flickr image by Pascal

In this year’s election cycle, there is understandable anxiety about terrorism. Political candidates are competing to reassure voters that they are the strongest candidate and have the best plan for keeping us safe.

This raises some interesting psychological issues. How do we react when our sense of safety and well-being are threatened? What does it mean to be strong in the face of danger? What is a wise response to a difficult or scary situation?

Some light might be shed on the subject if we observe how we react when real or imagined threats arise in our close relationships. When we’re attacked or blamed — or when a relationship seems threatened — we’re subject to the fight, flight, freeze response. The amygdala and other mechanisms in our brain swing into action to protect us. Our immediate impulse is to attack, withdraw, or become immobilized.

A common view of strength limits itself to the “fight” part of this self-protective mechanism. When we’re attacked by a person, country, or shadowy terrorist group, our impulse is to fight back.

It is extremely uncomfortable to feel out of control and vulnerable. Experiencing a threat to our safety or well-being, we may feel compelled to do something to restore a sense of control over our lives — or the illusion of control. But just as it feels good to scratch a mosquito bite, are we only making a bad situation worse?

Some political candidates are grabbing headlines by trying to demonstrate that they are the strong leader who will take the aggressive steps necessary to eliminate threats and retain order, such as by preventing Muslims from entering the country and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. But are such lulling reassurances similar to the pronouncements of other over-confident rulers throughout history who offer seemingly simple solutions to enormosly complex issues–lulling an anxious citizenry into a false sense of security?

A question for Americans is whether we want leaders who appear to be giving uninhibited voice to the “fight” part of the fight-or-flight response or those who have a mature capacity to modulate impulse with intelligent, skillful action. The events of 9-11 happen and we attack Iraq with inadequate deliberation or consideration of consequences. Many believe that this was the worst mistake in American military history, with consequences to be felt for many years to come.

I’m not suggesting that we remain idle when danger lurks. Wise and skillful action is necessary. But if we view aggressive reactivity as strength, then we may vote for candidates who are not very adept at impulse control and who do not recognize complexity and the big picture. Conversely, we may view politicians who advise thoughtful deliberation — patiently building alliances and using diplomacy — as weak and indecisive.

Misperceiving what strength really is has grave consequences for our national security. Consider the strength required for President John F. Kennedy to walk a fine line during the Cuban missile crisis. Political hawks, who pride themselves on being strong and have little tolerance for uncertainty, advised attacking Cuba. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed; a naval blockade was instituted to buy time for a negotiated settlement. The world took a deep breath. It may be useful to imagine what some of today’s candidates might have advised.

The Hazard of Reactive Anger

Most of us recognize that reactive anger in relationships is a sign of insecurity, not a reflection of strength or sound mental health. If our partner provokes us through a hurtful outburst or a threat to leave the relationship, we’ll be understandably angry or fearful. But this would not justify acting out such emotions. Responding with physical violence, bullying, or throwing a dish or verbal bomb is a sign of weakness, not strength. It takes wisdom and what is called “ego strength” to tolerate uncomfortable emotions without needing to discharge them through some thoughtless action that will have unintended consequences.

It takes courageous awareness to be mindful of our emotions without immediately acting upon them. It takes strength and emotional maturity to pause so that we can consider a wise, measured response rather than just react.

We can tell a lot about people’s character by how they treat others. Are they respectful, even when they disagree? Do they have a temper tantrum when they don’t get their way? Do they resort to impulsive, hostile outbursts that are shaming, insulting, and verbally abusive? Do they have a capacity to listen respectfully or do they cling to power in an uncompromising way? Do they have the strength to be humble or do they seem self-absorbed? Can they admit that they don’t have all the answers and freely solicit input from others?

Personally speaking, I’m more apt to trust leaders who are strong enough to reveal their humanity, such as by showing tears in public and acknowledging their limitations. We won’t have truly strong, wise leaders until the electorate becomes more discerning and psychologically aware.

Candidates who have a distorted view of strength or masculinity may view international affairs as a boxing match rather than a chess game. When dealing with vicious adversaries, we need leaders who have the inner strength to not succumb to base impulses and who spread fear and think in simplistic black and white categories. Ultimate victory comes to those who have the intelligence and patience to think many moves ahead, as did FDR and other leaders during World War II.

FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He recognized that fear breeds fear. Despite missteps, such as interning Japanese people living in America, his wise and steady leadership reflected an inner strength and resolve that is rare in today’s politics.

Creating a safer world requires an educated electorate — one that recognizes that truly strong leaders are those who are wise, steady, and not prone to impulsivity. As we become more psychologically healthy and mature as a nation, we’re more likely to differentiate between those candidates who have the interest, wisdom, and capacity to serve the public good from those who are mainly driven by a desire for power and status.

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flickr image by Pascal