Law enforcement culture and training teaches you to suppress and compartmentalize emotional discomfort on duty. Unfortunately, cops often continue to avoid difficult emotions off duty in their personal lives, which can become problematic over time. Think about one of your tough calls. Did you or a partner use humor or sarcasm to defuse emotional heaviness? Did you drink alcohol by yourself or with your partners after your shift to decompress? Did you feel the need to keep busy so that you didn’t have to think about it? These are all common ways that cops avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. When you are on duty, emotional avoidance is functional — it helps you remain objective and focused so that you can complete the mission. When you are off duty, emotional avoidance is dysfunctional — it makes it difficult for you to self-regulate and cope with periods of emotional discomfort. Over time, emotional avoidance can reduce your ability to tolerate difficult emotions to the extent that you feel all (overwhelm) or nothing (apathy or numb). Take a moment to consider how that might impact your mental health, your overall functioning and your ability to maintain healthy relationships.
Cops do not run away from a physical threat — they engage it. That is the goal for dealing with uncomfortable emotions: Stay engaged and work through it. Emotions are signals that alert us to real or perceived threats in our internal or external environment. For example, fear and anxiety alert us to a threat that we may need to protect or prepare for, anger signals a threat and the need to fight, and sadness signals loss and the need for recovery. At times, uncomfortable emotions can trigger an avoidant or fearful response. Think about the last time you did something to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. What did you do? Was your emotional avoidance functional or dysfunctional? Our emotions are meant to be felt. Although avoidance may seem helpful in the short term, it can actually worsen the intensity and duration of your discomfort as time goes on.
Cops do not run away from a physical threat — they engage it.
Emotional avoidance often helps us deal with the immediate discomfort, but these emotions typically come back or resurface in other ways. For example, someone may feel the need to constantly stay busy to avoid feeling, experience frequent irritability or anger and lash out at family, or completely disengage from themselves and their loved ones. While many of the issues that cause uncomfortable emotions involve more than just a quick fix, it is important to engage the emotional “threat,” assess what it is and its impact on you, use healthy coping skills to manage the uncomfortable emotions, and seek additional support and tools when needed.
How do you feel your feelings?
Emotions are natural, but avoiding negative feelings can also feel natural. Here are some tips to combat emotional avoidance and re-engage (or stay engaged) with your feelings.
Notice it and name it. When something happens, take the time to check in with how you are feeling and name the feeling(s) — for example, happy, excited, anxious, sad, angry, disappointed and/or hurt. No need to judge or understand it; just identify what it is and acknowledge that it is there.
Do an internal systems check. Spend time tuning in to your internal environment and focusing on the physical sensations associated with emotional discomfort. Often, particular feelings trigger a series of thoughts or stories about what the feeling means or says about us or others. When this happens, you are thinking the feeling. Instead, shift your focus to feeling the feeling in your body. Identify where you feel it in your body. It can help to mentally scan from head to toe and just notice any areas of physical sensations in response to the emotions. Perhaps you notice that you have a clenched jaw, a lump in your throat, an increased heart rate, butterflies in your stomach and so on. As you perform this internal systems check, pay attention to your breathing and try to breathe slowly and deeply. Continue to do so until the discomfort passes or becomes less intense.
Is it realistic or helpful? Now that you have identified what you’re feeling, examine whether it’s realistic or helpful. For example, are your feelings exaggerated or appropriate for the situation? Is the feeling helpful for you? What need is it signaling? What can you do that is healthy and productive to meet that need?
If you are consistently feeling confused or overwhelmed by your emotions, consider seeking help from others to make sense of things and learn new ways to navigate periods of emotional discomfort. Remember, the goal is to re-engage or stay engaged with your feelings and “ride the wave” (not fight it, avoid it or run from it). As the intensity of the emotional discomfort decreases, shift focus to what need the emotion is signaling and work toward a solution.