Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Practicing Forgiveness for the Holiday Season With Barbara J. Hunt
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 445 of Live Happy Now. Studies show that our world is becoming less optimistic, but this week’s guest believes we can change that.
I’m your host Paula Felps. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Emily Bashah, a psychologist whose private practice specializes in mental illness, collective trauma, grief, and relationship dynamics. She’s also co-host of the Optimistic American Podcast, where she and co-host, Paul Johnson, strive to create space for a positive and hopeful view of America and help us feel more optimistic about the future.
Emily’s here with me today to talk about why we’re feeling less optimistic these days, what we can do about it, and importantly, how we can make it through the holiday season with our optimism intact. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:53] PF: Emily, thank you for joining me here today.
[00:00:55] EB: Thank you so much, Paula. I’m really excited about your mission, and learning more about you, and what you’re contributing to positivity and optimism through your podcast. So thank you.
[00:01:07] PF: Well, I’m excited about everything that you have going on, and we’re going to talk about the Optimistic American movement and also how this relates to the holidays. But I wanted to know, in your private practice with everything that’s going on in the world today, how do you see that affecting, say, your client’s optimism?
[00:01:26] EB: I see people going in one of two directions. Either they’re totally closing themself off from the world and shutting people out and really focusing on living a day-to-day existence with what am I trying to accomplish today and really in a survival mode. Then to the other extreme, absorbing everything, impacted by everything, very distressed, highly anxious, more and more paranoid and concerned about what is happening in the world today, feeling more despair, a sense of hopelessness. Helplessness is quite big and grief-stricken, honestly.
[00:02:10] PF: So is it more than you had seen in the past?
[00:02:14] EB: I think it’s kind of this continuation that we’ve seen from COVID and rising impacts of extremism that is happening nationally, ever-changing polarization in politics that’s happening in our nation. That’s creating more of a rise of tension and hate and a divide and trying to classify people into these groups of are you my friend or my foe because you can’t – you have to be an either one of those two categories. There isn’t any –
[00:02:49] PF: There’s no in-between anymore.
[00:02:51] EB: There’s no in-between anymore, and it’s wild to me just to see that people are even allowing themselves to force people into those categories, where really they know nothing about different issues, aren’t educated about the different issues, don’t really care to be more educated about the different issues, and yet are willing to go that extra mile in forcing people into these real black and white categorizations and allowing themselves to be skewed and misinformed by propaganda.
That really is concerning for me, especially for young people today. I think that a lot of it adds to this rise of despair and a sense of victimhood or fear and wanting to make sense of things that just seem so senseless.
[00:03:50] PF: What you have described is such a true depiction of what our society looks like today, and that’s it’s bleak. When you lay it out like that, that just feels really, really bleak. I know your Optimistic American movement is meant to counter that. So before we kind of dig into how it’s doing that, tell us what it is, and please tell me how it started.
[00:04:13] EB: Yes. So my partner, Paul Johnson, was the former Mayor of Phoenix. Him and I co-authored the book called Addictive Ideologies: Finding Meaning and Agency When Politics Fail You. We were really inspired by this book and wanted to really help people focus on how can they preserve their own agency and power and a sense of control in their life in taking responsibility and accountability for what is within their own power. There’s so much more there than I think people in general are willing to see and practice.
So we used a lot of psychological theory and things that I’ve learned throughout my private practice in clinical and forensic work that I’ve done, how people facing death penalties or facing life sentences have found ways to completely transform their lives, knowing that there’s no hope in getting out of prison. But yet we compelled by finding meaning, purpose, and value in the life that they had, despite facing a life of incarceration.
We looked at my parents’ story surviving persecution out of Iraq as Jews. We studied genocides across the world and really searching for answers and trying to understand what are the main tenets behind extremism and terrorism. So the latter half of our book, we really highlight these seven ideals and finding meaning, not necessarily happiness. Looking for the we, not necessarily the me. We co-host these podcasts where we’ve branched out some of these different teachings and looked at different social issues and dissected them and talking about how people can remain optimistic, hopeful, and practicing agency in their lives today.
[00:06:19] PF: So why is optimism important. Like from a mental health perspective, what does it do, and why do we need to really focus on regaining that optimism? Because I know a lot of people who are really not optimistic right now.
[00:06:33] EB: The doom and the gloom and the terror and the grief can be so overcoming. I think you don’t have to look too far on social media or the news to feel really overcome by despair. So we have to really work even harder at protecting optimism. Of course, there’s so much research there on stress and how that affects one’s mental health, especially if it’s chronic and prolonged. If people are feeling helpless and there’s no way out. Or they have a sense of a victimhood.
