This morning, I did what I do every Thursday: I went to class. Well, sort of. I sat down in my office chair in my apartment, signed onto a digital learning platform, and waited for the faces of my fellow classmates to appear onscreen. We are students getting our masters in counseling, and twice a week, we gather in a live video conference call to talk about mushy gushy therapy stuff like active listening and countertransference reactions.
On this particular morning, I was prepped to participate in a role play demonstration in which I would act as a client and my partner would act as the counselor. I was nervous to do this because, well, I've been feeling inexpressibly fragile over the past twenty-four hours -- perhaps you have too -- and the idea of "playing" hurt felt a bit too vulnerable for me.
Fortunately, though, the demonstration was cancelled. Instead, our professor started class by giving us space to share our thoughts and feelings regarding the events of the last few days -- the shocking and, for many, frightening result of this presidential election (my words, not my professor's).
Like many, I've been processing this news in whatever way I can. My sister and I have an ongoing text thread in which we share articles and express our worry together as it ebbs and flows. My husband and I had most of the day off yesterday, and he was the one who officially shared the news with me as I woke up. We both laid in bed in shock.
Unsurprisingly, I've been disturbed over the results of this election, and I have started the work of internalizing what this all means for me and my friends. Or, at least, I thought I had.
Sitting with my fellow classmates -- all of us entering a profession dedicated to helping others -- I felt an entirely new flood of emotions. This was the first time since receiving the news yesterday morning that I had the opportunity to process with people whose views I couldn't be certain of. It was evident, at first, that we were all burdened with the same questions: What if you don't understand what I'm feeling? What if you are part of the reason this happened?
As we shared, though, that fear softened. Many of us talked about how hard it would be to counsel right now. Even so, most of us expressed that we feel somewhat comforted to live in places where our neighbors understand our hurt. Others, however, expressed their fear of facing their community. One woman, a daughter of immigrant parents, explained her genuine concern that this presidency will result in the deportation of her loved ones. After this confession, I looked around the digital room -- fourteen video squares stacked on top of each other -- and I realized that nearly all of us, including me, were in tears.
My classmates and I don't really know each other that well. We are miles apart. We meet on a digital screen. I have never even seen their legs before.
But this morning, I could feel their hurt. And I know they could feel mine.
* * *
In the mental health world, we talk a lot about the idea of mirror neurons: the neurological response we have when we witness an action performed by another human being. The idea is that when we observe someone's behavior, our brains fire off neurons that "mirror" theirs. We literally take on their experience, neurologically-speaking.
That is certainly what happened in my class this morning -- all of us crying together at the exact same moment -- but I would argue that it's also what is happening around our country right now. Yes, we were all surprised by the results of this election. No matter where you stood on November 8th, many of us were expecting something different. But if you're like me, perhaps you have also found yourself surprised by the raw, emotional aftermath of this event. It's a collective grieving process unlike anything I have seen in my adult life. I wasn't prepared for it.
But it makes sense. A lot of us are taking on each other's hurt right now. All of it. All at once. Our mirror neurons are firing like crazy as we see the fear in the eyes of our marginalized neighbors -- our black friends who have been told their lives don't matter, our LGBTQ friends who are afraid that their rights will be stripped from them, our Muslim friends who live under the threat of violence, our hispanic friends who in one sweeping statement have been called "rapists" and "murderers", our physically and mentally ill friends who are terrified of losing access to the care they need, our friends who are women that just watched an openly sexist candidate elevated to the highest office.
We see their pain, and thus, we feel their hurt. Mirror neurons.
Not only that, but for well over a year, we have been observing the actions of the man who was just elected president. We watched him physically mimic a disabled person. We heard him urge his supporters to beat up protestors at his rallies. We saw him retweet white supremacists. We heard him brag to Billy Bush (of all people) about grabbing women without their consent. We listened to his plans of murdering the families of terrorists, children included. We heard him, in the final days of this campaign, suggest that he will not accept the results of the election unless he wins. We watched as he promised a roaring crowd that he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. We observed and experienced for months the violent words and actions spawned by the vitriolic rhetoric of his campaign.
And then, we watched half our nation elect him as our president.
We saw all of it. And don't think for a moment that this didn't have an effect on our collective and individual neurobiology. It did.
* * *
Yesterday, already in the throes of despair over the results of this election, I was walking down the rain-soaked stairs of the Canal Street subway station when, suddenly, I slipped. It was a bad fall, as embarrassing as it was painful. Afterwards, a crowd of about ten people, including my husband, rushed to my aid. I was fine, of course, but something about seeing the concerned expressions of everyone around me flipped a switch. I began sobbing uncontrollably. That same day, I had already shed a few tears, but this was different. I was openly weeping on a busy subway platform.
And it wasn't because I fell. I mean, that sucked, but I knew that wasn't it. Instead, my emotional response had more to do with the experience of looking into the eyes of my fellow New Yorkers in that moment. Seeing the pain they were carrying, seeing their concern for me, seeing their beautiful, diverse faces all surrounding me, wanting to offer help. In light of the events of that day, it was just too much for me to handle. I had to release it somehow -- all of the garbage I've been collecting in my heart throughout the past year of this election -- and if that meant bawling while waiting for the Q train, then so be it.
* * *
I thought back to that moment of sheer emotional abandon while I sat in class this morning. After discussing the aftermath of the election, our professor asked us to participate in an exercise. She had us sit back in our chairs, lift up our legs, tense every muscle in them, and then set them down. She then had us raise our arms over our heads until we could feel them tingle. After this, we crossed our arms over our chests, sat forward, and breathed in and out for about thirty seconds.
Before this exercise, my body had felt hot and tense, but afterwards, it felt surprisingly cool. My professor explained that this was an exercise to restore regulation. When we are "dysregulated" (a fancy mental health term for being physically whacked out because of emotions), our bodies release fight-or-flight hormones, such as cortisol, and an excess of these hormones can cause physical tension. They can also lead to a slew of health problems, including a complete shutdown of the immune system. It's the reason, my professor remarked, why so many people in our lives have been sick during this election cycle; We're dysregulated.
"This is why we can't just be containers," she said. "We have to find a way to release."
And that's the truth for those of us grappling with this period in our nation's history. We cannot simply contain the overwhelming emotions we feel right now. That's the sort of thing that leads to sickness. Instead, our aim as individuals should be to find a way to release our hurt in whatever way we can. (By the way, allow me to suggest howling your frustrations on a subway platform. It worked wonders for me.)
But what has become evident over the last twenty-four hours is how much we are in need of a collective release -- an expanded, nation-sized version of subway crying, if you will. And I'm not totally sure how we do that just yet. I think it's fine if, for now, we continue to sit with our hurt for a bit. However, I will say that I have been inspired to see the mobilization efforts already occurring -- those dedicated to supporting organizations that might be made vulnerable under this new administration. I have seen spaces in my city opening their doors to people so that they can have a place to process this change and find solutions together. I have seen writers putting to words the feelings that I have no idea how to express. (And on that note, the silver lining in this bizarre time: we are going to get some pretty insane art of out all this, aren't we?)
While we're still unsure of the most effective method of release, perhaps the best thing to do is what we're already doing: connecting. Over the last two days, I've seen strangers crying together, hugging, and offering the truest kind of comfort there is: the knowledge that we are not alone.
We are mirrors for each other, designed for empathy. Let’s remember that as we move through the next four years together.