Monday, 17 September 2012

Emotions and the Art of Politics (.....well, almost)

I think a lot of activists have had the experience of being shouted at on the doorstep and I'm among them. There is an awful lot of rejection in politics. It's part of the strange nature of a job that you may do very well, but be thrown out of through issues outside your control.

As I look around my friends and acquaintances in this party and others, I see a number of politicos are driven. Driven to change and make things better and/or driven to look good and receive validation from others. As is often said (mostly by my mother!), a psychologist would have a field day with both of those motivations. But it kind of works,for the objectives of the party anyway, which I see as working hard for communities,campaigning and winning elections.
Putting aside the physical cost of an election, which again a few people brought up when I mentioned the emotional cost, I’d like to consider the emotional or psychological cost of:
·         Losing (or even winning) elections
·         Overt rejection and dismissal on the doorstep
·         Fractious relations between party members

The initial clash I see is that the drivers for getting elected seem to be either to make things better or receive validation in terms of votes. This appears to be a huge contradiction against the quite huge possibility of rejection and people shouting at you on doorsteps, in the street or occasionally in your social life (this does depend on who you choose as your friends really, but I’ve known it happen!). To reconcile the two, one needs to be emotionally healthy, or else runs the risk of becoming overly intellectual, as per the protagonist in Crime and Punishment, and divorcing themselves from their feelings. This may cause a person to become less in touch, less charismatic and more aloof - not terribly good for getting elected or indeed internal party relations!
But I’ve never been to a training course about how you may like to preserve your mental health whilst in politics, or really received any advice other than “move on to the next doorstep”. I was thinking about this earlier this week. It’s quite a puzzle. I also hear things such as politics apparently :
“….. attracts weirdos”
“… full of little Hitlers”
“….can bend you out of shape”
“…can take over your life”
I’ve started to wonder if this is really the case, or more likely, it’s a combination of politics attracting egotists and “fixers” but also the process bending more than one person out of shape due to the nature of the activities themselves - and crucially - no where "safe" to let go of this negative energy received.
 We voluntarily stand on doorsteps and do get shouted at. We do it for a number of different reasons, but I think it might be worth while working out what we do with any negativity we receive.
With this in mind, I asked my twitter followers involved in politics (to my account @LouiseShawLD) how they dealt with negativity. I didn’t make it clear whether I was talking about voters or fellow activists, which wasn’t intentional but also brought some interesting observations.
Some of these were:
  • Shout / rant/ blog with internal party people OR internalise it
  • Calmly argue with voters
  • Rise above it  / get smug / counter misinformation (online), shrug it off
  • Use it as a learning curve. Voters must be approached with positivity. Online - find evidence against / come up with witty retort.
  • Vent/rant
  • Someone told me I should include crying, as “it happens”. Very true.
  • It depends on the person :  Negativity from those close to this person - they would seek to find out why and try and change their mind. With strangers he would be more likely to be polite and disengage.
  • Political things - venting. Real life stuff - internalising.
  • Use it to get better, rise above, realise it's their issue
I'd like to go into the subject of crying a bit more. I suspect some male readers will recoil at the idea crying might be a good release mechanism. I’m not an expert but would say that it is better than suppressing or minimizing emotional responses. It is certainly very important. The media can be extremely cruel on election night, looking for defeated politicians about to shed a tear, but that aside, it maybe the one of the most emotionally healthy responses to overt negativity or mis-treatment.
And from my own perspective – I used to internalise but now will rant to some of my good friends that I can trust, or vent by turning into a blog or journal entry.
It seems there are as many different reactions as there are people and also there is a lot of differentiation between differing groups of people and context – those close to us, and strangers; activists and voters; online and “real life”.  I fully appreciate everyone that’s replied to me for their time and thought, which has brought me to this understanding.
Now, into solution mode:
I wonder what we, as a party, could gain from learning about Emotional Intelligence, and learning to feel our emotions, the negativity we receive (and the positivity!) or support each other within this.
When we feel something, it’s important to feel it, hold our opinion lightly and engage with the other person to achieve communication. It’s not really about suppressing or running away from our feelings as that will tend to come out in other ways which can have a detrimental effect on a person.
The other thing that’s brought on this analysis is I recently volunteered for the Samaritans and even at their first" intro" session they stressed the value of emotional health and both feeling and dealing with negative emotions. We can, and I think especially the British can, run away from our emotions and attempt to intellectualise them.What’s fascinating about my replies what just how much differentiation there is between people.  What I think is relevant to politicians and activists is just how much of a difficult experience working in politics is, and how we need to support each other.
I don’t think we should all start crying on doorsteps, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on how we, as activists, might want to be more emotionally supportive of each other, allowing or providing opportunities for activists to vent and rant and move on from any negativity received.
It may be that some people are already doing this within their groups/local parties, if so, please share…

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