That has detrimental effects on cardiovascular disease, on the way that your brain operates, and how neurons are firing, and also chronic fatigue, and how you’re sleeping and whether or not you’re self-medicating with substances or other cognitive distortions that are impacting you from really being able to think clearly and reason, think sensibly. There’s something called the amygdala hijack. I think it’s really important to know if you’re allowing yourself to be viewing or seeing a lot of imagery, and you’re – that’s making you go into this fight, flight, freeze response. It’s activating your limbic system in the brain. It’s a very primitive part of our brain. It’s necessary for survival.
But if you’re operating on that or allowing yourself to be manipulated by social media and things that you’re watching, that you can’t really utilize your frontal lobe to the best capacity at that point because your reasoning is being overrided essentially. You can’t think clearly about consequences of your decisions. You can’t make good, rational, sound judgment. You’re going to be more impulsive.
That can be okay in the short term, especially when you have this heightened sense of threat that you need to protect yourself. But when that is chronic and it’s prolonged and it’s chronically activated, that’s going to lead to all kinds of physiological, mental, and emotional dysfunction and have some really serious long-term consequences.
[00:08:51] PF: The holidays are coming. So we know that adds more stress, a little bit more anxiety. A lot of that anxiety that I’m hearing about now is because people are going to be dealing with family members who are also divided. So as we enter this holiday time, first of all, how do we just remain optimistic for ourselves? Before we even get to the dinners that we have to sit down and survive, how do we do that? How do we have an optimism practice, if you will?
[00:09:22] EB: Yes. I would say be courageous and have faith and belief in yourself that you’re going to be able to get through it. Rather than looking for the doom and gloom, look for things that inspire you. Look for the opportunity to learn something new from someone else that you disagree with, while still remaining open to them. That can be challenging, but you’re also going to be building your struggle muscles and being able to tolerate the discomfort as you’re hearing a different opinion or something that you disagree with, and that’s okay.
What it’s doing and saying is you’re strong enough to have some difficult conversations and in a respectful way and still preserving the peace and joy and prosperity and gratitude, which is what the holidays are about. I would say think really intentionally about what you are, one, really grateful for. Really practice and embody that in your life, and commit to doing something that is uncomfortable, whether it’s opening yourself up to learning more about a family member that you just have a difficult time accepting or you have a different point of view.
I mean, if it’s really bad and you think, “Okay, this – we shouldn’t be having these conversations at the dinner table because this is just going to get into a full-blown extremist ideological rant,” and that can happen. I would say equip yourself with some knowledge or maybe go-tos. If a person is really radical in their beliefs, know what is off-topic or try to put those topics off the dinner table. You could say, “Hey, I really respect and appreciate your opinion on this. Can we get together maybe for coffee and talk about it more?” Or just shift the subject to something that you know is going to bring you and that person more together like their children or their new job or their pet or a hobby or interest that you share. Something else that you know is going to get them off that topic.
So you might have to be really strategic here. Know who you’re speaking to and going into those events, knowing what you’re wanting to get out of. If it’s peace, love, harmony, connection, gratitude, open to learning something new, open to doing something difficult, open to leaning in and assisting and helping when possible. You’re probably going to be the better person and get something so much more wonderful out of the holidays that you didn’t really anticipate.
I know a lot of people struggle with control, or they see themselves as like, “Oh, if I give in and I don’t argue my point, then I’m not standing up for myself, and that makes me a weaker person.’ I say you might want to re-evaluate what you’re telling yourself about that. How is that even helping you?
[00:12:37] PF: Yes. I was – I did. I wanted to ask you about that because one of the worst things in my opinion that you can do is engage someone who has a very different belief because you’re not going to change their mind. All you’re going to do is upset yourself and the people around you. So getting involved in a debate, discussion, whatever you’d like to call it, it’s not beneficial for anyone, truly.
[00:13:00] EB: Yes. If you’re getting in it, and you see it as like a win-lose, and you just want to have the last say and prove your point and where you see that person has that kind of rhetoric or radicalization, then, yes, absolutely. You’re not going to change an extremist at a dinner conversation. You’re not going to change their ideology. In fact, they’re quite immune at that point to any kind of facts. Challenging on them directly on the ideology is just going to further push them away.
Now, if you are talking to somebody who has agency which is ideal, that is aspirational, that is what we all should want to strive for, I hope, then that’s going to be more of a fun conversation. You don’t – you’re not going to feel like you have to self-monitor as much. You’ve already got the trust and respect and the rapport established with that person. You can try and really push that intellectual edge without feeling like this is a moral superiority challenge, where somebody’s going to end up being inferior, and somebody’s going to be superior, and I don’t want the inferiority one to be me. So how do I just dominate this person because, yes, that’s just not going to be helpful. I would just say it’s a trap. I would just say avoid it.
