Jonathan Hoban explores the subconscious transference in June’s EU Referendum vote.
As many of us continue to struggle to come to terms with the outcome of the EU Referendum and the widespread feeling of uncertainty it provokes, as a nation we are forced to reflect: why does our country appear to be dividing rather than coming together, as it should in a time of crisis?
As our stream of political leaders continue to engage in what I consider to be irresponsible game playing, our country’s psychological wellbeing suffers as a direct result. Throughout the UK, many of us have witnessed an acute rise in levels of anger, confusion, frustration, disappointment, anxiousness and destructive behaviour in our communities following the vote to leave the EU. Psychologically speaking, these emotions indicate a significantly increased stress response to recent events, accompanied by a feeling of grief.
The lack of clear guidance from our leaders leaves us, and our fellow citizens of other European countries, at a loss, creating fear and instability. These leaders are, to me, behaving very much like parental figures who abuse their power by neglectfully placing their children in harm’s way, and in consequence destroy trust and safety within the relationship. It seems as if it is now left to us, the collective citizens of this country, to make a difference as to how we move forward.
Simplistic thinking usually instigates a simplistic response, whereby a person or situation becomes either positive or negative, good or bad, clever or stupid, wrong or right. This type of thinking and behaviour fails to allow for a middle ground of thinking or negotiation. We were asked to make a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ decision – a perfect example of simplistic options that inevitably produced a simplistic response.
But why did the vote go this way?
My own analysis is that, when the British coal mining and manufacturing industries were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s, it created significant financial pressure on the communities dependent on them for jobs and security. The members of these communities went on to experience considerable poverty, uncertainty, powerlessness and fear and many have never fully recovered. As a consequence, scaremongering from the ‘Leave’ campaigners and media hype about immigration exacerbated their fears that their jobs, housing and public services more generally were going to be even further threatened in the future. These communities are invisible to most of us living in more prosperous parts, as they have remained neglected by the Government and the media for decades.
The EU Referendum provided a platform and a voice for these sidelined communities and they responded. The motivation to vote when you feel desperate is far greater than if you are living comfortably. The irony of this whole situation is that a subconscious transference has taken place, whereby the whole country is now experiencing the uncertainty, powerlessness and financial insecurity that these neglected communities have felt for years. The bigger question now is how do we come together as a country and look to the future of the UK as a whole, and not as a group of divided entities.
The divide between the European Union and the United Kingdom has exposed covert racism within our country. It has provided racists with a media platform to vocalise discriminatory views towards other cultures, both within and outside the United Kingdom. This has re-highlighted a lack of education around diversity that must be addressed. Since this imminently threatens the safety of many citizens and their security needs, I’m surprised why zero tolerance policies or adequate boundaries are not currently mandated. The topic of immigration in this country has fuelled racism by the propaganda, speculation and scaremongering tactics that have surrounded it – a key part of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that is intended to incite fear and create further division.
Divide and rule (or divide and conquer, from Latin dīvide et īmpera) in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people.
Fight, flight or freeze
As therapists, our job is to mediate successfully with regards to a person’s psychological and emotional well being without causing undue stress. It is stress that causes cognitive distortions: fight, flight or freeze responses where no productive communication can take place due to the increase of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin in the body. Cognitive distortions and stress merely serve to introduce ego-defence mechanisms, hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal and black-and-white thinking, all of which break down effective communication and remove any middle ground for diplomacy. In our more hyper-vigilant, hyper-aroused states, we either retreat to a place of safety, remain silent, or fight to regain a feeling of control. It is here where ego-defence mechanisms such as splitting usually take place. Without successful mediation, it is no surprise that we find ourselves in such great uncertainty. Right now it seems as we have all been left without secure parental figures that can responsibly lead and guide us forward whilst meeting our security and safety needs at the same time.
Security and safety needs
We are all born into this world looking for our safety and security needs to be fulfilled by a ‘secure attachment figure’ or ‘care-giver’ as our early survival depends on it. In many respects this never really changes throughout our lives. Oxytocin is a hormone produced when we feel most safe, loved, calm and secure within our environment or relationship with another person and is essential for the ongoing development of trust, love, bonding and connection. Oxytocin is an antidote to the stress hormone cortisol, underlining its importance within society today.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests:
“Safety and security needs are about keeping us safe from harm. These needs include shelter, job security, health, and safe environments. If a person does not feel safe in an environment, they will seek to find safety before they attempt to meet any higher level needs. These security needs are important for survival, but they are not as important as the basic physiological needs. Examples of safety and security needs: safety, shelter, security, law & order, employment, health, stability, etc.”
As law and order are part of our safety needs, politicians need to assume full responsibility for the final decision they make following a democratic vote and quickly follow this up with a steadfast plan of action. If full responsibility is not taken higher up the chain of command, the responsibility is merely transferred back down the chain for us citizens to squabble over. In the long run this will only serve to create further stress, anarchy, confusion, uncertainty and division within our country.
The five stages of grief
As our country attempts to recover from the shock and aftermath of Brexit, some of us unknowingly enter into the five stages of a grieving process. Shock, numbness, denial, anger, fear, sadness, disappointment, loss and bargaining are all common emotions that are experienced during this transition of acceptance. Voicing how you feel is equally important as being able to listen to someone else going through the same process. This type of identification is very powerful but needs to take place in a non-judgmental, empathic environment.
We all come through a grieving process in the end and, as we slowly readjust, it is essential that we go through it together as a community since this has always been shown to be far more beneficial for our emotional well being. It will help us to feel more connected and united as a country, and is something that we are all in control of outside of any political agenda.
An increase in our cortisol, stress and adrenalin levels is a key trigger to divisive, knee-jerk responses within our society today, as we have also seen with Brexit. The role of oxytocin plays a pivotal role in the process of reconnecting, rebuilding trust and feeling safe. If we all took certain daily actions that encouraged the production of oxytocin within ourselves and others, we would see divisive behaviour and fear lessen within our society. Here are some ways to increase the flow of oxytocin:
- Providing reassurance
- Coming together as a community – Affection
- Laughter – Compassion
- Music – Empathy
- Asking for help – Listening to another
- Hugging – Selfless deeds and actions
- Walking in nature – Soothing environments
- Keeping structure and routine – Deep breathing
In a world that sometimes moves out of our control, it is important to remember positive actions we can take and have some sense of control over. How we choose to implement these more positive behaviours into our daily lives is down to us. The saying ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ has some resonance here and seems fitting given our current set of circumstances. As our nation seeks a secure attachment figure it is now for us to choose carefully who our next political leaders will be in the future. We need to ask who is responsible and wise enough to provide the direction and security we need and who has genuinely got our best interests at heart.
Jonathan Hoban is an integrative psychotherapist who runs a successful private practice in the ‘City of London.’ He is the founder of ‘Walking Therapy London’ that combines walking with psychotherapy and business coaching in an outside natural environment and has been featured in The Telegraph and The Independent amongst other well known publications. He can be contacted at www.creativecounsellinglondon.com
Based on an article based first published in Psychotherapy Today with the permission of BACP.
Image: Inner Rage by Surian Soosay