Each year I am privileged to meet thousands of women in law enforcement at various training events and conferences and every one of them has a story. It’s interesting to see who is successful, who enjoys their life and their career, and who is angry, bitter, and unhappy. Some women just seem to sail through the most terrible of circumstances and bounce right back, and others absolutely fall apart when the slightest inconvenience occurs. Most of it comes down to this: it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it. In other words, how resilient are you?
Tragedy happens in police work. We get shot at, run over, beat up, stabbed, and everything in between. We also witness things that are incomprehensible to the normal human psyche, such as fathers who molest their children, mothers who murder their babies, and people who kill cops for no reason at all. We also get accused of doing things we didn’t do, we get disciplined for doing stupid things we didn’t mean to do, and we often deal with co-workers, supervisors and managers who seem to completely determined to make us miserable. The reality of law enforcement is this: what tends to cause us the most stress is not violence, trauma, or general human debasement, its “administrative stress,” or how we perceive we are being treated by the agency. This becomes especially tough for female cops, because as much as I’d like to reassure everyone that it’s 2011 and there are no longer gender inequities in this profession, I can’t. On some agencies women still get treated differently, and there are individual police officers and supervisors who still believe that women have no place in law enforcement beyond the dispatch center and the records division. In other words, as my mother used to say, “life’s not fair.”
So how do we deal with the inequities and still get good police word done? We become “resilient!” Dr. Al Siebert’s follow up to his outstanding book “The Survivor Personality” addresses how we can train ourselves to become more resilient so that when adversity does happen in our lives, we are more than ready to deal with it. This book is called “The Resiliency Advantage” and it belongs in the library of every cop on the planet, male or female. Think about how you to react to adversity. Do you freak out, shut down, get angry, become ill? We all react differently in different situations, but we need to make sure that we don’t allow ourselves to become hopeless victims, just moving through our career (and our life) reacting to whatever comes next and wondering “why me?” You’ve got to take control of your own reactions, something much easier said than done but essential to your resiliency.
Police work puts us in a paradoxical situation. We are thrust into a paramilitary setting where we are expected to dress alike, obey orders, and leave most of our decision-making skills at the door. Generally speaking, cops are told what to drive, when to eat, and very often, what to think. Questioning the thought processes and decisions of our superiors is often viewed as insubordination. I’ve seen more than a few police managers with that old sign in their office that says “If I Want Your Opinion, I’ll Ask For It,” and they’re not kidding. Despite what the public thinks, we often have limited autonomy…that is until the S#&T hits the fan. Then we are expected to make those life and death, million dollar decisions all by ourselves, and do it within policy, out of public view, and in a manner that makes the chief a hero to both the press and the city counsel. No wonder cops are crabby.
So how do you become more “resilient?” First of all, learn to assess what Dr. Julian Rotter called your “locus of control.” Dr. Rotter developed the “social learning theory” that social context and environmental factors effect our behavior as much or more than psychological factors. In other words, we have a great deal of control over our own thoughts, feelings and reactions despite what is happening internally and externally in our lives. Think about what you control and what you don’t. For example, you control how hard and how well you work, but you don’t control how people are going to react to or reward you for all that effort. Can you live with that? You don’t control your body; we all get sick or injured, but you can control how you treat that body. Can you commit to optimizing your own health and your ability to recover from injury? These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself if you truly want to become not just a survivor, but a winner.
It’s easy for me (or people in your life) to say “cheer up,” “have a good attitude” or “be more optimistic,” but it’s a whole lot harder to actually implement those kinds of feel-good platitudes to improve your outlook, and ultimately, your ability to be resilient. This stuff takes hard work. Understand and accept that life is the greatest teacher, and learn to view every experience, especially the bad ones, as opportunities to learn and grow. As M. Scott Peck said in The Road Less Traveled: “Wise people learn not to dread, but actually to welcome problems.” As we say in the “Street Survival” seminar, stop being a victim of everyone else’s actions, whims and desires and take control of what you can while leaning let go of what you can’t. This profession is one of the most exciting, honorable, and frankly, fascinating ways to make a living. Don’t waste it by being a victim, commit to becoming truly resilient; next month, I’ll tell you exactly how to accomplish that. Until then, stay safe!
About The Author:
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. Recently retired as a patrol supervisor, she has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.
As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.
A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites including Police Link. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar since 2003, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for Police One TV and was a featured character in the Biography Channel’s “Female Forces” reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States and Canada and beyond.
Betsy is the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival for Women” seminar and manages Dave Smith & Associates. Together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through “Winning Mind Seminars,” an Illinois based company. She can be reached through her website at www.femaleforces.com.