Law enforcement culture promotes embracing your identity as a police officer and prioritizing it above other life roles. Being a cop isn’t merely a job; it’s a way of life. Beginning in the academy and continuing throughout your career, your personality and viewpoints change as a byproduct of police work. For example, you are conditioned through training and experience to always be on alert and to be suspicious of others’ intentions and motives. Certain aspects of the job almost always spill into your personal life — sitting with your back to the wall at a restaurant, scanning for dirtbags while at an amusement park with your family, unintentionally talking to your spouse or family member like they’re a suspect, reducing or eliminating friendships with non-cops, and countless other examples. You may gradually let go of hobbies, interests and friends you had when you started the job. In some cases, you may intentionally leave behind friends or stop interacting with certain family members because the job requires you to be selective about who you surround yourself with. Think back to when you first became a police officer. What were you like back then? How does that compare to what you are like now?
One of the inherent risks of being a police officer is developing a singular police identity. This is often a gradual process that is reinforced by law enforcement culture and job demands. As other aspects of identity fade away over time, a singular police identity can amplify burnout and cynicism, and make it difficult for an officer to connect with anything or anyone outside of law enforcement work. This becomes especially significant when you lose your status as a police officer, as happens in retirement, when injuries or illness force you to stop working, or when relieved of duty and under investigation.
Expanding your identity
The benefits of expanding your identity to include multiple roles is well documented to have a positive influence on your mental health by offering purpose and meaning, increasing self-esteem and providing a greater sense of control over your life. The good news is that you get to choose your roles based on your preferences, valued life areas and life goals. This will guide the behaviors and actions that are needed to build upon these roles and broaden your identity. Here are some steps to take (it helps to write down your responses):
Step 1: Think about the areas of your life that you value. Some examples include health, family, work, spirituality/faith, friendships, education, community, intimate relationships, hobbies and leisure activities.
Step 2: Think about how much you have been doing in service of each of these life areas. Are there any discrepancies? For example, let’s say you value friendships but recognize that you have not really spent the time connecting/reconnecting with friends outside of work.
Step 3: Align your actions with your valued life areas so that you can expand your identity within each of these roles. For each of the valued life areas you listed, identify at least one thing you can do in service of that area and set a specific date/time to get it done.
As you work on expanding your identity and strengthening other life roles outside of law enforcement, it can help to set weekly goals. You may want to work on friendships one week and your health the next. Or maybe you want to work on more than one area each week. The takeaway is that how you choose to work on expanding your identity is flexible.
The big picture
Broadening your identity beyond being a police officer helps to buffer against the stressors associated with law enforcement work, and the inherent toll it takes on your mind, body and relationships, over the course of your career. Instead of allowing the job to train you (at the expense of your health and relationships), take the steps to train up to meet the demands of police work. As you enhance other areas of your life, you will be able to find meaning and purpose beyond law enforcement, which will enhance your relationships and general well-being.