Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), It is widely believed by the cynical the world over that being a politician is not a ’proper job’.
Jokes abound about how national parliaments are just job placement programs for narcissists. It may, of course, be partially true. There is, in every nation, a certain cadre of politicians who may be in politics purely for the engorgement of their own bank accounts, or to land coveted non-executive posts at multinationals after their constituents get wise to them.
Yet, as those who work in and around the world of politics will also know, this is not true of the majority.
The experience of meeting a politician of whom you had thought poorly is always a humbling one. Almost always, one finds an amiable, learned person with integrity and a sense of duty. Somehow, however, it does always seem that as soon as they reappear on our TV sets, their charms vanish.
In truthful, well-meaning conversation, we allow ourselves to see the humanity, the person, the weakness and the sincerity in our interlocutor. With the distance of politics, on the other hand, all of us are at once subjects and spectators; we’re more interested in being right; “winning” a political fight, and rightly so.
This is not necessarily some kind of cultural or behavioural problem that we need to address as a society and it may be appropriate in a free society that harsh language and insults are permitted.
This, nonetheless, puts enormous psychological stress on our politicians. Not, on the whole, being narcissists, it means politicians suffer under a barrage of criticism with very little chance of thanks or forgiveness. In what can only be understood as a coping mechanism, politicians hide themselves behind a persona or alter ego to keep a certain distance between them and their critics.
This makes the case of Jacinda Ardern even more worthy of more detailed exploration. Having led New Zealand for five and a half years, Ardern resigned citing burnout: she had “nothing left in the tank”. Ardern jettisoned the distanced, managerial style of government for a more human approach. Her empathic response to the 2019 Christchurch attacks drew international attention. While not necessarily able to identify precisely why, it was clear to all that Ardern simply didn’t behave like a politician.
Her controversial leadership during covid-19, her “well-being budget” and the prominence of her family life in her political style broke down the barriers and allowed us all to see inside but fatefully left her more exposed to the personal stresses of responsibility. As we all know from our own lives, opening yourself up leaves you open to getting hurt.
Much like doctors who are tasked with sharing heart-breaking news with families, there is no shame in, as it were, putting on a different hat, and embracing a stoical public persona. Yet we must not allow ourselves to neglect our mental health in such stressful occupations. Well-being breaks are vital to allow anyone to reflect on their own emotions, and ‘name’ stresses and anxieties in order to ‘tame’ them.
This also means encouraging our politicians to take care of themselves personally, physically and socially every day. This might be as simple as using stress balls, or chewing gum, in order to focus minds on the simple actions to control anxieties, similar to mindfulness techniques. Not only will this help keep politicians mentally fit to serve their constituents, but may also pay dividends in the effectiveness of government. After all, meditation and CBT exercises have been shown to help with the prioritization of tasks and the working through of blocks.