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From Cynicism to Depression

Let’s take a minute for a little free association.  What do the following phrases/situations bring to mind?

Boy Scout Troop Leader 

Disgruntled postal worker 

A priest counseling a troubled adolescent

Wow, aren’t you all a bunch of cynical…!

We have done a similar exercise during trainings and, every time, the uncomfortable laughter and comments start, especially when we bring up “Boy Scout Troop Leader.”  When we ask why the responses fall typically along the lines of, “Well, because we know what the world is really like…,” or “Just look at the news every night; you see what’s going on!  Those are just some of the more common a**holes out there!” 

So, let’s take our free association exercise a step further, shall we?  What do you think of when you read the following?

Domestic violence victim

Did you find your initial, visceral reaction to be one of empathy and triggering a protective instinct?  Or was it more cynical?

That law enforcement tends to breed cynicism among its practitioners is hardly breaking news; it’s a staple of what goes on and has gone on in departments across the world in reality, as well as in TV, movie, and literary fiction.  Frankly, it’s expected and, in a way, can be an important component of physical and emotional safety.  Take the example of the domestic violence victim; one of the most common crime victims police officers encounter, and one where they learn that, no matter what they do and how dedicated they are to helping, most will continue to be victims in some way or another until they make the choice to change.  And that change comes slowly, if at all.  The cynicism this breeds may actually help the officer keep perspective.  Good cops do their jobs to best of their ability, provide the victim with opportunity to help themselves, but without raising their expectations too high, and then leave the responsibility for whatever the victim decides to do firmly on the victim’s shoulders knowing there is a good chance all their efforts will be for naught; without a touch of cynicism, expectations will be dashed time and again until the officer burns out completely.

But even though a touch of cynicism is, arguably, good for officer survival – naiveté, by contrast, leaves a cop vulnerable to having the wool repeatedly pulled over his eyes, at best, or possibly being hurt or killed, at worst - taken too far, cynicism can become all-encompassing.  It creates distrust in everything and everyone, becoming no longer merely a prudent reality check but a poison.  Taken too far, a cop’s unrestrained cynicism breeds depression. 

Last month we looked at depression and some of the myths – and corresponding realities – surrounding it.  Depression is something cops are as susceptible to as anyone else; in fact, the very nature of their job and the cynicism it breeds may make them even more susceptible. 

But it does not have to be this way?

People work in many careers besides law enforcement that expose them to human suffering and the repetitive poor choices – as well as outright bad behavior - of those they serve and work for and with.   The stresses of these careers have the same potential to leave workers vulnerable to cynicism, burnout, and depression as the stresses of police work.  But is that potential realized as much as it is in police work?

That’s a difficult question to answer.  For starters, there is no really reliable way to empirically measure cynicism.  Although the existence and depth of depression is more easily determined, it relies a lot on open self-reporting and it’s not always easy to get the less-than-willing to self-disclose – especially if they’re already cynical about the motives of whoever is asking them about their depression.  Cynicism ultimately has to be “measured” by subjective observation and personal experience.  To that end, we ask you as those who work in and around law enforcement:  Is cynicism – and its byproduct of depression – an issue in the profession, at least for some?

One of the first questions to consider is this:  Are cynics born that way or are their worldviews shaped by outside forces?  Well, both really.  Research seems to indicate that some people are genetically predisposed to a cynical outlook.  People with an “inborn tendency toward depressive disorders are at increased risk of developing a cynical outlook” (Svoboda, Elizabeth, A Field Guide to the Cynic, Psychology Today, 11/06).  But Svoboda further cites study by UC-Irvine personality researcher Salvatore Maddi, who claims cynics are generally made rather than born…

“According to Maddi,” Svoboda writes, “the first seeds of cynicism are often planted when people put in effort to achieve a goal like snagging a promotion at work or raising a self-sufficient child – and then see their hopes dashed.”

This “disconnect between expectation and reality” plants the seeds for a feeling of helplessness and, taken further and with additional disappointments, prompts “the emergence of a hallmark of the cynical personality:  the sense that nothing anyone does in life really matters.” 

To be fair to our more cynical brethren, research does seem to indicate that cynicism has a shielding effect against disappointment (“expect the worst, you won’t be disappointed”) and being taken in by those who would mean you harm (“just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean no one is out to get you”).  That is, if it’s “healthy” cynicism, narrowly applied.  Take it too far, however, and any benefits reaped will be overshadowed by potential peril; besides the emotional impact of depression and, in some cases, the emergence of self-destructive behaviors, there is some indication cynics are much more prone to physical ailments. 

We will be looking more deeply at cynicism, depression, and how cops can find balance between a “healthy” dose and an “overdose.”  In the meantime, never lose sight of these simple truths:

  • Millions of boys have gone through the Boy Scouts, guided and mentored by tens of thousands of upstanding and well-intentioned adult Boy Scout Leaders, with no ill effects;
  • Almost every single postal worker in America – disgruntled or otherwise – will somehow manage to make it through their careers without committing even a single little episode of workplace carnage;
  • Despite the appalling, high-profile exceptions, most examples of clergy abuse of minors are similar to appalling, high-profile police misconduct cases where bad behavior gets most of the ink while the vast majority who do only good labor in obscurity.

And even closer to home, consider the domestic violence victim we mentioned at the top of this article, and realize that for some of these victims, perseverance pays off.  Eventually they will make the changes they need.  That is the knowledge that keeps the officer grounded despite the cynicism.

Until then, stay safe!  And stay grounded.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.