What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Lose it Mr. President! (We need you to.)

Maybe in a crisis we need more than calm sanity from our leaders.

Recently, a longing has been expressed in the press and "blogosphere" for President Obama to ditch his signature cool and "lose it" or "blow his top" over the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the surface, this makes little sense. As the leader of a superpower, wouldn't we want our president to stay calm and able to contain his emotional experience in order to make sound, logical decisions?

It turns out that we want (and perhaps need) more from our leader than someone who can simply make good decisions and remain calm. We need for our leader to also express emotion about it - the same emotions that we ourselves are feeling. "One reason we're so attuned to others' emotions is that, when it's a real emotion, it tells us something important about what matters to that person," said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford University. When it's suppressed or toned down, he added, "people think, damn it, you're not like us, you don't care about the same things we do."

In addition to feelings of simpatico and caring, expression of emotion can also be experienced as inspiring. When President Obama spoke from the campaign trail he seemed to be at times speaking from an emotional or "heartfelt" place, which so many found to be moving and affecting. This is especially true for younger people - socially speaking, the ability to not respond to feelings of disgust or outrage may work well for older people but younger people tend to find it inauthentic or uncaring.

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Emoting (or not) is something that we learn over time as we grow up. When we are young, we simply emote naturally according to our temperament. Over time, the needs and expectations of our families, school, work, and social situations cause us to adapt and eventually create an automatic response. In other words, if staying calm and confident is what has worked during crises over time, it becomes and automatic response to future crises and can even dictate the amount of emotion or panic you actually feel.

But leadership, it seems, is about more than just coping with a crisis in the best way that the leader has learned how. It turns out that people turn to leaders during stressful times to not just take care of us, but also to verbalize and even demonstrate the emotional experience that we ourselves are feeling. We yearn to know that our leader feels the way we do - not just by his or her actions, but also by the expression of feeling about it. This may put leaders (presidents, teachers, parents, and bosses) in a position of having to learn a different way to express themselves - to unlearn, in some cases, what they have been conditioned to do - in order to lead effectively. Because leading effectively may not just be about making the right decisions, but also about how connected we feel to our leaders.

 

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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