Police officers are trained to suppress and compartmentalize emotions on duty to help them maintain an objective stance and effectively do their job. This is a necessary skill for officers, because police work requires them to always exercise good judgment and decision-making. If an officer experiences intense emotions on duty, their brain’s ability to critically think through things and make sound decisions diminishes.
As with any skill, the more you train it, the more it becomes second nature to you. This also means that you’re likely to suppress and compartmentalize emotions when off duty. Although it may sound tempting to not feel any of the unpleasant stuff, this can cause significant problems in your relationships and with your overall ability to tolerate emotional discomfort. Over time, it can become difficult to access emotions or lead to experiencing more extreme fluctuations in emotions, ranging from apathy to overwhelm. This can also increase your risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping with how you are feeling, which can be detrimental to your health and well-being.
So, how do you effectively experience unpleasant emotions in a way that promotes healing? The short answer: You need to feel it.
Examine your perspective
Start by examining your perspective on emotions. On the job, emotions are considered a threat to your ability to effectively respond to whatever situations you encounter. This is where emotional suppression and compartmentalization come into play. These are techniques to protect you from feeling. At work, this is functional and necessary to buffer against the adverse effects of the job and keep you focused on your mission.
When you maintain a threat-based, protective stance toward unpleasant emotions off duty, you will run into problems. Your personal relationships (with yourself and others) are healthiest when built on a foundation of trust and connection. You cannot accomplish this when protecting yourself from feeling. Therefore, one vital component of effectively experiencing unpleasant emotions is to maintain a balanced perspective. Emotions are necessary because they signal that something is going on and inform us how to respond to different situations. Rather than viewing unpleasant emotions as a threat, put on your detective hat and get curious.
Listen to your body
Next, bring your attention to where you are feeling the emotion in your body. Focus on the physical sensations and describe them in detail. Are you feeling pressure in your chest? Are your shoulders tense? Does the sensation feel heavy or light? Warm or cold? Is it stationary or moving throughout your body? Be as specific as you can.
In between each descriptor of the body sensation, take a deep breath and imagine that you are getting rid of some of that physical discomfort with each exhale. If you notice your brain recalling associated images or memories, just shift your focus back to your body sensations. If you feel like your body needs to move around a bit, go for a walk or a jog to physically burn off some of the emotion before resuming this activity.
Lastly, record the details of your emotional experience. Did a specific situation prompt these unpleasant emotions? What thoughts did you experience? What emotions did you feel? Where did you feel these emotions in your body? Rate the emotional discomfort on a scale of 0 to 10 (from not distressing to the most distressing thing ever), both when you initially experienced it and what it feels like now.
Look at this information and come up with an action plan. Is this situation something you can change or do something about? If yes, write down the steps you are going to take and get it done. If no, write down how you are going to address the emotions the next time you experience them. Try to come up with at least a few things that are practical and constructive. Avoid unhealthy and self-destructive methods of coping, such as drinking alcohol or using other substances, overspending or isolating.
If you find it difficult to experience unpleasant emotions or notice that these emotions are spilling over into other areas of your life, consider reaching out to a partner, mentor, peer supporter, chaplain or personal clergy, or a licensed mental health professional. These resources can help you gain additional perspectives and tools to navigate challenging emotions. After all, humans don’t have everything figured out all the time. Lean on additional supports when you need them.