Want to make your co-workers really uncomfortable? Talk about your feelings. Feelings are to cops what kyrptonite is to Superman. Officers are good at some feelings, like anger and indignation. We’re very open with those. The more “sissy” feelings go in their own special locker. Finding them is not easy. It’s like finding the battery holder in one of those obnoxious moving stuffed animals we get our kids. We peel away flaps of fur looking for the place to put in the AA’s.
I’ve written a book which spells out in gory detail, the psychological land mines associated with a career in law enforcement. I make a concerted effort throughout to support my conclusions, wherever possible, with research. My obsessiveness about facts was inherited from my father, who told me “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.” He wasn’t known for his profundities.
Since I’ve taken the time to sift through the research projects of countless academics - a frequently painful and boring undertaking - I figure why not give you some of the information. You can take it or leave it. Which leads us to the topic at hand, police officers and emotional expression.
Premiss number one here is that there exists a police personality. If you were a criminal justice major, you already know that. Chances are somewhere along the line you did a term paper on the subject. We’re a type. The process of applying for a law enforcement job is more about screening out people then it is about screening in folks. Emotionally leaky applicants are shown the door rather quickly in the process.
So, cops generally have similar personality profiles and that profile includes the ability to keep our feelings or emotions well under control. That makes sense. Society needs people to show up on the scene of horrific traffic collisions and not freak out. Most people would melt down upon seeing two bodies, impossibly contorted, within the passenger compartment of an SUV.
We don’t have the luxury of expressing a normal emotional response to things. But here’s the problem: contrary to popular opinion, we’re human. Being both a human being and a police officer poses some real problems. Police work can be really bad for us bipeds. In fact, there’s probably a hidden laboratory somewhere where government scientists are trying to create police robots. It would be a good investment on Uncle Sam’s part.
I’m not recommending police officers find a corner and go suck their thumb when things get ugly. If cops freely expressed all our emotions we couldn’t function in this job. Therefore, that locker located somewhere inside the police personality’s hidden underbelly, is a good and necessary invention. But, listen up: what goes in that locker needs to be maintained. It’s a vital part of our human equipment. Like maintaining our work gear, we need to maintain our emotions. The reason for this is quite simple: unlike robots, our emotions can make us very sick.
At a bare minimum we need to do two things. First, know that all those thoughts and feelings you have at work don’t go away merely because you shoved them in the locker. One of Sigmund Freud’s immortal contributions to mankind was his developing the idea of the unconscious. Freud made us realize that much of what occupies our mind is unconscious. Some people mistake “unconscious for “non-existent.” Out of awareness is not the same as “doesn’t exist.” As cops, we tend to be empirically minded: if we don’t see, feel, smell or hear it, we become skeptical. Moreover, our unconscious calls a lot of shots. It’s a force which guides much of our behavior. Making the unconscious, conscious was Sigmund Freud’s Holy Grail. It’s a worthy endeavor for us as well. Helping people do that is part of what psychodynamically trained psychotherapists do.
Second, find a place where you can give those thoughts and feelings an expression. How you channel the items in your locker is limited only by your imagination and what works for you as an individual. The goal is to find an avenue to experience and then discharge the many emotions you collect at work. You can use art, talking it out, journaling, meditation, yoga, etc. In police psychology, how we manage the emotional aspects of law enforcement is called, “coping.” Coping is a topic unto itself and will be discussed in the future. For now, start paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. Not just the easy ones to track, like anger or frustration, but all of them. Then, do something to let them out of your body.
Part of what makes us human is having a complex, powerful and wide ranging emotional life. Why not take advantage of that by allowing ourselves the experience of feeling. Life is short, don’t short change yourself.
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