Now, someone in-between, we call them tribalists. So these are people who maybe identify with a particular group. They’re not totally bought into to the extremist, and you can still have conversations with them. They still might move and be open and quite flexible and adaptive to having a different flow and be challenged. I’d say just be conscientious because cognitive dissonance tend to be at play for people who are more tribalist. Meaning, they’re going to be more prone to defend their group if they feel like their group is being threatened or challenged. Then they’ll go to the point of absolving their group of any wrongdoing because they want to defend their group at all costs.
So that’s when you start – they start to get pushed in that us versus them or the victim versus the oppressor mentality. Then it gets hard to really have some of those more open conversations and dialogues. So just be aware of those three different kinds of ideologies; the person with agency, the tribalist, or the extremist. Then gauge your conversation based on that.
[00:15:35] PF: How important is it to as you go into the holiday, like beforehand? Say you’re hosting. Or say a parent is hosting, and you say, “Hey, Mom. Let’s make sure that everyone knows we’re not going to – these topics are off the table. We’re not going to discuss these things, and here’s what we want to focus on.” What about that? How does that work in terms of keeping it peaceful and making it more enjoyable for everyone?
[00:16:01] EB: Yes. I think it’s great to have allies that are also proponents in preserving the peace and the harmony during the holidays and maybe some other family members that might say, “Hey, come for a walk with me. Let’s walk the dogs. Or let’s take a stroll after the meal,” because that can be helpful to have some people that are just observant and mindful and conscientious of where things are going to maintain the peace and calm and not spiking the anxiety and that tension. I think that can be really helpful.
Again, the best way to go in is really thinking about how do I want to feel about myself leaving. You can’t control everyone. You can’t control outcomes. But I think if you’re flexible and, in general, people want to experience some peace and joy and happiness and celebration and but also adaptive if things don’t entirely go their way that that’s also okay. They don’t have to control everything or everyone at all times. Really, the most important thing is being in control of yourself.
[00:17:15] PF: Yes. So what are some ways like not just for the holiday season but going on? We know we’re born with a negativity bias, so optimism can be difficult, and it’s – we have different levels of that, depending on our personal makeup. So how do we fight our negativity bias or overcome it and become more optimistic?
[00:17:34] EB: Yes. I think one of the things that I personally practice, and this even extends to some of the forensic or clinical work that I do, is I don’t take things personally. Somebody can say something directly to me, and it could be a direct threat. I think it says more about them than it does about me. I don’t need to defend myself to them. I mean, I’m not talking about anything physical, like if it’s a physical threat, obviously. But if it’s not physical and there isn’t a risk of violence, I just see that as me practicing self-protectiveness and resilience. If I’m not amplifying the threat in my mind, I don’t need to be reactive to that person, which is probably what they’re wanting you to do anyway. Sometimes, the best response is no response or just say, “Huh, okay. I’ll think about that.”
[00:18:35] PF: But that’s a gift. That’s a mindset that takes a while to cultivate because people’s words hurt, and we do take things personally. It’s hard to learn not to.
[00:18:45] EB: Yes. Especially if it’s somebody whose opinion of you matters. That’s when probably it can hurt more. Like this is a person who should love you, who should be there for you, who should defend you, who should protect you, who should die for you. Sometimes, we find out that it’s not necessarily the case. It’s okay that people think differently than you, and it doesn’t mean that they necessarily reject you as a person. That could be your own interpretation of it, even though it feels so personal. But there could be more opportunity there to really build some resilience and courage and leaning in.
[00:19:28] PF: As we go into the holiday season, what’s the number one thing that you want everybody to keep in mind about optimism?
[00:19:35] EB: I think there’s a lot of like frantic energy that’s out there. Everybody feels rushed to like do everything and get everything done. It can feel like a lot, and I think it’s okay that some things fall off your plate. I would say know what balls are made of glass and which balls are made of rubber, so you know which ones to allow to drop.
Obviously, the relationships are the ones that are most fragile and most important. Really thinking about that we, not me. What do what do I have that I can contribute that can be helpful to my community, helpful to my family, make me a better partner, make me a better parent? What are those things that I want to commit and set my intention on that take me out of myself into a sense of belonging and a commitment to something bigger than myself in this shared humanity and this experience that we have all together in the small world that we live in?
[00:20:47] PF: That’s great. That is a great way to approach it. I thank you for spending time with me today. I’m going to tell our listeners how they can find you, how they can find your book, how they can learn more about the Optimistic American movement. I hope you’ll sit down with me again, and we’ll talk some more.
[00:21:01] EB: Absolutely. Thank you, Paula.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:21:08] PF: That was Dr. Emily Bashah, talking about optimism. If you’d like to learn more about Emily, check out her book, Addictive Ideologies: Finding Meaning and Agency When Politics Fail You, follow her on social media, listen to her podcast, or download free worksheets for self-improvement, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day happy one.