Sunday, April 24, 2011

Getting it Twisted: 4 Mental Mistakes Cops Make

When I see a new police officer client in my practice, I listen for the content of the officer’s problems. 
This department is FUBAR
My supervisor is a jackhole 
I can’t sleep 
you get the point. 
Yet, more important than the content of our problems is how we think about our problems. More often than not, our thinking is the problem, or at least makes it much worse.  
You’re feelings are never wrong, but your thoughts can be. A few years of unchecked, incorrect thinking can get us pretty sick. That’s because our thoughts lead to feelings, and prolonged feelings (i.e. anxiety, depression) screws up our body by releasing potentially toxic levels of cortisol and the suppressing feel-good chemicals like serotonin.  So, ground zero for your gastritis, insomnia, anxiety or depression is HOW YOU THINK about stuff. 
Depression and anxiety meds fly off shelves faster than the busy bees at your HMO can stock ‘em. Pharmeceutical industry executives have huge houses and take expensive vacations because they sell us medicine that helps fix the results of our twisted thinking. 
Cops aren’t especially prone to twisted thinking, we just gravitate toward certain types of what are technically called ‘cognitive distortions.’ These are the distortions I see the most in police officers,
[the names of these bad boys come from The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns]
1. All or nothing thinking. This happens when, instead of thinking of your police agency as running well in some areas and poorly in others, we conclude, “This place is totally fucked up!” TOTALLY. Nothing good here. Really? Very few things in life are all bad (or all good for that matter).  When we consistently see things as all this or all that we are making a mental mistake. 
2. Labeling. This happens when you label the totality of who you are based on one event. For example, I recently allowed a guy to look for his ID in a duffle bag he had at his feet, an officer safety mistake. A concerned fellow officer pointed this out to me. If I were to say to myself, “I’m a fuckin’ IDIOT!” that would be an example of labeling. Allowing the bad guy to access his duffle bag was a tactical error, not an indictment of my worth as a human being. 
Cops tend to be perfectionists. Employers love perfectionists and we usually have successful professional lives. That is, until the pressure we put on ourselves blows up our body and we get panic attacks or ulcers. 
3. “Should statements”: Related to perfectionism. Not sure why, but it seems like police officers ‘musterbate’ more than your average bear. 
I need to be more careful.
I need to stop making this mistake.
I need to tell my Sgt. to find another punching bag. 
I need to have a tougher skin. 
No, you don’t. Believing that you must is bad for your health. How ‘bout, 
I’d feel safer at work if I took my time more and called for cover more often. 
I’d like to really focus up on my report writing.
I think I’d feel better about myself if I set limits with Sgt. Douche Bag. 
I’m a sensitive person, a quality almost universally seen as desirable. I’m going to practice toughening up a bit for this cop job so I can feel less vulnerable at work. 
4. Emotional Reasoning. Those who use emotional reasoning either forget or don’t know that emotions are, by definition, temporary. In this world, I feel angry = I’m being screwed over or feeling guilty means “I’m a bad person.” We cannot draw long term conclusion ― any long term conclusion ― from an emotion. Better is to (a) recognize it as a feeling and (b) know that it will pass. Even desirable feelings (i.e. that of being ‘in love’) won’t last forever. 
In The Feeling Good Handbook, author David Burns offers up some practical advice for how to “untwist” your thinking. For now, if you’re able to identity your own cognitive distortions you’re well on your way. Peer support officers in particular would benefit from trying to identify not only their own twisted thinking, but that of their fellow officers who come to them for help. 
Happy untwisting!


  1. "Yet, more important than the content of our problems is how we think about our problems. More often than not, our thinking is the problem, or at least makes it much worse."

    Thank you for saying it. (Picture me dancing gleefully in the rain!) A positive, hopeful perspective DOES NOT indicate mental retardation! The good is every bit as real as the bad; don't feed the skunk.
    Not as polished as it should be, but it makes a valid point.

  2. Don't feed the skunk, I like that Suz.

  3. Thanks for another informative blog. I co-lead an online team for those in police dispatch and 911 and am trying to keep us all educated about mental health. May I quote some of the information seen in your blogs?

  4. I will of course give reference, this is just valuable information I don;t want missed.

  5. Since I no longer work for my former department, I have publicly called them out on my personal FB site regarding their decision to turn the officer's mental health over to the Chaplains. I provided the link to your site and a recommendation based on the help you provided to me. You might see an increase in activity soon.

  6. Harlequin - Right on! Good for you to take provide that information to your dispatchers. Of course, you can use whatever you want. Good on you!

    Beat - Hope you're good brother. Chaplain's are a great and needed part of any fully functioning Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team. Key word..."part." Thanks for the plug to your old dept. Guess I need to check out some of your recent blog entries to find out what's up.

  7. I think it is ironic that you are concerned about labelling yourself as an idiot, but have no problem calling the man with the duffle bag a "bad guy."

  8. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes that police make... which in turn gets them twisted... is thinking in such black and white terms.. Good guy, bad guy.... how about human? As human as you.

  9. Hi Jeff. I was wondering whet6her planting dope on people you want to illegally search makes you feel or think you are psychologically better off. Ben Lusk

    P.S. Do you know what a "bad cop" is?

  10. What about the cops that have fun coming in for a small thing to arrest you and punch you and laugh at it and then get scared and put an r & o on you to protect themselves? Plus do sexual acts towards you to disgrace you? And the ones with them go right along with the lies in court to say that never happened? It did.