Everyone knows that cop. The one who lives and breathes police work and everything that is the job. This cop has alienated himself from civilian friends and only spends time with work buddies. His hobbies include target shooting and further isolating himself from his family and spouse. He may rely on overtime in order to support a mortgage that would otherwise be less affordable. This cop, let’s call him Joe, has his whole identity wrapped up in policing.
Now, instead, take the case of Dave. Dave loves his job but tries to leave work at work. Dave sees himself as a father and husband just as much as he is a cop and enjoys taking family trips. Dave has many close work friends, but he has also kept up his relationships with friends outside of work. Dave has a variety of hobbies and works as an assistant coach on a little league team. You can see that Dave has focused on having multiple identities.
You’ll be relieved to hear that when I say “multiple identities,” I am not talking about what you may have seen in the movie Identity (a film in which the main character suffers from dissociative identity disorder or what was formerly known as split personality disorder). Thankfully, instead, what is meant here is the importance of creating balance and building on other values that you may have in life outside of work. Why is this so important? Firstly, because your overall state of wellness depends on it. Wellness is the state of a healthy body and mind. While there are many definitions of wellness, the consensus among experts is that wellness is a multidimensional and active goal-driven process. If you picture wellness as a wheel, it relies on many spokes, all of which need to be functional in order for the wheel to be stable. Neglecting one spoke or area may lead to a sense of imbalance and affect the entirety of your health. Developing healthy identities in the realm of family, stress management, finances and others all lead to better mental health.
Yet, there is another reason why I urge officers to develop multiple identities outside of work. Let’s take another case example. An officer struggling with depression decides to drive while drunk and is pulled over. He is issued a DUI. Now, consider Joe and Dave again. Which one would you be more worried about? Joe has everything to lose if he loses his job. Dave has a strong support system outside of work and knows that even if he loses his job, ultimately, that does not define him, his happiness or what is still meaningful in life. While I wish that this was just a hypothetical example, tragically, I hear too many cases of those officers like Joe, who, in the midst of a crisis of potentially losing their job, take their own life. So, if in reading this you recognize a little of yourself in Joe, or you know a cop like him, I hope you consider taking a page out of Dave’s book.
How do you invest in your identities outside of work? To help with this task, I recommend writing a list of your priorities. In one column, rank the list from the most to least important priority. In another column, rank the list in terms of the time you invest or spend with that priority. Now, compare the two columns. Are the columns congruent? In other words, do you spend the most time in the areas that are most important to you? Or did you find some incongruencies? Maybe you listed travel as a priority that’s third on the list after family and work, yet you spend little or no time in planning toward trips. This list can help you not only rediscover some things that you may have forgotten are important to you but also help to start in making shifts to live in a way that is more aligned with your own values.
Dr. Mariya Dvoskina is a police and public safety psychologist working with Nicoletti-Flater Associates in Colorado. She provides consultation, training, counseling, peer support supervision and critical incident response services to local and federal agencies.