What the World Needs Now:
Answers to Post-Election Bullying, Fear, and Division
It’s Day 2 after the big election result and my Facebook feed is filled with stories of friends being bullied for their gender and ethnicity. Feeling a sense of sadness and disbelief, I turn to my favorite self-improvement book grounded in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. Dr. Amit Sood is the author of “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.” As Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic and Chair of Mayo’s Mind Body Institute, he has helped hundreds of thousands of people enhance resiliency and happiness, and reduce stress and anxiety. “How can we stop this senseless bullying?” I ponder. At that very moment, I realize there is no one better to help answer this question and provide wisdom than the Doctor himself. Below is the transcript of our interview.
Bullying has risen throughout the country. What can we do to help stop and prevent these verbal attacks from continuing?
Dr. Sood: If I had to put it in one line it would be, “Make America kind again” because a great America is a kind America. Anyone who you admire, anyone whose values you want to embody, most likely that person is kind and I think that is what we should prioritize. We’re going through difficult times globally — not just in the U.S. — and we’ve been here before, actually much worse than this. I have no doubt in my mind that we will overcome our challenges. We’ve overcome many other adversities in this wonderful, resilient country. We will overcome because we have very strong values that drive most of the citizens of this country — almost all of them. I believe that those who aren’t driven by deep values of kindness to each other and acceptance and compassion, they have forgotten those values.
They had those values but they got stuck into the adverse throes of life and they have not been reminded enough how good they are or how good they potentially can be. So I don’t think we should feel disheartened. We shouldn’t take it personally. I think we should use this as an opportunity to find the best in us and remind each other that we are loved, that we are precious, that we are all related to each other. We are together on this spaceship Earth, give forgiveness a chance; as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
I personally look at any adversity in the world as an energizer for me to work even harder. I just refuse to be bogged down by negative news. I just refuse to take a slur seriously. I say, “If you’re insulting me, you’ve somehow forgotten how good you are. I am sure you will remember that someday.”
Along those lines, what do you think is the appropriate way to respond to bullying — whether you are a victim or an observer?
Dr. Sood: I think it depends on the situation. If you are feeling that you can be physically hurt, then obviously you take the exit and do not be in that situation, or call for help. But if it is a situation which is more social, more verbal — you’re not physically threatened — then you have to stand up, you have to be kind to yourself. You have to treat yourself like you want others to be treated. This is the other side of the golden rule. If someone does something to me that I would never do to that person, I would just not accept that. You do not take the other person’s words at face value.
One of the things that I like to remember is that good people are very good at feeling bad about themselves. I see this all the time. I see all these wonderful people feeling bad about themselves and they are just phenomenal people. The extension of that thought is that if you’re feeling bad about yourself today, you are actually a good person.
When I walk in my neighborhood and if my neighbor’s dog is barking, I don’t take it personal because that is the nature of what the dog is doing. Don’t take it personal. Look at yourself with the eyes of the person who loves you the most. Help the other person. Win them over with humor and kindness and love to the extent you can, but that doesn’t mean your shortchange yourself or allow yourself to be treated like a doormat.
What happens is, if you have this firm anchor then you do not react. You do not create a disproportionate exaggerated reaction to someone bullying you. There are very sad stories because of cyberbullying and in-person bullying, kids taking their lives. That’s so sad — What can be worse than that? And that happens because they just take the bully at face value and their whole self-worth goes crashing down because this person and that person doesn’t like them. You can’t let that happen.
We have got multiple roles. I’m a physician, of course, but I’m also a parent, I’m a husband, I’m a son, I’m a brother, I’m a friend, I’m a colleague, I’m a neighbor, I’m a professional. All these roles — I’m definitely not doing one of these roles probably as well as I could. My instinct is that I’ll anchor my self-worth in the role that I’m the most underperforming. So if I didn’t do well with our kids or with my wife than my self-worth would get stuck. I shouldn’t do that. I should focus on all the good that I’ve been able to do today. People do the same thing. They have 15 people who really like them and 5 people who don’t, and we tend to believe those 5 people who don’t. That’s not what we should do.
