Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the idea of "exposure therapy."
It's a technique in behavioral psychology and CBT, used to treat anxiety disorders.
The simple version is that you gradually increase your exposure to something you fear. Slowly and surely, this calms down the automatic fear responses in your nervous system, and helps you overcome irrational phobias that are holding you back from the life you want.
The reason it's been on my mind is I think it's one of the best tools we have as individuals to start healing our divided political world, one person at a time.
As humans, we naturally operate on an ingroup/outgroup basis.
If you're in the blue tribe, the red tribe is your outgroup. If you're a socialist, capitalists are your outgroup. If you're a Liberal (classically defined), people with totalitarian instincts are your outgroup. And so on.
The thing about these ingroup/outgroup dynamics is they hijack the fear response in our psyche. Once we define our ingroup, we organically develop an irrational distaste, or even hatred, for the outgroup. This, of course, is often perpetuated by the cultures we immerse ourselves in, and the media we consume.
For whatever reason, our brains seem to need some kind of outgroup to project our worst fears and insecurities onto.
Point being, I have a sense that rigid binaries and irrational phobias—mixed with the internet and terrible media incentives—are what's driving so much of the political vitriol of our time.
Nothing outright terrifies the red tribe like the idea of the blues holding total power. And vice versa.
All of this despite the fact that the average members of these "tribes" actually aren't all that different. Sure, there are definitely loud extremists on both sides. But talk to the average red or blue, and you'll quickly find we often share the same values, and have the same general desires in life. There will always be disagreements on policy and implementation. But for the stuff that truly matters, most of us are damn near identical.
Yet the deep fear we feel about those in opposing tribes runs deep. However irrational, it feels so, so real.
Exposure therapy is one of the best methods we've got to intentionally undermine irrational fears.
Once we expose ourselves to the people and ideas we feel a visceral aversion to, we can clearly see the story in our head bears no resemblance to reality. And from there, we can develop healthier relationships and pluralistic cultures.
To my mind, there are really two ways you can put this idea into practice right now.
- Have good faith conversations (not debates) with someone from your political outgroup, and look for shared values.
- Consume media that intentionally challenges your pre-existing worldview, and look for ideas that strike you as true.
To make this an effective, transformative experience, there two further mindset shifts that you might consider trying on.
The first is leaning into scout mindset, as Julia Galef would call it. Most of us move through life with a soldier mindset, where we do everything in our power to protect our existing beliefs. Scout mindset, on the other hand, is where you set your intention on being curious and open, so you can learn the truth of the world around you.
The second is acknowledging that you may, in fact, be wrong about some things. None of us likes to think we might be wrong, of course. But the likelihood that any one of us fully understands this complex world is astronomically low. Hell, even those beliefs about which you feel 100% certain might, in the grand scheme of things, turn out to be totally, comically wrong. And that's ok. It's part of being human.
Even once you're armed with the right mindset and intention, however, you should fully expect your political exposure therapy to be uncomfortable, and to trigger the protective instincts in your tribal monkey mind.
I know this, because I've been experiencing it big time.
For the past two weeks, I've been reading a book called Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein.
The main gist of the book that our entire conception of money, and the systems we've built around it, are fundamentally broken, and are responsible for many of the ills that plague humanity today. From destruction of the earth, to poverty, to atomization and loneliness—it all stems from an economic story and mindset that has defined our civilization for the last few thousand years.
Now, this would be a good time to tell you that I've been libertarian-minded about economics for most of my life. I've long believed that free markets are one of the greatest tools for solving problems, spurring innovation, fostering cross-cultural cooperation, and raising our standard of living across the board. I still believe all of that to a large degree, as the evidence for it is substantial.
It's also worth sharing that I've grown to love business and marketing in the last few years. Not "big business" or "corporate business" or whatever. But the ability for humans to use their specialized skills to create value for others, and be rewarded for it. I think it's pretty rad.
Point being, you could squarely put me in the "business loving capitalist" tribe.
So to say that Eisenstein's writing is uncomfortable for me would be an understatement. It's challenging the very foundation of how I've viewed the world and lived my life the last few years. Reading it has been a physically uncomfortable experience at times, especially when he jabs at libertarians (which is fairly often).
Despite that, there's so, so much that I've recognized as true throughout this book.
Yes, the world provides abundant resources for all of us to live and have our needs met, yet our money system makes those things artificially scarce. Yes, our systems of interest and debt inevitably create "winner take all" economies over time. And yes, despite money's seemingly ironclad hold over all human activity, it's simply a story we've all agreed to, which we can change at any time.
And the book's biggest idea, shifting humanity towards a Gift Economy, is so deeply resonant with me that I decided to do the scariest thing possible, and implement it in my own business.
And that brings me around to the article I just wrote for my other website, Ungated. In it, I talk about the decreasing levels of trust on the internet (and in society more broadly), and how each of us can reverse that dynamic by being more generous and trusting with others in our lives.
I don't know where this whole Gift Economy experiment will lead. Maybe it's the dumbest thing ever to do for a business, and I'll end up destitute because of it.
But I know that it feels right, and like a worthwhile, potentially transformative experiment. And I know that I wouldn't even be considering it were it not for some timely exposure therapy.