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Taming the Dragons

Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy. - Aristotle

We all get angry. To be human is to feel, and to feel means we sometimes get to be mad. And if you work in law enforcement, especially as a cop, or if you care for someone who is in law enforcement, there seems to be no shortage of things to get mad about. And as we have discussed in Parts I and II of this series on The Angry Cop, the feelings of anger we experience are a normal and necessary part of life, "a signal, and one worth listening to." (Harriett Lerner, PhD, The Dance of Anger, 1985).

The problem with anger is it too often is mishandled, either being suppressed or "stuffed" into some hidden part of our psyche, or allowed to burst forth without constraint. Stuffing anger is like swallowing a slow poison; it festers and burns, eating us alive from the inside, until it risks destroying its host. Allowing its unfettered and indiscriminate expression, although it may feel good in the moment, burns outward and scorches not only the target but also unintended and innocent victims. It is a tactic with short-term satisfaction but long-term consequences to one's relationships and reputation.

Unfortunately, many current myth-makers tell us if we are angry there must be something wrong with us. We should always be happy. Feeling angry is wrong. Well, we do not subscribe to the idea everyone should always view the world with placid, Zen-like, beatific calm - and be honest, people who do always seem a little creepy - but rather appropriate anger should be understood, managed, and used in the way it was intended.

The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough. - Fr Bede Jarrett O.P., The House of Gold (c 1950)

So how do you understand, manage, and use something for good that when misunderstood, mismanaged, or misused can be so destructive? How do you turn something that has caused so much debilitation and depression in so many people into a force that can empower and energize? How can you learn to be "angry enough" to combat evil without scorching the good? Try the following six-step formula:

Acknowledge the anger

Learn to recognize your anger for what it is, and to admit or accept that you are angry. This may sound simplistic, but many people misidentify anger as something else entirely (depression, sadness, frustration, confusion, etc) without understanding or accepting they are really pissed! It is often said depression is "anger turned inward" or "anger without enthusiasm." Does this describe how you feel?

When you recognize your anger say it out loud to yourself and others you trust. Voicing your feelings is powerful medicine, and can be important as you seek accountability and perspective.

Identify what you are angry about

This seems far too obvious, but if you are not aware of what is really making you angry or why it makes you angry, you risk wasting your time and energies in a series of minor, never-ending skirmishes that camouflage the real problem.

Take this example; Jeff, your good friend and colleague, arrested a shoplifter who first tried to run from him, and then turned to fight. In Jeff's struggle to subdue and cuff the shoplifter, the much younger suspect sustained a separated shoulder. Now, Jeff is in the middle of an intense and high-stakes IAU investigation and the suspect and his parents are alleging excessive force and threatening to sue because the shoulder injury threatens the suspect's college wrestling scholarship. You, Jeff's loyal friend, have identified that nauseous, sour feeling in your stomach as anger. But at what are you angry? Is it because the department is potentially raking your friend over the coals on the word of a violent, whiny criminal and his biased parents? Is it the irrationality of someone who would fight the police and then complain when they get injured? Is it because you have seen other friends and colleagues go through the same thing and you see nothing but trouble ahead for Jeff? Or, is it because you fear your turn sitting in an IAU interview wondering if your career, reputation, and money are about to go spiraling into oblivion.

Finding a well-defined focal point of your anger is important in order to avoid being overwhelmed by poorly-defined emotions.

Mentally isolate that what makes you angry

Being a cop becomes more than just what you are, it becomes who you are. This is as it should be - a career in law enforcement is much more a calling than it is a choice - but the danger of this lies in allowing the whole of your life to consumed by the job. Likewise, a danger of anger lies in allowing it to infect all of the job, all of you, or all of your life beyond the original source of the anger.

So Captain Blohard is an intellectually-challenged autocrat working out his childhood "Mommy-issues" on the backs of hard-working "real" cops? Could be. Just be careful to not let it poison your attitude toward all brass. Police work seems a largely thankless profession dedicated to babysitting people who are lucky they manage to get through each day without killing themselves? Yes, it often seems that way, but never lose sight of the good you do every day and that there are many who appreciate, and even idolize, what you do.

Do not allow what makes you angry to poison everything. Instead, keep your eyes on the good in your world, retreat to it wholly at times, and return later to the fight refreshed.

Seek perspective

In Birmingham they love the Governor. Boo, boo, boo! Now we all did what we can do. - Ronnie Van Zant (1974)

Talk to others. Ask, "Is it just me or is something wrong here?" Try to figure out how large the problem is that is making you angry. Sometimes once we get a new perspective from someone with a different viewpoint, the anger dissolves and the problem seems less important. Other times, we find greater focus, and alliances with the like-minded. Allies can be crucial when it is time to confront wrong and fight for what is right.

Equally important is determining which battles are worth fighting, which are best accepted as unwinnable (and yes, sometimes the best course of action is no action), and which ones are best "shelved" until later. Not all the dragons need to be slain today; leave some for next week.

Get in the game/Become a warrior

Impotent fury rages powerless and to no purpose. - Virgil

We all get angry. Some people prefer to revel in their anger, wrap it around themselves like a cloak, and define their whole being by it. Others take action and confront the source. Which type do you want to be?

Become active in your union or association if you have one, or encourage bringing one in if you do not. Become an organizer for change. Be vocal, either through the spoken or written word, about what is wrong and how it can be fixed. Identify your skill set and determine how it can be used. See yourself not as a victim of that which angers you but as a adversary of it, and then think and act accordingly. Do not allow impotent fury to rage powerless and without purpose, instead find your strength and objectives.

Know when it is time to get help

So far this article has been about empowering yourself to stand up to the injustices and wrongs that hurt and anger you. We are not naive that a lot of you may feel overwhelmed and beaten down, or that forces in your life or at work may be such that our advice so far simply is not enough. We know that once depression gains a foothold it is very hard to shake without good professional help. We also know some of you face harsh management.

Know when you are overwhelmed and when it is time to seek outside, professional help. Know when your anger has become all-consuming, or when it the poison has spread too far. There are excellent counselors who can provide the help you need. Know when it is time to ask for it.

Be safe!