Coping With An Election Loss: How To Bounce Back

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election loss

Politics is a highly emotional business and many people feel a personal stake in the outcomes of elections. So, dealing with a loss at the polls can be a serious event for voters and candidates alike.

When dealing with a loss after an election, voters and candidates may want to initially use emotional-focused coping methods such as exercise and social support. After a recovery period, voters and candidates may then want to use a problem-focused strategy by becoming engaged again in other ways.

Dealing with an election loss in a healthy way is not just important for individuals, it’s important for the entire community. Holding on to resentment or anger over a loss at the polls could damage your health and ability to constructively contribute to society; it could also reinforce a divisive political environment – making the next election even more difficult.

So, win or lose, we all have a stake in making sure the defeated heal quickly and are still heard after the election. While everyone will experience political loss differently and will respond differently to various coping methods, a general approach of moving from self-care to political empowerment may be a potent strategy for those who truly want change in their communities.

Because of the high emotional factor in politics, it’s common for voters and candidates to have strong reactions to election results. In the days immediately following an election loss then, it’s important to find ways to manage stress and grief before returning to politics and civic engagement. 

Many people invest time, energy, money, and general support into campaigns. Voters can often feel frustrated by “the system” after an election loss and candidates may feel as if they let supporters down. The circumstances surrounding an election, however, can be far too complex to be under anyone or anything’s control. 

So, focusing on who or what is to blame or even feelings of guilt won’t be as constructive as reflecting on lessons learned and on maintaining any relationships from the campaign. Reflection, though, can come at a later stage of coping. Voters and candidates may want to take a period to indulge in healthy coping mechanisms without ruminating on the events.

Before taking a closer look at how to cope, voters and candidates should keep in mind that losing can actually be an empowering experience. In fact, losing a national election can open other opportunities such as a larger desire among voters to be engaged in local-level politics. Candidates and organizers may find opportunities in issue-based advocacy. The important thing is to maintain a grounded perspective that politics and elections tend to be cyclical. 

Below is a careful look at what people may experience after an election, types of coping mechanisms available, and a recommended strategy for coping with elections in particular.

Five Stages of Greif and Loss

The five stages of grief are a fairly well-known concept from a book called On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The stages that Kübler-Ross identified are usually thought of as applying to the death of a loved one, but they can be applied in other circumstances as well including to political losses. 

Not everyone experiences all the stages of grief or in the same order, but these five stages represent normal responses to high-stakes emotional losses. The stages are:

  1. Denial and isolation; 
  2. Anger;
  3. Bargaining;
  4. Depression; and,
  5. Acceptance.

These stages may manifest in different ways for individuals. For example, some may express anger at the opposition while others may be angry with themselves. Bargaining may also look different from person to person; some may attempt to bargain with a higher power while others may attempt to bargain with outcomes and reality (e.g. “if only we had campaigned harder…”). 

The one unfortunate truth about the five stages of grief is that not everyone makes it to the last stage of acceptance. Resisting present realities with resentment or anger, however, can have harmful effects on a person’s health and may also hinder future political dialogue.

To move into a place of acceptance, voters and candidates may want to apply a sequence of coping strategies that work for them. The next sections look at different types of coping mechanisms and how to apply them in a political context.

Types of Coping Mechanisms

There are many different ways to cope and, of course, not all ways of coping are helpful. So, having a set of strategies on hand to employ in moments of crisis is important to ensure we don’t go down a self-destructive path.

Within the social sciences, the exact categories and definitions of coping mechanisms are still up for debate. For the sake of simplicity, then, this post will focus on two broad categories of coping strategies – 1) emotional-focused, and 2) problem-focused. Here’s a look at each:

1) Emotional-focused strategies are “oriented toward managing the emotions that accompany the perception of stress.” In other words, these strategies focus on self-care through rest, relaxation, and recreation. Some positive examples could include things like:

  • Arts and leisure (anything from watching a movie to going to a museum),
  • Exercise and outdoor activities,
  • Hobbies,
  • Humor and comedy,
  • Meditation, and
  • Seeking social support.

The idea is probably obvious that the strategy seeks to turn an individual’s attention toward healthy activities. Importantly, putting your attention elsewhere doesn’t mean denying feelings of anger or escaping them – it just means harnessing these feelings for constructive purposes and managing them effectively.

2) Problem-focused strategies are “aimed at changing the source of stress.” This category of coping is often associated with taking action to change circumstances as opposed to dealing with the effects of circumstances. This approach can be beneficial when we’re dealing with a situation that is within our control.

Usually, individuals need to change behaviors with this strategy to help improve a situation. For example, if you were applying for a new job and it was a source of stress, a problem-focuses strategy might be re-writing your resume, networking, and practicing your interviewing skills. While an emotional-focused strategy might be getting a massage.

Naturally, the actions that someone can take are dictated by the circumstances. The essence of the strategy, though, is simply for individuals to put all their in energy into areas within their control.

Coping After Losing An Election

Elections can be highly personal affairs – especially for candidates and their staff. The trauma that elections can cause (to winners and losers) should be treated seriously by society. 

Each coping strategy listed above is important for different aspects of the healing process. In political environments, it might make sense for some to begin with emotional-focused strategies first and then when the time is right, transition into problem-focused strategies that can center on taking action within their control.

Voters and candidates should not neglect self-care immediately after losing an election. Since no one person can control the election outcome, a problem-solving approach in the immediate wake of an election will likely be frustrating and could risk neglecting underlying emotional responses.

For emotional-focused strategies, individuals will know what activities are best for them to unwind. It’s important to keep an eye on any vices or bad habits, though. As we all know, stressful situations can sometimes lead to destructive coping mechanisms. (If you recognize destructive patterns playing out in your life or the life of someone you know such as prolonged episodes of depression or alcohol abuse, it’s important to seek professional help.)

After an appropriate recovery period, voters and candidates may then want to begin thinking about problem-focused strategies. While the election results may be out of the control of any individual, there are other ways of raising your voice. Pivoting to issue-based advocacy, for instance, is a natural way for candidates, organizers, and voters to stay involved in the political process in between elections.

No matter the circumstances, though, Street Civics salutes your commitment to public service and community involvement! Your involvement matters and we look forward to seeing you back in the public arena after some rest and relaxation. After a nice vacation, here are some great resources to get you back in the game:

Advice From a Loser

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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