A Psychotherapist Visits Some Responses to the UK EU Referendum Result
It is early days yet, but in the brief time that has elapsed since the referendum decision for Britain to leave the EU, I have been struck by the intense emotional outpouring from many people about that decision.
Most of the emotion appears to have come from those who lost. There may be several reasons for that. Given the vitriol of the campaign, the winners may be striving to be magnanimous in silence, or they are just stunned at what has happened. If it is true that many of the winners were older, disaffected, and predominantly disadvantaged, their voices are perhaps disproportionately under-represented on TV and social media. Or perhaps it is just that the pain of loss is felt more deeply than the sweetness of joy.
As a jobbing psychotherapist I deal with the pain of loss on a daily basis and work with clients who are struggling to come to terms with the emotional tsunami that had hit them. Of course, there is no one template that fits all loss experiences, no neat stages that have to be followed, and certainly no quick fixes. However, there are common experiences that many people experience in their grief. And it is possible to see some of these grief experiences in the responses to Brexit by those who lost in the referendum.
Denial of the Reality of the Loss
When faced with a sudden, shocking loss, it is not uncommon for people to deny the reality of that loss. In the post-Brexit commentary we can see people resisting acceptance of a new reality. That denial can be most obviously seen in the calls to have a second referendum or to just set aside the results of the first. “We can’t have lost. If we fight hard enough we can bring the dead back to life.” There is a blindness to the absurd irony in wanting to use the supposed authority of new numbers to overturn the result of other numbers obtained in a free, democratic vote.
Denial of Truth
When faced with death, it is a brave person who is prepared to speak ill of the dead or even admit to themselves that the dead person had a few flaws. Remember the calls for Princess Diana to be made a saint?
Truth, it is often noted, is the first casualty of war. Of course, there has been considerable denial of truth on both sides. Over zealous campaigners know how to lie with statistics.
Two inevitable things have happened. First, predictions (however sincere, but merely predictions) have been argued to be certain fact. The losers seem to have lost sight of the true doubt behind their claims of Armageddon, and in refusing to hear any ill spoken of the dead (the Remain arguments), are clinging with a renewed zeal to an uncertain and/or warped reality. Although the Brexit camp can be rightly accused of a similar denial, they are not now largely the ones shouting with renewed fervour in the streets or in the media.
And the truth also suffers in the crudeness in a false binary divide. The Brexit side are easily labelled as all racists and anti-European who cannot see beyond the end of their Union Jacks (or St George’s Crosses). Again, this may be true of some, but it is too simplistic and does not allow the existence of an alternative truth. It is possible to want to be European and seek co-operation while disliking the EU; and it is possible to want to control unlimited immigration without being racist.
It is quite common in grief to be angry at the loss – angry at the person who has died and left you facing a seemingly calamitous, endless mess; and especially angry at those who may have been perceived as causing the death. My experience of the post-Brexit discussions on TV and social media has been that a lot of strong anger has come to the fore. People have been shown angrily remonstrating with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (for different reasons) as they walked the streets in post-Brexit London, and on Twitter, the considered wrath or emotional bile has flowed. In effect, people are saying: “I am shocked. My foundations are no longer secure. You have done this too me. My evolutionary fight/flight emotions have been roused to tackle the sudden perceived threat. And I am going to attack, attack, attack!”
Depression, Rumination, If-Onlys
Of course, depression is common after a loss. The present pain dominates, and you are forced to review how you think about the past and the future. You are reminded of your own powerlessness to change important things in the way that you want to, and sometimes the future can seem hopeless.
At such times people frequently get trapped in rumination where unhelpful thoughts race round and round in ever decreasing circles, but get nowhere. And then the common if-onlys start. If only I had done this, then this wouldn’t have happened. If only others had done this, then this wouldn’t have happened. If only Corbyn had been more enthusiastic then … If only the lies on the bus had been challenged more vigorously … If only the uneducated had appreciated what they were really voting for … If only Cameron hadn’t … If only the Tories had been more united on Europe … The list could go on and on. And of course, the if-onlys are a symptom of my first point – an understandable difficulty in accepting the reality of the situation.
A Different Future
After a significant loss, there is a temptation to say that there is no future. People are talking (some seriously) of leaving the UK. “There is no future in Britain.” What they mean, of course, is that there is not the future that they had thought they would have. It may be different, but there will be a future. If we had remained in the EU their predicted future may not have materialized anyway, just as their imagined Armageddon may not materialise either.
Whether in or out, the challenge is to deal with the change and work to achieve the best possible outcomes and create a future that is as close to what we want as is humanly possible – given the fallibility of all humans, and the unpredictability of life in general.