You have so many great strategies in your book and this makes me think of your morning gratitude exercise. As people are living in fear now more than ever before, what should they do to cope and move forward?
Dr. Sood: Our brain has something called a recency bias. Whatever I recently think about or hear myself speak or hear others speak dominates my brain. So it really helps to surround yourself with positive self-affirmation, with memory, with words, with connections with people who you know care about you. Our core exercise is to wake up and not leave the bed in the morning until you have thought about 5 people in your life who you know care about you and send them a silent gratitude. Throughout the day, you try to silently wish each other well.
You want to cultivate so much reserve of positivity within you that even if somebody else depletes it a little bit, you are still really full. What will happen is that when you have that much positivity, then you have a sense of self-worth and self-confidence and others actually recognize it. Many times people who are unkind, they are looking for a weak person. They are looking for someone who’s vulnerable, who will not bounce back, and you don’t want to be in that position. You want to have a sense of self-worth and strength so that others don’t see you as prey.
I’m hearing stories of relationships being torn apart because of this election. Within families, there is political disagreement and people feel hurt on a personal level. Where do we go from here?
Dr. Sood: When you look at what makes us make a decision — what we eat, what road we take, who we vote for — there are just too many things that go into it. When you read books on decision making, it is a very complex phenomenon. It’s very underwhelming when you understand how the human mind operates. So don’t take it personal and don’t take people at face value. Somebody is voting for the next person, that doesn’t mean they are trying to insult you. That is their opinion of that person. Maybe they are thinking about the country, maybe they are thinking about the economy…They have an issue which is perhaps very important for them and they were torn. But they had no choice because they had to vote their conscience in the interest of the nation. Don’t take it personal because then you shortchange yourself in the process.
And if none of that works, then forgive.Use the option to forgive. If you’re harboring a hurt and feeling alone and distant from that person, then you are hurting yourself more than anybody else. Make it easy for them. If you forgive and move forward and send that white dove and reconnect, maybe you’ll win a friend or loved one for life. The most important aspect of our lives is our relationships and we shouldn’t shortchange them for just difference of opinion.
You talk about the main tenents of acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. If leaders do not demonstrate these things, how can we ensure that we do?
Dr. Sood: First of all, I would not make that assumption because that assumption makes me feel insecure and I want to keep my zone of control and zone of influence the same. I really don’t want to worry about stuff that I can’t control. Two is, I am focused on what my daily mandate is. I don’t eat your plate. When I go to a restaurant, I look at the menu and I order what I think is right for me. I don’t look at what others have ordered. I have to just focus on what I can do because if we all did that, you know we’ll be okay.
This is exactly what happens in humans even with dishonesty. “He’s dishonest, I’ll also be dishonest.” I think that’s how the whole world will come crashing down. I think we need enough people who say, “I will live by the core values that I learned in Kindergarten and that have been repeated to me over and over. I’ll just live by those core values.” That’s what matters. If you have a faith-based practice, you’ll be judged by your actions. You can’t go at your final moment and say, “I did this because that person was doing that.” That’s not enough logic.
My personal goal is when I close my life and when I’m meeting my end, if I’m asked, “I gave you healthy mind, healthy body, I gave you so much…What did you do with this?” I don’t want to say, you know I’m sorry I messed up, I just had bad role models. I don’t want to come short at this time. Just be accountable for yourself. I think that is really empowering and that’s what Nelson Mandela did, that’s what Mahatma Gandhi did, that’s what Martin Luther King did, that’s what Mother Theresa did. Those should be our role models.
If you could offer only one word of wisdom and piece of life advice, what would it be?
Dr. Sood: Be kind. You just have no idea what challenges, struggles the other person is facing. Return to kindness.