Police Psychology | You Change Your Underwear, Don’t You
Police psychology is about change (and police stress is often about dealing with change). It could be changing an officer’s life, changing the behavior of a perpetrator, or choosing the officer who will go into an academy and have to deal with a lot of change. Life is full of change. Whether it is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the gradual change in weather and seasons, or the growth and development of your children—everything experiences change. Change is not necessarily a bad thing. Some habits you have would probably be better off if you changed them, some not. I’m sure you’ve heard your mom say, “stop biting your nails” too many times to count. While biting your nails may be a harmless habit that may not necessarily be deserving of change, reverting to anger every time something bad happens is definitely something that should be changed. So is procrastination, laziness, and eating unhealthy—all habits that may seem easier and more fun to engage in, but are negatively effecting your performance, productivity, and overall well being.
The Process of Change
So how does change occur in a person? What causes people to change? I always describe a three-step process to my clients, each step building successively off the one before it. In the first stage, we think about things we’ve done in the past. There is a famous saying that “hindsight is 20/20.” In psychology, we call this the hindsight bias. Both of these are just fancy ways of saying that we can look back on things we’ve done in the past and examine why it did or didn’t work for us, or what we should do differently in the future. For example, if you speak without thinking, chances are you’ve gotten into trouble at some point saying something you later regretted. “Did you gain some weight?” “You don’t look so good in that,” not the best to phrases to say to a spouse when you are about to go out. In this step of the process, you reminisce on the things you did or said wrong in the past and plan what you can do or say differently next time.
After step one becomes second nature, the trick is to take it a step further. The next step in the process is to stop yourself in the middle of doing something that you now know you will regret. It may be that you stop yourself at a point that the damage is still done, but the purpose is you need to get yourself in the habit of stopping yourself in the middle of the activity that you are trying to change. To illustrate, in step one, you may look back on half your day and realize you wasted the entire thing procrastinating all the work you needed to get done. In this stage (step 2) of the process, you stop yourself in the middle of your procrastination and begin to tackle even the smallest of things you need to get done. Voila, you have started to change the behavior.
The Final Stage
Once you master this step, you move onto the final stage in the process of change: stopping yourself before you do the activity in the first place. Instead of saying “Do you really want to wear that?” you can say nothing at all, or say something like, “I really like when you wear your red dress. I’d love if you wore that tonight!” This is the stage when you prevent yourself from getting irrationally angry at something that goes wrong, and yelling at everyone in sight. Or when you prevent yourself from having obsessive thoughts about something in particular. This stage is where you have successfully changed the bad behavior. Don’t give yourself a victory ribbon until you make this stage as much a habit as you made the first two. Bear in mind that the most important point of these steps is that they are a progression, a succession, and they build upon each other. Past-Middle-Future, sort of makes sense, huh?. All change must be gradual—you can’t go from zero to one hundred in one day. Instead, master each small step until you have succeeded in changing your behavior completely.
Follow me on this one. It is not complicated, but it can be very powerful.
- So step one is the first week or two, I tell them to identify anger (procrastination, obsessive thoughts) when they occur. Be aware of the trouble it has gotten them into and the ways they need to overcome it. Dig deep, and bring out the things that are happening in their life. Frequently I have to make them do this in the therapy session. Although it may be difficult at first, from my experience in police psychology and dealing with police stress, I know how important this first step can be.
- Involves programming the brain. I tell my clients to say the words “anger-stop-think” or “procrastination-stop-think” or “obsession-stop-think” (insert whatever factor they are trying to change or get rid of, the word “stop” – then what they want to do instead). They should say these three words 500 times a day. They should do this every single day for two weeks straight. (The reason I tell them to do it for two weeks is because I doubt many of my clients will do it for that long, but I really want them to engage in this behavior for a solid week straight. So, if I tell them two weeks, chances are they will make it to the end of the first week, at least, before they stop.) I encourage all my clients to get a golf counter to keep track of all the times they’ve said the three words (I give it to them). My male clients really relate to it. Invariably, the first thing I hear when I tell my clients to do this is: “That’s impossible. I can’t do that. How can you expect me to say that 500 times?” But it’s really not as hard as you may think. On the drive back from the therapy session, they can say it 200 times. While you exercise that evening you can say it. Say it in the bathroom, while you shower, while you clean up the house or cook dinner. You’ll see that it’s really a lot easier to do this than you may think. Hey, as a good Catholic boy growing up, how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers did I say ritualistically? It got programmed in my head. The purpose of this whole exercise is it slowly changes your mindset. Saying something 500 times a day for 7 days a week, for a total of 3,500 times, is bound to get the message to sink in and help change the way they think and act. Eventually, if they continue this practice, whenever you get angry, or whenever you begin to procrastinate, these words will pop into your head and you will stop and think about the behavior that you are about to do. Essentially, these three words help reprogram your brain, so that you are able to stop and think before you say or do something you will later regret.
- The third step I talk with them about a variety of cognitive techniques. I may talk about emotional opposites, I may talk about relativity, I may talk about entropy being natural, I may talk about self-esteem of other people, obsession is a big topic or even randomness in life. The time management matrix where you understand the difference between importance and urgency is also very relevant here. This is a technique that can spin in many different directions, but it is a good starting technique, and very useful in police psychology and dealing with police stress. You can even use it as a self-help technique. Now I need to go buy stock in golf counters.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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