I just got back from a much-needed, extremely relaxing family vacation. One of the twenty or so books my husband (police trainer, author and obsessive bibliophile Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith) brought on our trip was titled “A Complaint Free World” by Will Bowen. I picked it up on our first full day of poolside sunbathing mostly because, although the titled intrigued me, it was thin and looked like a short, easy read. Three pages in, I couldn’t put it down or stop babbling about the author’s insight. Dave and I resolved to spend our week of fun and sun working hard to complain less. Trust me; this was not going to be easy, especially for a couple of retired cops.
Let’s be honest, cops love to bitch. Who doesn’t? It feels good to “vent” and besides, crimefighters have a lot to complain about. The public doesn’t like us, our families don’t understand us, and we often seem to get stuck working for people who forgot how tough being a real cop is. Bitch bitch bitch. The problem is, complaining doesn’t really do much good, and in the long run, it can become a bad habit that affects our relationships, our health, and our ability to stay resilient.
A good attitude and a positive outlook are just two of the many traits of resilient people, but that doesn’t mean you should go through life as a wide-eyed Pollyanna; far from it. As cops, we have to view the world as a dangerous place in order to stay safe; we need some healthy skepticism with a small dose of pessimism on the side. Dr. Al Seibert affirms that it’s our ability to choose a negative or positive thought process in any given situation that gives us an advantage, we can choose optimism or pessimism, or even combine the two the way we use both hot and cold water to make our morning shower comfortable. As an example, visualize your next traffic stop. You start out optimistic and confident in your ability to handle whatever may happen during the encounter. You approach the driver with measured pessimism, prepared for everything from a drawn gun to a lousy attitude, and then you allow optimism to put a smile on your face as you converse with the friendly, apologetic citizen behind the wheel. You appreciate the subject’s cooperation even as you stay on alert, knowing that seemingly nice people can turn on you instantly. You also scan the area outside of the vehicle, watching for traffic and other hazards, because optimists care about their own safety and survival and know they deserve a positive future. When the driver’s attitude deteriorates at the sight of that speeding ticket, you remain professional and polite, completing the stop safely. You don’t internalize the driver’s change in attitude, instead you empathize with his frustration even as you feel optimistic that the ticket may ultimately change his driving behavior and someday safe a life.
Strong self-confidence and a high self-esteem are also great predictors for resiliency, but what’s the difference between the two? Dr. Siebert describes “self-confidence” as “an action predictor…your gatekeeper for effective action. Law enforcement is an extremely action-oriented profession. Many cops are viewed as “cocky” by outsiders (or by supervisors) when in reality, they are just extremely self-confident. Working in a police department can be frustratingly paradoxical for the resilient employee. Fear of the unknown cause’s anxiety in human beings; self-confidence counteracts the anxiety and prepares us to deal appropriately with whatever comes next. In the “Street Survival” seminar, we call this “When/Then Thinking.” However, police organizations tend to hire people who are cooperative, obedient, and able to get along with others and then expect these people to also be self-reliant, change-proficient, self-motivated and willing to take risks. If not managed properly, these diverse traits can cause terrible conflict, both organizationally and individually.
Self-esteem is often viewed as an over-used, new-age buzz-word and is grossly misunderstood. Self-esteem is an emotional opinion about yourself; a high self-esteem alone will not make you successful or resilient. Most street gang members have high self-esteem (contrary to the teachings of many sociologists), but without an optimistic outlook toward the future, they become weak-minded criminals and drug addicts. You need to strive for and maintain a strong, healthy self-esteem, which will act like a thick protective layer of protection from hurtful criticism or a lack of praise. You probably don’t get many pats on the back at work. No one calls “911” when things are going well, and when we show up, chances are someone has been victimized, hurt, or is going to jail. A healthy self-esteem with fill the gap between the “thank you, Officer” you didn’t get or the supervisory commendation your sergeant forgot to write. Resilient people develop a quiet inner ability to praise themselves when they do well, and learn from their mistakes and move on when they don’t.
Not surprisingly, resilient people tend to associate with like-minded individuals. In Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Dr. Kevin Gilmartin talks about “victim-based thinkers;” people who are resistant to change, who feel that they have no control and that the department “owes them” more than a paycheck. These organizational victims tend to hang out with other victim-based thinkers, creating a vicious cycle of negativity. In order to gain and maintain a high level of resiliency, find positive, realistic, balanced individuals to spend time with, which brings me back to what I learned while reading “A Complaint Free World.” Complaining…bitching, griping, venting…whatever you want to call it, is necessary to the mental health of human beings (Abraham Maslow said so; it must be true). However, too much of it can taint your entire life, affecting your relationships, your career and even your health.
Heck, even our Officer.com editor, Frank Borelli, co-authored a book entitled “Above Dirt” (named for the website it grew from), an anthology of essays that find the positive lessons or support an optimistic outlook from a variety of perspectives. His book details lessons to help people find contentment in everything from nature’s beauty to family life and childhood memories. The general positive outlook of, “If you woke up Above Dirt then it’s a good day,” is supported throughout.
Resilient people tend to be realistically optimistic, they manage their self-talk, they take good care of their health and they have an inner confidence that is largely unaffected by what others think of them. The good news is, anyone can increase their ability to be a resilient individual, which will make you a better, safer, and probably happier cop. Stay safe!
- Female Forces online
- The Resiliency Advantage by Dr. Al Siebert
- A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen
- Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith
- Above Dirt by Frank Borelli and Steve Forgues
- Abraham Maslow
- Dr. Kevin Gilmartin
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 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.