone saw the election through their particular lens.)
Whatever the election result was actually driven by, the feelings I have about the stories I’m telling myself are real and (mostly) rational, and they need to be allowed and heard and validated, as do everyone else’s, closer to three-fifths of the time. As nice as rushing to the positives and the planning (Michelle Obama 2020!) feels, the reaction to “The story I’m telling myself is…” should never be, “Well, your story sucks. Get over it.” This is a chance to work on checking your privilege, understanding others’ hurts and fears and hopes and desires, and practicing extreme-sport-level empathy. I’m going to need to feel sad for a little bit longer, and I’m going to need you to be okay with that.