Coping with the Crisis: Tips on turning down the temperature

From daily shouting in the media, to recent letters to the Reporter, our discourse has never been uglier.

Intelligent and reasonable people are using the word “hate” to describe how they feel about people with opposite views. We now regularly use language that we would not tolerate from our young children and grandchildren to describe political leaders and people with whom we disagree. For many people this is a new experience and it does not feel good.

It has led us to be so polarized in this country that we only read or watch news we agree with. Confirmation bias, the tendency to only process information consistent with our views, has become a way of life. And clearly, while we have been isolating at home these months, our divisions have only become more entrenched — even formerly mild-mannered people are finding themselves feeling hatred.

Mental health professionals understand that anger and conflict are a part of living. Counseling seeks to find positive ways to understand and channel anger. But there is a difference between anger and hatred. In normal times, hatred would be regarded as a toxic emotion that needs to be eradicated. Now hatred is at new levels and it is hard to know how we can ever return. For most of us this ugliness feels destructive but we can’t seem to find a way out of it.

How can mental health professionals help people deal with such pervasive hatred? For one, help people recognize that these are not normal times. The last 3.5 years have been traumatic for many of us. Things will change, as they always do, but there are ways to help now.

For example, social media often fans the flames of hatred with back and forth insults with strangers. Is there anything to be gained by this? Is grabbing one’s phone first thing in the morning and reading it at every opportunity all day really good for one’s mental health?

Instead of reacting to everything all the time, silence and personal reflection is an old concept that seems to have gone the way of the rotary phone. With all the beauty around us on Shelter Island, we can try to escape the 24/7 news.

Finally, can polarized people have a productive conversation? The practice of conflict resolution helps people move beyond their “positions” to look at the needs and wishes that led them there.

Often a position is really the result of a fear or deep concern that crystallizes into something that looks cruel. For example, if two people were arguing about immigration, chances are that the person presenting the anti-immigration argument would not talk about their own economic uncertainties, but focus on the immigrant’s lack of right to be here.

Conversely, someone stating an honest pro-immigration stance could acknowledge their own immunity from any immigration impact. This way the conversation is less about “immigrants” and more about the speakers themselves.

This is true for so many of the issues that divide us. Generally people hostile to LGBTQ rights may not realize that they have positive interactions with gay people every day. By understanding where the other person is coming from, we may be better able to understand them even if we don’t agree with them.

If people actually listen to others’ needs, they have a better understanding of how those needs evolved. Most likely it won’t lead to agreement. But the hateful comments and rage might begin to subside. And, hopefully, in the future when life becomes normal again, a productive debate can become a possibility. Where better for this to occur than on Shelter Island?

Nancy Green is a retired social worker who spent 25 years specializing in conflict resolution at the United States Postal Service. She is a member of the Shelter Island Mental Health Group.