Friday, November 22, 2013

Wellness Tip: Add Some Gratitude to Your Cynic Soup

Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; ... in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. ... So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, - for the reward is ... virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.
—Seneca, Epistles, lxxviii. 13-16 

There is no part of our mind/body so qualified to make us sick or well, as our thoughts. Depression, frustration and joy are all emotions and, like every other emotion, they are derived from whatever we were thinking about just before the feeling. In an important sense, we are our thoughts. 

The typical cop has a lot of thoughts about how junky the equipment is, how worthless the administration is, how lax the criminal justice system is, and so on. When we put all these thoughts into a big wooden soup bowl and eat from it every day, we can end up pretty cynical and burnt out. Over a period of decades, Cynic Soup can make you quite ill. 

If we don’t pay attention to the content of our thoughts, we’ll become victimized by them. The good news here, is that we have complete control over our thoughts.  It’s not easy to control all of our thoughts, all of the time, but we can - like putting some fresh spice into the soup -  add a few thoughts.

May I recommend at this point, adding thoughts of gratitude. Several months ago a respected academic journal (Journal of Clinical Psychology) published an article by two big brains who reviewed the research on gratitude. They found that people who made time to really consider the things they were grateful for lowered their blood pressure, improved their immune system and had more energy than the rest of us ingrates. 

The grateful bunch also had less anxiety, depression and substance abuse. So, it seems gratefulness was tailor made for cops, who are at increased risk for all the above maladies. 

There are lots of ways to bring gratitude into our lives. You can think about the things you are grateful for that day, while sipping your morning cup of Joe. You could remove the crap rubber banded to the visor of your patrol car, and replace it with a piece of paper that has one thing your grateful for that day on it. 

I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal for about a month now, and that’s amazing. Right before going to bed, I pull up my lap top and write a few things I felt grateful for that day. 

Don’t worry that keeping a gratitude journal will turn you into a soft, Birkenstock wearing hippie. We still have lots of things to be pissed off and cynical about. In fact, you should only consider putting some gratitude in your life if you want to be a little less pissed off and cynical. 

[[looking out my bedroom window feeling grateful for the lovely fall sunset]] 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Preying On Our Own: Damaging Gossip in Law Enforcement

“What are they saying?” This is a question Officers should never have to ask after a critical incident, but it is asked, almost every time. What are my fellow officers saying about me? Law Enforcement Officers, being hardwired perfectionists, are very concerned about how we are perceived by our peers. We know that gossip can develop into a “jacket.” Weak, stupid, butt kisser, get the picture. We often then believe (most of the time erroneously) that our entire career has been tainted by these easily earned and hard to get out of jackets. I’ve heard parolees lament, “It’s easy to get in the system. It’s ain’t easy to get out.” Same goes for the unfair labels we put on each other. 

Like it or not, we lead high profile lives. We have to put ourselves way out there in this profession. Soft spoken Officers have to learn how to bellow, “Get on the ground!” It may not feel natural but we do it because we have to. Ours is a difficult profession by anyone’s standards, and when we make our inevitable mistakes, it’s often right out there in the open. If you can’t stand the thought of looking foolish in public don’t even consider police work. 

The problem isn’t making mistakes, but rather what we fellow LEO’s do when we see or hear about the mistakes of our brothers and sisters in blue. And what would that be? We seek out all the gory details. Like chum thrown in shark infested waters, we swarm. A frenzy of gossip, exaggeration and trash talking erupts within the department. We love it. This is what we can and must change, one Officer at a time. 

Damaging gossip differs from the good natured, sometimes relentless ribbing we give each other as a sign of affection and acceptance. Damaging gossip on the other hand, serves as a destructive stress-reliever for pent up cops.  

We already have one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. We already have equipment that doesn’t work, felons trying to kill us, district attorneys that don’t charge our cases, reports that are kicked back, and defense attorneys trying to twist us up in court. The fact that one of our greatest sources of stress is knowing that our colleagues are disparaging us behind our back is completely unnecessary. 

One of the highest held principles in law enforcement is that of taking personal responsibility for our actions. I would like to invite every one of us to include in that inventory of personal accountability, the degree to which we tear down or build up our family members. 

We need to vent, no doubt about that. We need a few trusted co-workers who we can turn to and, in a confidential setting, blast our beat partner or supervisor to. That’s peer support in it’s rawest form and it’s part of what allows us to carry on in this work. But when we’re not thoughtful about the who, when and where of our tirades or gossip, we  we create additional stress for our fellow Officers. We prey on our own. 

Cops need two things when we screw up: we need to learn, and we need support. With regard to learning, we are often our harshest critics. Any tongue lashing we get from the Sergeant pales compared to our own harsh self-talk. 

We need someone in the group to stand up for us when we’re not there to defend our reputation. We need someone to say, “I did that same thing a few years ago and let me tell you about it,” or “I wonder what we can do to help Larry move on from this.” 

Speaking up for those who have made mistakes not only protects their reputation, it benefits you, as it is an act of kindness and compassion. It benefits you by giving you the feeling that you helped a fellow Officer in need. That “good feeling” we get when we stick up for others has real health benefits. For example, Dr. Stephen Post from Stony Brook University School of Medicine reviewed over 50 research studies on the health benefits of altruism and concluded, 

In total, the research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests healthcare professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients.... If the benefits of volunteering or altruism could be put into a pill, it would be a bestseller overnight

A career in policing puts us face to face with a smorgasbord of stressors that are completely outside of our control, damaging gossip is one that we’re putting on ourselves. Let’s be mindful of what we’re adding to the culture of our department. Next time you’re in the locker room changing out to go home, ask yourself, “Who did I support today?” If we all adopted such an attitude we’d never have to answer our friend’s question, “What are they saying?”