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Recalibrating Your Perspective

A little grit in the eye destroyeth the sight of the very heavens, and a little malice or envy a world of joys. One wry principle in the mind is of infinite consequence.”  - Thomas Traherne

In this series, we’ve been looking at the effects of cynicism – the familiar companion of many, if not most, veteran cops – and how easy it is to slide from occasionally partaking of “healthy” doses of cynicism into overdosing.  While being somewhat cynical and guarded, at least on the job and on the street, is arguably necessary for a police officer to remain grounded, safe, and effective, going too far with it begins to have adverse affects personally and professionally, even contributing to burnout and depression.

Many officers begin to divide the world into clearly defined, black-and-white camps:  All people are viewed as either good or bad, and eventually victims or offenders (both of which may even be viewed with only slightly different forms of contempt).  Pretty soon, more and more people are cast into the bad – or at least the “a**hole” camp even if they’re not of the criminal element – and the pool of who the officer is willing to trust grows smaller and smaller.  Eventually the pool of “trusted people” shrinks to include only family, a tiny handful of longtime close friends, and other cops… and even then just CERTAIN family, old friends, and colleagues.

It does seem, as was pointed out in last month’s column (From Cynicism to Depression), that certain folks may be predisposed to cynicism.  For others, experiences form and confirm a cynical outlook.  Either way, it’s rampant in law enforcement.  Again, that is fine… to an extent.  When cynicism becomes so prevalent it provokes a siege mentality, other unhealthy behaviors, or outright depression, it’s gone too far – and the sufferer may be too far gone.  It is critical police officers manage their cynicism lest it hurt them, their relationships, or their career.

Recalibrating your perspective – Part I

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”  - Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s famous quotation on perspective seeks to explain our human tendencies we use to define our experiences and how we choose to manage them.  Our brains naturally want to characterize people and events, by comparing them to prior experiences and the knowledge that came from them, into easily understood categories.  Then, reaching into the “mental toolbox” it’s complied over years of experience, the brain finds a tool with which to manage the experience in front of it.  When the experience is some kind of a problem to be solved, the tool used will ideally be the best for that particular circumstance.  Realistically, however, the tool is likely not the “best for the job” so much as the simply the “most comfortable and easiest to use.”  It might work in the moment, but is it really the most effective?  Is using the wrong tool maybe even causing harm?

Is how you categorize people and situations really the best tool for the job, or to keep you from overdosing on cynicism?  Have you defined the people and their problems you encounter so narrowly it limits your perspective, or whittles away at any empathy you might hold for them?  If so, are you shortchanging them – and yourself – by narrowing your possible responses?          

The problem for cops is that the healthy levels of cynicism are hard to regulate.  Take lying, for example:  We know that suspects lie.  We know that they’ll lie even when they know we already know the truth.  They’ll lie even when they know telling the truth will benefit them!  For that matter, we know victims will often lie to us and there is always another level of unrevealed truth in so much of what we deal with. 

The logical conclusion becomes obvious, then:  People are liars

Well yes, they are.  We all are.  Human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-delusion – including me and, I would guess, most of you – when it comes to denying or hiding the uncomfortable or embarrassing aspects of our lives from ourselves.  Is it any wonder, then, that people lie when they know poor judgment got the better of them and now someone with a badge and vested with the power of arrest is asking a bunch of awkward questions?  Unfortunately, the “people are liars” explanation becomes the hammer solution – simple and easy to fall back on, but is it really the best perspective? 

So here is the recalibration:  The perspective “People are liars” (which is a rather harsh and, frankly, judgmental indictment of all for a universal urge of people under stress) can be recalibrated to “Human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-delusionIs it any wonder, then, that people lie (try to delude others) when they know poor judgment got the better of them (and they are now being accountable for it).”  It’s all about empathy, the capacity to identify and understand someone else’s feelings, fears, or difficulties, and framing your own emotional reaction accordingly.  Having empathy does not mean you don’t hold people accountable… you must and you do, that’s your job.  It does mean you recognize why they do what they do and never lose sight of your own capacity to fall short.  It means you allow yourself a different and more adaptable perspective that allows for both creative policing and a less fatalistic point-of-view.

For cops, empathy is something you should extend others not only for their sake, but for you own. 

Recalibrating your perspective – Part II

When you're in the muck you can only see muck. If you somehow manage to float above it, you still see the muck but you see it from a different perspective. And you see other things too. That's the consolation of philosophy.”  - David Cronenberg

Get above the muck.  Whatever challenges and crimes you find yourself mired in as a cop – be it the violence and hopelessness of an inner city ghetto, mind numbingly horrific crimes against children, repetitive and seemingly endless domestic disputes, the penchant of certain in our society to steal anything they can get their hands on – draw back form it for a more panoramic view.  Find what does work in the ghetto, and draw inspiration from the many – albeit, often hidden – success stories and how they benefit the community.  Take note of the rise of outrage against those who would harm the most vulnerable and innocent in the community, and how individuals and organizations are stepping up to combat the problem.  Realize there are families that do get better, and homes where the calls do stop because they’ve gotten the help they need – or maybe someone finally had enough and left after you told them a dozen times to get out while they could – and remember you may not help everyone but you do help some.  And understand that chasing those who would cheat and steal from the honest, if perhaps sometimes naïve, citizens are your cross to bear, and one you gladly took up.  Celebrate every one you capture, knowing they are societies outliers, and those are the true “cops-and-robbers” cases most people truly admire and cheer us for.   

Practice proactive, rather than reactive, policing.  Get out of your car and into the restaurants and coffee shops, bars and gas stations, grocery stores and “Mom-and-Pops,” chat up the staff at your hotels and apartment complexes.  Open up to the public you serve.  Pass out business cards like it’s going out of style and, as far as is appropriate, try to become “Jim” or “Sarah” instead of “Officer Smith” or “Detective Jones” to those people you see regularly.  Chances are they’ll love it, and people are far more likely to open up and cooperate with – or encourage others to open up and cooperate with – a police officer with whom they sense not just a working connection to, but a friendship.  The professional dividends are great, and the personal dividends you’ll receive better yet. 

Healthy cynicism is critical to successful and safe policing but, like the immoderate drinker who easily becomes a drunk, immoderate cynicism can easily make an unfettered cynic.  The police officers challenge, then, is to find balance; you must find the balance between healthy cynicism and that which goes too far.         

It takes a clever man to turn cynic and a wise man to be clever enough not to.  - Fannie Hurst


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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.