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Home  >  Topics  >  Patrol Issues

July 23, 2007
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Betsy Brantner Smith Survival Insights
with Betsy Brantner Smith

"Nobody ever said life was going to be fair"

While I was growing up as the youngest kid and the only girl in the family, my mom was forever telling reminding me that “nobody ever said life was going to be fair.”  In other words, quit viewing yourself as a victim and get on with your life. I just could not grasp what she was talking about.

Why did my cousins seem to have way more toys than me?  Why didn’t my brother have to stay inside and help with the housework, like I did?  Why couldn’t I stay out as late as my friends did?  Why did I have to help pay for college?  Why did my very first sergeant tell me “I don’t believe in broads in police work” right before he sent me off to the police academy?  Life was so unfair!

Throughout the next 22 years I tried to figure out how to make my life, both personal and professional, “fair.”  Sometimes things went my way, sometimes they didn’t. There were times when I thought I had control of my life, and then something would come along and all that control would go right out the window. I even began training other officers in “Career Survival,” but I still could not get past the “fairness” issue.

Thankfully, in 2002, a former cop-turned-psychologist named Kevin Gilmartin published Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, still one of the most valuable resources for any cop, correctional officer, soldier, dispatcher, probation/parole officer or anyone who cares about someone in these and similar professions. As I read this book for the first of many times to come I initially noticed, much to my chagrin, that Dr. Gilmartin basically agreed with my mom that life wasn’t fair. I thought, a fellow cop and a doctor agrees with my mom?! Life really isn’t fair.

I started to study this issue in earnest. Up until now I had been so worried about my officer survival skills, I hadn’t given much thought to my own “emotional survival.”  I went to see Dr. Gilmartin lecture. I also attended seminars by Dave Smith and Jim Reese and Val Van Brocklin among many others. Interestingly, they all incorporated some version of what Dr. Gilmartin calls “Victim Based Thinking” into their curriculums. They all told their students to take control of their own careers, their own skills, and their own lives.

What happens to cops who view themselves as a “victim” most of the time?  If they perceive that the agency has or is going to continue to “screw” them and their “locus of control” lies with everyone else, but certainly not with them?  As Dr. Gilmartin says, these officers may have a difficult time returning to the enthusiastic and committed cops they once were. Instead, they take on “victim attributes,” such as a merging of personal and professional roles (“I’m a cop 24/7”), they are rigid, inflexible, and hypersensitive to change, because change is seen as an assault. These officers tend to feel paranoid, that the agency is constantly out to get them, and they begin to feel a need for retaliation.

Without actively working at taking control of their own emotional survival, these officers run the risk of becoming professional malcontents, and they may also drive away their family and friends, the very people who truly care about them. Their lives may become a self-fulfilling prophesy of misery, both personally and professionally.

This was all such great, eye-opening stuff that I began to also incorporate these principles into my own training classes, and in the “Street Survival” seminar we began discussing Dr. Gilmartin’s suggestions for “becoming an emotional survivor.” In fact, it’s now one of the most popular sections in our seminar. Then we developed “Street Survival for Women," and we incorporated even more of Dr. Gilmartin’s research into that seminar, which is when things got really interesting…

After every Calibre Press seminar I instructed at, I had woman after woman approach me and tell me some version of my own “life isn’t fair” struggle that had affected her personal or professional life. I had to do more than just quote my mom to them so again, I began to study, and I came across a wonderful book, The Female Brain, by Dr. Louann Brizendine, which should be read by anyone who works with, lives with, cares about, trains, is raising, or is a female of the species.

Dr. Brizendine tells us something we already know, that women are generally not big on conflict, but she also shows us that we are “hard-wired” or biologically pre-disposed to such behaviors. There are reasons for us to feel the way we do, it’s all right there in our brain!  Think about it, one of the best ways to avoid conflict is to make sure everything is “fair.”

Just watch a group of little girls playing, they will make sure everyone has a role in whatever they are playing, they will ask questions like, “Let’s play soccer, OK?” or “Is it OK if we play house?”  Generally speaking, women prefer it when everyone is getting along -- when there is no conflict to deal with -- which often means everything is going the way they want it to go. (Sorry, ladies, I have to tell the truth here, no matter how much it hurts!) So when something perceived to be “unfair” happens (the department cancelled my day off;  that guy got a promotion that I deserved more than he did; the sergeant treats her better than he treats me, etc.) most women have a much harder time dealing with it than most men do.

What’s the professional implication here?  All cops have to be aware of avoiding the “victim” mentality when things aren’t going their way, but women have to be especially vigilant and work even harder to become what Dr. Gilmartin calls an “emotional survivor.”  In a profession where we have a high divorce rate, a high rate of alcoholism and we die twice as often by our own hand as we do by felonious assaults, our emotional survival is just as important as our survival on the street.

And in a profession that still has difficulty recruiting and maintaining women, all trainers, administrators, and the female officers themselves need to study the science behind how women think and realize (and admit!) that men and women truly are different, and both sexes need to work hard at their own emotional survival…because remember, “Nobody Ever Said Life Was Going To Be Fair!”


About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter





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