When I was still in elementary school I decided that I’d become a cop. Certainly my strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and evil would serve me well as a law enforcement professional.
In all of my law enforcement training classes I have a presentation slide that says simply “Nobody ever said life was going to be fair.” Whether I’m talking to cops, dispatchers, trainers, commanders, sworn or civilian, this statement always generates discussion.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard some variation of “life isn’t fair.” I first heard it growing up on a farm in northern Ill. the 60’s and 70’s. I was a pretty happy kid, but I was always looking for things to be “equal.” Why did my brother have different chores than I did? Why did that girl in my 4-H club have a nicer horse that mine? Why did we have to go to church every single Sunday when some of my friends got to sleep in? “It’s not fair!” I whined. My mom, an elementary school teacher, never got angry, no matter how much I complained. She’d just smile wryly at me, say “Elizabeth, nobody every said life was going to be fair,” and send me on my way.
I became a police officer and less than four years later my mom died of cancer at the age of fifty-five. She never smoked, she rarely drank, and she was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Life really isn’t fair.
For the next several decades I tried to figure out how to make my life, both personal and professional, “fair.” Sometimes things went my way, sometimes they didn’t. There were times when I thought I had control of my life, and then something would come along and all of a sudden, I’d be at the mercy of someone or something else. I’d watch bad things happen to good people. Life seemed so unfair sometimes. Fortunately, in 2002, a former cop-turned-psychologist named Kevin Gilmartin published a book called “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.” It’s still one of the most valuable resources for any cop, correctional officer, soldier, dispatcher, probation/parole officer or anyone who cares about someone in the law enforcement profession. As I read this book for the first of many times to come I initially noticed, much to my chagrin, that Dr. Gilmartin basically agreed with my mom that life wasn’t fair and I needed to learn to accept that. I think Dr. Gilmartin would have gotten along pretty well with my mom I started to study this issue in earnest. I’d always been searching for ways to increase my optimism and to help my students do the same, but up until now I’d been more concerned about teaching officer safety, career survival and topics like community policing, communication and investigations skills that I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to my own “emotional survival.” I attended Dr. Gilmartin’s class. Like many of my other training role models like Dave Smith, Val VanBrocklin and Bruce Sokolove, Dr. Gilmartin tells his students to take control of their own careers, their own skills, and their own lives. What happens to cops who view themselves as a “victim” most of the time? If they perceive that the agency has or is going to continue to “screw” them and their “locus of control” lies with everyone else, but certainly not with them? As Dr. Gilmartin says, these officers may have a difficult time returning to the enthusiastic and committed cops they once were. Instead, they take on “victim attributes,” such as a merging of personal and professional roles (“I’m a cop 24/7”), they are rigid, inflexible, and hypersensitive to change, because change is seen as an assault. These officers tend to feel paranoid, that the agency is constantly out to get them, and they begin to feel a need for retaliation.
Without actively working at taking control of their own emotional survival, these officers run the risk of becoming professional malcontents, and they may also drive away their family and friends, the very people who truly care about them. Their lives may become a self-fulfilling prophesy of misery, both personally and professionally.
This was all such great, eye-opening stuff that I began to also incorporate these principles into my own training classes, including classes like “Don’t Whine…WIN” and “The Winning Mind For Women.” Pretty soon, I’d have woman after woman approach me and tell me some version of their own “life isn’t fair” struggle that had affected their personal or professional life. I had to do more than just quote my mom to them so again, I began to study, and I came across a wonderful book, “The Female Brain” by Dr. Louann Brizendine. This book should be read by anyone who works with, lives with, cares about, trains, is raising, or is a female of the species.
Dr. Brizendine tells us something we already know, that women are generally not big on conflict, but she also shows us that we are “hard-wired” or biologically pre-disposed to such behaviors. There are reasons for us to feel the way we do, it’s all right there in our brain! Think about it, one of the best ways to avoid conflict is to make sure everything is “fair.”
Just watch a group of little girls playing, they will make sure everyone has a role in whatever they are playing, they will ask questions like, “Let’s play soccer, OK?” or “Is it OK if we play house?” Generally speaking, women prefer it when everyone is getting along — when there is no conflict to deal with — which often means everything is going the way they want it to go. (Sorry, ladies, I have to tell the truth here, no matter how much it hurts!) So when something perceived to be “unfair” happens (the department cancelled my day off; that guy got a promotion that I deserved more than he did; the sergeant treats her better than he treats me, etc.) most women have a much harder time dealing with it than most men do. What’s the professional implication here? All cops have to be aware of avoiding the “victim” mentality when things aren’t going their way, but women have to be especially vigilant and work even harder to become what Dr. Gilmartin calls an “emotional survivor.” In a profession where we have a significant divorce rate, a high rate of alcoholism and an increasing rate of officer suicides, our ability to “win” emotionally is just as important as “winning” on the street.
And in a profession that still has difficulty recruiting and retaining women, all trainers, administrators, and female personnel themselves need to study the science behind how women think and realize (and admit!) that men and women truly are different, and both sexes need to work hard at their own emotional well being, because remember, “Nobody Ever Said Life Was Going To Be Fair!”