Now that the winds of acrimony blowing from Ottawa have abated, we can reflect upon the differing emotional displays of our political leaders. They have much to teach us about how dysfunctional anger may afflict our personal lives.
We saw, on the one hand, the quietly poisonous anger of Stephen Harper. Even before Belinda Stronach’s defection, the Conservative leader was described as “simmering” these past few weeks. The day Ms. Stronach abandoned his party, Mr. Harper denounced her with soft sarcasm. His eyes glowering, his mouth pulled into the hint of a smile, he slipped in the dagger. “I never noticed complexity to be Belinda’s strong point,” he said, exhibiting passive-aggressive resentment.
By contrast, there are the volcanic rages of Paul Martin. Privately, the Prime Minister is said to have a ferocious temper. In his biography of the Liberal leader, journalist John Gray depicts Mr. Martin launching into an “astonishing attack” on a civil servant. “Such was the explosion that the worried officials kept inching their chairs backward so that they would not find themselves in the line of fire.” His staff have referred to such diatribes as “beatings.”
Rage and resentment can each be corrosive to the individuals who generate them and also to those around them.
Like volcanic fire, in the psychological sense, rage immolates the person from within and then burns or singes others nearby. Physiologically, rage raises the blood pressure. In its immediate aftermath, it doubles the risk of stroke and heart attacks. Preliminary results from a study at the University of Saskatchewan showed that when volunteers were subjected to stress, blood pressure returned to normal levels more rapidly in people who knew how to resolve situations constructively than in those with a tendency to “blow their tops.”
Within the brain, the neurological circuits of rage have a self-recruiting effect. The more one indulges in an explosion of rage, the angrier one gets because more and more nerve connections become triggered into joining the rage reaction. The risk of physiological damage rises accordingly. A 10-year study of nearly 3,700 Americans found that hot-tempered men were 20 per cent more likely to have died than those who stayed calm.
Although not stemming from a conscious decision, rage in an adult is generally a prerogative of power. It serves to intimidate. As a cabinet minister, Mr. Martin himself endured, red-faced, the bullying tactics of his then leader, Jean Chrétien, without permitting himself a rejoinder in kind. In the past, I have been rageful around my family or, on occasion, around nurses — but never around people whom I perceived to be more powerful.
The effects on those who suffer another’s rage are contingent on their degree of dependence. People eager to hold on to a job will, of necessity, suppress their feelings around an ornery boss, as will people fearful of “rocking the boat” with a partner they are afraid to lose.
There is a health cost to be paid for such self-abnegation. A large U.S. study published in the journal Circulation recently found that unhappily married women who kept quiet during conflicts with their mates were four times as likely to die over a 10-year period than their cohorts, equally unhappy, who did express their emotions.
Small children especially have no choice but to put up with a parent’s rage, with potentially grave damage to their development. Some learn to walk on eggshells permanently, to propitiate, to be compulsive peacemakers. They become afraid of all anger, including their own healthy assertiveness. The consequences, years later, show up in physical disease such as cancer or autoimmune disease, or in mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Others may themselves become rageaholics.
Resentment, more insidious, is often hidden from the person harbouring it. Expressed in words only indirectly, it is unsettling to be around. In witnesses, it creates a feeling of unease rather than fear. Children who grow up around parents with unexpressed anger will often become compulsive mind readers and caregivers.
Resentment, too, has negative physiological consequences. It has well been said that carrying resentment is like taking poison while hoping someone else will die of it. The less conscious we are of anger, the more deeply it eats away at us. I have seen many people with migraine headaches or asthma or nerve pain, for example, whose resentment never found its way to the surface in the form of direct, healthy assertion.
Resentment is often what people choose when they are afraid of their feelings of guilt. We may experience guilt when we tell others what we truly feel or when we wish to say no to another’s demands or even to our own self-imposed expectations. To avoid the guilt, we suppress our truer response — only to suffer resentment and long-term harm. “When it comes to guilt or resentment,” a perceptive therapist once told me, “choose the guilt every time. It’s healthier for you.”
Without blaming ourselves, we can all become responsible for how we handle anger. We can recognize when our rage attacks ourselves or others, or when sullen resentment poisons our internal and external milieu. For some, conscious awareness may be all that is needed. Others, with more pervasive anger issues, can seek help. How to tell when you have an anger problem? When your body language and tone say more than your words.
In a letter to this newspaper, Mr. Harper was offered sound advice in relation to the Stronach affair: “Forget trying to smile,” someone wrote.