Don't Get Caught in a Trump Complex

My advice to those profoundly disturbed by the election outcome: take a deep breath, remember the big picture, don’t give too much of your emotion to the very person you despise.

Psychotherapists and analysts are trained not to get caught in some highly emotional state that their client manifests. If you’re a therapist and your client is infatuated with you, the worst thing is to become charmed or have your own needs set afire by the passion in the room. There is a tendency to get caught, swept away, especially when your own needs are strong. You have to keep in mind what is going on. You’re there to help a person deal with emotions. You can’t help if you react with your own unleashed passions.

Today, days after the presidential election, I’m reminded of the lessons in countertransference, that problem of getting emotionally caught, that I teach my students. I meet many people who show a high degree of emotionalism in reaction to the election. Most people I hang around with are not in favor of a President Trump, and they’re beyond being in the dumps over the election. They’re in a state of heightened anxiety. Their descriptions of Mr. Trump seem to come from temporary insanity. They rant and spill their fears, showing no subtlety in their assessment of the situation.

Like people, a society can be neurotic on occasion. What I see today is a large-scale neurosis. As in any personal situation, the details are complicated. There may be a lot of truth in people’s fears and judgments, and yet they are enveloped in an excess of emotion and in language that shows little reflection and discernment.

What concerns me is that when an individual is caught in a complex, he or she can’t make a good analysis or effective decisions. Acting from unbridled passion can be dangerous or at least highly ineffective. The more you act from the complex, the worse the complex becomes. The more you do things to feed the complex, the more you are blinded by the passion.

Just ask anyone who has done foolish things out of jealousy. That is an example of a complex that inspires useless and sometimes dangerous reactions and feeds on itself. The same can be true of today’s “Trump Complex.” Some people are caught in the triumphalism of their win, blinded in their own manner by their joy. Others are deep in despair, so deep that it’s clear that they’ve left the shores of reasonableness.

Yes, the future could be dire. That means you have to be clear-headed and be able to differentiate real threat from imagined doom. Like an analyst, you have to remember your context and purpose. Your job isn’t to go crazy out of fear or loathing, but to assess your situation and figure out how best to respond.

It seemed to me that outrage over Mr. Trump’s indecent private comments were over-reaction. His outrageous “locker room talk” inspired an opposite extreme of righteous purity. Mr. Trump’s response made sense to me. Bill Clinton’s sexual wanderings and JFK’s uncaged eros don’t take anything away from their amazing contributions to American life. I remember defending Bill Clinton when it was obvious he couldn’t control himself.

Which leads to a related issue. As a voting Democrat, I’ve always tried to build bridges to Republicans. I treasure many friendships with people who are far away from me in political allegiance. I don’t look for common ground with them; I want to share a common humanity. I have real empathy for those who voted for Mr. Trump. I like these people, many of them. And I want to increase my contact with them and engage in open conversation with them. This is what it means to be American. We honor our differences.

Strong complexes often have another ingredient that makes them especially difficult to navigate. Every day we deal with situations in which we can be vulnerable to another person’s intelligence or standing. With your doctor, for instance, you can give away some power and control in the name of your health. You have to be careful not to give away too much. Some people give their doctors far too much power and authority.

Once in a while most of us find ourselves losing our power. This happens when a complex comes along and takes over. So one way to deal with one of these complexes is to get back in touch with your accustomed personal power and authority. Stop giving away too much of it.

I recommend this tactic for those who are in a pit of despair over the election. Go back to feeling your personal strength. In any area. Don’t collapse into your emotion. Remember that you and your community have your own important values and can find ways to implement them.

Remember how you deal with your doctor or lawyer. Do you have a tendency to surrender too far? That general habit may be implicated in your “Trump Complex.” It’s one thing to deal with a habit of submitting too much to an everyday authority, and another to get caught in social hysteria. Because the complex is shared by so many and has to do with the greater community, it may be more difficult to resist.

You may need to pull away from the setting for a while. Don’t feed the complex, though the masochist in you may crave more reason to be afraid or outraged. Don’t seek out friends who will share your complex with pleasure. That is neurotic satisfaction you’re feeling with your friend. Give it up.

I don’t mean that you should give in to the election results and be passive. Far from it. But there is a huge difference between acting out of the “Trump Complex” and boldly responding to a serious social problem. The former is satisfying in an empty way, and the latter is a real solution. Anything you do out of the complex will be at least partially unreal and an expression of some weak spot in yourself. Lose the complex, and your real power and clarity of thought are restored.

If you see a problem, think it through and do something about it. But don’t feed an emotional complex, manifesting as extreme despair or righteous anger. Be yourself, a feeling person but not a disturbed fanatic.

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