Police Psychology | Apples to Orangutans: Life’s Comparisons
Police psychology has to constantly deal with comparisons cops make. It is essential to cut them off before they get to be a big problem. What comparisons you ask? “I can’t believe that every day I have to deal with Skylar whining constantly and not listening. You do something about her!” his spouse says as she throws her hands up in the air. The cop thinks about the body he just pulled out of a car and applied first aid until the paramedics came. Or, how hard it was to keep a domestic incident out of the kitchen earlier in the day because that is where the knives are. Or, the three hours of paperwork either one of these situation caused and thinks a little kid whining just doesn’t compare.
Everyone in the world makes comparisons. She’s prettier than me. He’s smarter than me. Her house is bigger than mine. His kids are more respectful than my kids. She’s taller than me, and I’m taller than him, if she wears heels, I will be embarrassed. We tend to compare everything in our own lives to other situations. It helps us put our own problems in perspective. It helps us rank our own successes against other people. It gives us something to which we can measure ourselves and see if we come out on top. It even helps us know what to expect in the future. This is a very natural thing to do, and it can even help you improve by demonstrating which areas you need to focus on and which areas are already your strengths. However, there is one major downside to such comparisons (aside from the obvious blow to your self-esteem), your “comparison” scale can become incredibly skewed, especially when you encounter a wide range of situations, each with a different level of concern. Also, you can invalidate another person’s problems and create stress for yourself. Nothing in real life can measure up to a catastrophic world full of people real problems. This is especially the case when it comes to police psychology and police stress.
Police Psychology: Cop Comparisons
Cops make the same comparisons everyone else make: his partner is better than my partner; he gets paid more than I get paid; his gun is bigger than my gun (okay, maybe not so much that). But they also take these comparisons one step further. They look at every problem they encounter and measure it up against previous situations they’ve been in. For instance, a shoplifting case that a cop is confronted with seems relatively trivial compared to the fatal crash he had to solve last week. Dealing with a man who ran a red light seems so insignificant when compared to the rape last night. Because cops experience some of the most extreme situations out there, their comparison scales get completely messed up. The high-end of their scale is much higher than a typical person’s scales. This becomes a significant problem when they come home from work and take the scale with them.
At home, they are forced to measure average, day-to-day problems against the larger one’s that law enforcement personnel deal with. When this occurs, the typical “home” problems definitely fall short. Killing a bee that got into the house is a small problem when compared to the company’s finances collapsing, or the shooting they witnessed that morning, or even the domestic abuse they had to put a stop to. And because of this, it becomes much easier to brush off such a problem, or say no to a request.
This mindset can pose a serious problem both to their mental stability and their home life, creating a lot of police stress. When they compare every single situation at home to a problem they encountered while on the job, of course their home problems will seem smaller. It is important for cops to understand that their spouse and their kids don’t have the same scale of comparison. When your wife gets upset that you left the toilet seat up, and you brush it off as, “no big deal” compared to the other things you’ve had to put up with this week, it sends the message to her that you don’t care about her needs. Or you might hear “you’re not validating my feelings” if they have been watching a lot of TV therapists. You end up belittling the things that she finds concerning. When your kids ask you to pick them up from school, and you forget to get them on time, they can’t brush it off as easily as you can. Sure, a cop can think, “What’s the big deal running a few minutes late?” But to your kids, this can be huge.
In police psychology, we need to understand that this problem stems completely from the fact that cops and other people in law enforcement have an entirely different scale of comparison, not because they lack sensitivity. To them, a “big problem” is a murder. To an average person, a “big problem” is when the pilot light goes off and the heat shuts off so you don’t have hot running water for your shower in the morning, or when you can’t do laundry because your spouse forgot to pick up detergent from the store last night. Because this scale is completely different, it is hard for cops to translate other people’s concerns onto their own scale. While putting the toilet seat down may fall high on their wife’s scale, it would barely make it onto a cop’s scale when put in the context of the rest of the problems he/she encounters. When you can learn how to adjust your scale to account for different degrees of work-problems and different degrees of home-problems, you are taking an enormous step in the right direction for your own mental health and your relationship.
- Compare the two scales. So, sure, when you compare murder to picking up the socks you left on the floor last night, the latter problem doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. But bear in mind, on your spouse’s scale, “messy house” may be high up there if she is a concrete-sequential person. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that really deserves your attention. In order to confront this, cops really need to learn how to adjust their scale to account for “simpler” problems as well. A problem is a problem. On a sheet of paper, create two different scales: your work scale and your home scale. Put down the major problems you have encountered in each setting. Then read them. It will be hard to see the two lists as equal, but you must do that. It can save your marriage.
- See the Present, Project into the future. Brushing your teeth every night may not seem like such a big concern of yours when you compare it to the work problems you have. But, believe me, if you ignore that problem long enough, it will slowly pick its way higher up on the “problem scale.” Things that are ignored have a way of affecting your life. Look at your list and keep it in the present. Which of these things are affecting your life right now and in the future? For example a domestic affected your life at the time, but does it affect your life right now. Brushing teeth may have a huge affect on your life in the future. Measuring future impact may change the values of some of the work things you have handle already.
- Who am I dealing with? Before frustration and subsequent anger, ask yourself “is this person trying to hurt me?” Amidst the problem of raising kids and living day-to-day we forget that at one point we picked the person we are with because of certain individual qualities they had. Is their scale of problems really important in the grand scheme of things? If your answer is yes, figure out how you are going to separate yourself. If it is no, then let them have their tragedies at whatever level they want, and move past it. You will be a better person because of it.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.
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