We all have a tendency to focus on the negative. It’s a survival mechanism that’s hardwired into us. This means that, instinctively, we think more about the stick that could beat us than the carrot stick that could feed us. This negativity is worsened by police work. Let’s face it. You don’t get called to peoples’ homes to bear witness to how well things are going. The majority of the situations you are involved in are negative. These experiences would lead you to believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and that people are jerks (rated G version of your thoughts about people). Allowing experiences with a thin slice of the population to form your perspective of the entire world can lead to depression and burnout. It might cause you to avoid people and places, and even lead to you becoming the jerk. Although police can argue that not trusting others keeps them safe at work, this negative view also adds significant strain in personal relationships because the mistrust doesn’t stop when you’re away from work. Negativity also compromises your immune system, increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and contributes to disease.
Counter the negativity
You may be asking, “Can I offset this survival mechanism? Do I even want to?” Fair questions, and my responses are, “Yes, you can, and, yes, you do.” Think about it like changing the route you’ve always driven to work. If you’ve always driven down Negative Street to work, it’s a hard habit to break. You’ll automatically take that route every day. It’ll take great effort to go down another street, like Neutral Avenue or Positive Boulevard. You might have to put a sticky note on your dash to remind you that there are other routes to take and that they don’t have the potholes that keep tearing up your car. Not only is Negative Street full of potholes that are causing damage, there’s a lot of good stuff happening on Positive Boulevard that you’re missing. In other words, you will have to deliberately look for the good in people and situations in order to find it. For instance, you may go to a terrible call where you can’t change the negative outcome, but you can focus on the good teamwork or solid investigative work that went into it.
Be a good detective
If you ever watch the TV show Dateline, you see that when detectives narrow their focus too early in the investigation to go with a convenient theory of what happened, things don’t usually go so well. They get raked over the coals when key evidence is overlooked, and the killer’s capture/conviction is delayed or even thwarted. Yet, we do this same narrowing when we believe the thoughts we have instead of pursuing additional information to support or refute them. Be a good detective when it comes to your thoughts. Don’t believe everything you think. You have a negativity bias that acts like an uncooperative witness. Consider alternate explanations for what you are interpreting. Trust me. This will go a long way in your personal relationships.
Avoid toxic positivity
I’m not suggesting toxic positivity — which is to say that you become oblivious to the hardships in life — I am advising that you remain realistic but not at the expense of optimism. This is what is known as the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years, spending two years in shackles and four years in solitary confinement and being subjected to at least 15 instances of torture. Stockdale knows hardship and has had plenty of reasons to be negative. He watched other prisoners’ reactions to their imprisonment. Those who were overly positive, denying their harsh realities, did not fare well. Similarly, prisoners who were solely pessimistic also didn’t fare well. According to Stockdale, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
These are powerful words to bear in mind during difficult times. The effort you put forth to shift your mindset will pay off because you will be easier to be around, and more likely to persevere during difficulties. This, in turn, will make you healthier and more effective in your work and personal life.
Dr. Stephanie Conn is a former police officer, licensed psychologist at First Responder Psychology in Beaverton, Oregon (www.firstresponderpsychology.com), and author of Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel.