It’s been said that people are either optimists or pessimists. Simplistically speaking, you’re either a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person, right? Wrong!
“Pessimism” is defined by Webster’s as “an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.” Initially, that sounds like a lousy way to view life, but from a law enforcement perspective, we MUST always be prepared for the worst. In fact, we need to anticipate it at all times and be ready to respond appropriately. We must “expect the unexpected.” When you make a traffic stop, expect to get shot at. When you enter an intersection on your way to a hot call, expect someone to ignore your lights and siren. When you walk into a domestic dispute, expect to get ambushed. In other words, expect the worst and be mentally and physically prepared to deal with it.
To people outside of law enforcement, this attitude might seem a bit paranoid, but there’s a huge difference between preparing for bad things to happen and worrying yourself sick about them. “Worrying“ is simply negative visualization, and it does you absolutely no good. In fact, studies show that excessive worrying is especially detrimental to your cardiovascular and immune systems; it can literally make you ill. You must train your brain to prepare, not to worry. This is where optimism comes in.
Researcher Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD and author of Breaking Murphy’s Law says that “optimism” isn’t something that you are, it’s something that you do. We know that anxiety and other negative emotions have a detrimental effect on people, both mentally and physically. Studies indicate that people who are optimistic about their future tend to behave differently. Physically, optimists take better care of themselves; they eat better, they exercise, they tend to make healthier lifestyle choices. Emotionally, having an optimistic nature seems to help people buffer stress. So being an optimist is good for you, but can it help save your life on the street? Absolutely! Tactically, optimism is nearly as important as your “hard skills” like firearms, driving, and subject control. As Dr. Segerstrom states, “optimism is a belief that aspects of your future will turn out well,” whether it’s five minutes from now or 15 years from now.
So how do you convince your inner Eeyore to team up with the happy-go-lucky Sponge Bob part of your brain?
First of all, don’t confuse “happiness” with being an optimist. “Happiness” is a feeling; it fluctuates constantly, depending on what is happening in your life. No one is “happy” every single day of their life. Bad things happen to everyone. But having an optimistic disposition helps you deal with and work through difficult emotions like sadness, anger and disappointment. You can be sad about something, but still feel positive about your future. That’s true optimism.
Next, don’t make the mistake of believing that true “pessimism” is a negative thing. As police officers, we must view the world as a violent place. We have to accept that some people may want to do us harm. We know that we have to take risks, like driving fast in less than perfect conditions. We purposely put ourselves in dangerous situations, like directing traffic at a dark intersection in the aftermath of a hurricane. We know that we may one day have to take a bullet meant for a stranger, or take someone’s life. It’s what we do. One of the reasons cops have jobs is because there are bad people and tragic circumstances in the communities we have sworn to protect and serve.
So how do we apply all of this to day-to-day crimefighting?
Imagine that during your next “routine” traffic stop the passenger bails out of the vehicle and starts shooting at you during your initial approach. The pessimist in you has already prepared you for this moment, so you’re not surprised, you’re ready. The optimistic side of you says “I deserve a positive future. I’m going to win this gunfight.” You take cover, draw your weapon, stop the threat, administer self-aid if necessary; in other words, you win the gunfight. You just successfully combined optimism and pessimism!
If you are used to thinking of yourself as an optimist, remember, the water is in the middle of the glass and it’s not going to move either way unless someone takes a drink or fills it to the top. You’ve got to be prepared for not having enough water, or having too much water that it overflows. So when someone asks you if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, the truth is, in our profession, you have to be both. Stay safe!