Referendum Therapy – Article

The referendum should carry a mental health warning. Feelings are running high with deception and exaggeration undermining politicians trust in each other and our trust in them.   We are scared that something precious is about to be destroyed.

We the voters are like children of high emotion parents (Euro mum and Bulldog dad) who shout at each other in front of us all the time about Bulldog Dad’s wish for a divorce.  We are filled with uncertainty and confusion as the day in court fast approaches.  The ruinous financial costs of the divorce are being side-stepped by Dad’s cunning plan to get us out of the neighbourhood and restore his manly national pride by living alone.

We need a new politics of listening.   Psychotherapy might help a little. Psychotherapy is about trust.   Without trust a real dialogue never develops, and honest decisions are never made.   It is the breakdown in trust between public and politician that is in the fore here in the UK and elsewhere.

Maverick politicians, such as Donald Trump in the USA and Boris Johnson in London, play fast and loose with language and feelings. They make their own rules based on interpreting and psychologising their opponents’ motives in ways that would immediately have any therapist out on their ear.

Considering what therapists do to build trust might help us address how to restore trust in the political process.  The risk of the current psycho-politics is that the promotion of confusion and anxiety becomes its currency and we begin to equate safety with simplicity, the wild action with the ‘true solution and respond to helplessness with a longing for a strong leader whose language speaks of certainty.

Sadly, the more restrained and honest politicians are pulled into this psycho-politics since it becomes the only way of being visible in the media.

What would a new politics of listening look like?  It would respond seriously to the conversation between the current politics of identity and nationalism and the psychology of living in complex and uncertain times.

The challenge for both individuals and societies is to be both local (from somewhere) and global (connected everywhere), to be at the same time one-sided and many-sided, diverse and integrated.   This double challenge faces outward across peoples and societies, and inward within individuals as we seek to live with our own individual mix of identities within a coherent personal narrative.   We are just beginning to learn to handle this socially and psychologically with each other and within ourselves.

At its best, a politics of identity is an open and compassionate conversation about a rich mix of communities, histories and loyalties; at its worst there is no safe conversation and the dialogue descends into prejudice, insularity and xenophobia.

We cannot make one group’s view of national identity the master that governs all our identities.  There are many ways to love England and weave the changing fabric of Englishness into society; it should not be hijacked by a narrow political ideology.  We are learning to accept and often embrace, the psychological complexity of being both English and European, a Londoner and a northerner, Polish and Nigerian living in the Midlands.

This extends several fold to our gender identities, sexualities, generational differences and variations in class, ethnicity, age and ability.  Such an openness demands a fairness to all groups.

The contrasting calls for a multi-cultural or integrated society are presented as an ‘either or’ choice, but we need both.  We struggle with the yearning for a good group as we learn to live in the spaces between and across groups.

This is a task that is too messy for resolution by the referendum vote where the first casualty is complexity.  The politicians have to show that complexity comes down to simple choices.   The media need sound bites.  Slogans and position-taking prevails.

If the issues are acknowledged to be complicated or uncertain, then there might be an inevitable admission that the ‘in/out’ logic of the referendum is not strong enough to help, and we need to enable a more complex political process.

Our psychological responses vary in the face of shame driven politics.  We hold back for fear of sounding stupid or being judged out of date or extreme.  Fear of shame can heighten our natural shyness and close us down.  We only share our opinions with like-minded people or not at all.     Or we become thick skinned and brazen.

Our politicians have been so hounded in recent decades that many have survived by becoming brazen.  They cope with the depths of shame by deflecting it on to others and dismissing their own shame by blaming outsiders.   They pretend to know nothing of our shyness, though no doubt, they can feel ashamed and vulnerable underneath.

Only the most brazen narcissist can trump the media.  Such a brazen quality breeds sociopathy in the politician.

Yet, when we and they are truly invited to stop and talk in a shame-free political environment, we are surprised by our eloquence and emotional availability.   This takes time and invites a politics of listening that doesn’t tick to the referendum deadline or the media clock.

Therapy tries to build a better emotional democracy in the individual.  For some of us, therapy is the first experience of stepping away from a dictatorship of emotions in childhood.  Without an emotional democracy in the individual, there is little chance of a social democracy in society.  You cannot be a voter in your head and a dictator in your heart.

Like therapy, this referendum confronts us with ourselves, our identities and our values.  But unlike therapy it does not give us the tools, the ethics or the space to negotiate.  It confronts us with what is fair and not fair within and between our social groups.  Perhaps most of all, it confronts us with democracy itself at a time when the drift to dictatorship and mafia states is alarming, when global institutions of governance are desperately required.

Democracy is a combination of many things, but at its heart is a conversation.  Democracy is a big conversation amid lots of little conversations.   A democratic society is a society in dialogue with itself.  Anyone who has lived in a society where freedom of speech is threatened or suppressed knows what damage that does psychologically and politically.

A democratic conversation demands curiosity, courage, compassion and a commitment to take time to talk with each other.    An inner democracy of emotions is the therapist’s quest. This should be joined by the politician’s quest for a social democracy of identities and communities in dialogue.

We can judge the spirit of a democratic society by the quality of the reflective conversations that its citizens expect, engage in and enjoy.   If the public spaces of politics are filled with the noise of slogans and shouting, then the intimate space for listening to our inner selves is diminished.

As a small contribution to this double dialogue between us and within us we have created a space to write referendum therapy letters as a framework for talking more fully about the choices and the feelings in the air (How to write a referendum therapy letter)

We need a new politics of listening attuned to more complex times where awareness of others interacts with awareness of ourselves.    It is one that seeks to restore trust in the political process and it begins with compassion and curiosity for each other’s hopes and fears. Not despite our differences of identity and allegiance, but because of them.

Steve Potter ©   1257 words (any comment on this article please email to)