5 Skills I Learned in ACoA That Are Helping Me Face Trump’s Presidency

By Erica Troiani 01/07/17

Trump engages in gaslighting tactics and denies objective reality—just like my alcoholic dad did. And I'm coping the same way.

Donald Trump
Dealing with my dad taught me how to deal with this.

Throughout the interminable 2016 election, I had trouble listening to President-elect Donald Trump’s speeches. It’d been difficult to hear candidates I disagreed with in the past, but this was different. It was a gut reaction, one that often left me with a headache or forced me to leave the room. I couldn’t understand why my feeling was so visceral. But then I realized it: the way Trump speaks and behaves reminded me a whole lot of my alcoholic father. Which is a delicious irony, because it’s not the content of Trump’s speeches that reminds me of my very liberal dad, but the way that he talks.

My father is a master at denying objective reality, often insisting this or that thing is true with zero evidence because he just knows. And if you resist his behavior, he is full of distractions and confusion tactics, often speaking in circles without making grammatical sense. Arguing with him feels like boxing a phantom. It would throw me off my game and keep me from pushing for the things I needed. By the end, I couldn’t even remember what it was we were fighting about, just that I was incredibly worked up, unsettled, and unable to focus on anything else.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because both Trump and my dad engage in gas-lighting tactics. I’ve been working my entire adult life to undo the effects of growing up being told I’m the crazy one, but I've learned to handle my dad in Al-Anon and ACoA. And the skills I’ve learned are the same ones keeping me sane during a time where each headline gets crazier and more bizarre than the last.

No matter what your politics, this year has felt like living in the Twilight Zone—one resembling an emotionally abusive household, but on a national scale. So, here are some skills I’ve learned in recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic (not only in ACoA meetings, but also through books and lots of therapy) that help me keep focused on resisting our slow national regression in impactful ways, without wasting my energy or losing my mind.

  1. Have emotional boundaries

One of the first and most important things I learned was to say "no" when my dad told a blatant lie—not only audibly, but mentally, too. I’d thought what I did before was saying no, but really it was fighting in a futile and ineffective way and thus expending all my energy. He can still have his opinions and feelings, but that doesn’t mean I’ll take what he’s saying about me into my self-perception. I refuse to let him make me doubt my reality. I gather facts and evidence, and even if he won’t listen to them, just having the mental boundary is a help. With all the gas-lighting that Trump’s language calls up, it’s important to speak out against it and refuse to let this rhetoric dislodge our boundaries. It’s not normal and it’s not okay. Resist, criticize and be direct, but calm and kind.

  1. Pay attention to what he does, not what he says (err, tweets)

My dad was prone to making promises he never kept and talking in serpentine sentences that only served to throw me off mentally and emotionally. He’d repeat key words over and over, much like our president-elect. But I soon learned not to react to each and every thing, because distraction was his end game. Distracting me kept me from guarding the gates closely and let worse offenses slip by. With Trump, it’s more helpful for me to pay more attention to actions, holding him accountable for the ones that impact people’s lives, like his retrograde cabinet picks, rather than the things he tweets solely to get a reaction.

  1. Don't take the bait

Any time I start to get traction with my dad, he likes to bait me into playing by his rules. This usually involves blaming me for something that can’t possibly be my fault. I’d immediately defend myself, but never in a way that could be heard. Trump—and not to mention some his “Alt-Right” admirers—loves this same tactic, going so far as to call critics losers, fat, or "sad" (Trump’s favorite). With my dad, I’ve learned instead to just not engage. Even if my father thinks I’m in the wrong or tells me I’m terrible, I see that as his disease of thought, which ultimately has nothing to do with me. Forcing me to defend myself against this blame-shifting is just another way of controlling me and creating chaos.

  1. Express what you need, even if it means rocking the boat

Keeping the focus on actions doesn’t mean ignoring Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, however. Stating and requesting what we need as human beings is the first step. Enter the cast of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. Their viral speech to VP-elect Mike Pence, who was an audience member, was the perfect example of asking for what’s needed and holding someone accountable to their promises—in this case, the promise to serve all Americans. Of course, Trump himself sent out a flurry of indignant tweets in response, but notice we heard nada from the cast of Hamilton. They’d said their piece—treat us like human beings, full stop—and did not react to Trump’s attempts at controlling the conversation with deflections. Which brings me to…

  1. Act, don't react

The importance of all the previous skills is they allow me to implement this one. Now more than ever, civic engagement is tantamount. Stay focused on the policies getting passed and the people seeking approval for positions of power, rather than what babble he’s spinning. Media have often spun his tweet storms as a distraction and they’re correct. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted from what matters and keep pushing.

Of course, the main difference between President-elect Trump and my pops is one of power and influence. That’s not lost on me. I’m not suggesting we all walk away from Trump the way I might walk away from my father at times. Trump has influence and followers, my dad has considerably fewer admirers, and the former is much more dangerous than the latter. What I am suggesting, however, is that keeping focused on the things I can change and affect, and off the things I can’t, will keep me from spinning my wheels and ineffectively landing in a ditch of exhaustion where I don’t have the energy to engage or fight and defend my own boundaries. Keep focused and don’t give in.

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