Resolve to rise past the plateau in 2014

Unfulfilled promise can be a catalyst for professional burnout, especially when we feel that somewhere along the line we dropped the reins — make the effort to make changes


WASHINGTON — A hot new trend sweeping the country’s adult population has turned into a nationwide sensation, sources confirm, but many experts say the burgeoning grown-up fad may be a cause for significant concern.

It’s called “plateauing in your career and relationship,” and it involves adult men and women hitting a wall in their professional and romantic lives and doing absolutely nothing to reinvigorate them, an activity that researchers at University of Chicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development warn may be, while popular, highly dangerous and unhealthy.

Statistics show that a disturbingly high proportion of adult Americans — nearly three-quarters, according to the university’s findings — engage in the new craze, which includes spinning your wheels by losing track of what got you excited about your job and partner in the first place, experiencing no upward mobility in your professional life nor any emotional or sexual growth in your romantic one...

In Satire, Truth
Okay, that little item above is from The Onion a satire site that calls itself “America’s Finest News Source.”

The fact is, good satire ultimately reveals truth, and this piece reveals a particularly disturbing one — far too many of us do lose sight of what earlier excited us about our careers, our partners, our lives, and our futures. We stagnate professionally and relationally. We settle into familiar habits and safe status quo, and the excited dreams that drove us early on fade into faint memory. And then, when we look around at others near us, this inertia just seems so ... normal.

It’s certainly not unusual — in fact, it’s probably the norm — that where we are now is far different than what our 18- or 21-year-old selves envisioned all those years ago. For a lot of us, the lives we lead are far richer and more satisfying than anything we could have dreamed! But that’s not the case for everyone. Unfulfilled promise can be a catalyst for so much depression and professional burnout, especially when we feel that somewhere along the line we dropped the reins of our own lives.

Some of us just accept it as an inevitable product of aging and experience, rationalizing that our youthful ideals and expectations were just unrealistic pipedreams best forgotten. Others recognize how the choices they’ve made along the way have led to their current plateau, but feel powerless to change course now. At some point the choices made, they believe, led them to irresistible currents they now cannot escape. Some even believe they were doomed from the start and at the whim of forces beyond their control.

There are all manner of rationalizations for feeling powerless to go any further or expect any better, professionally or personally. But rationalizations just serve to absolve us of personal responsibility, not only for the choices we’ve already made (and which can never be undone) but of future decisions over which we have total control (that may frighten us because, deep down, we know we are completely responsible for their outcomes).

Plateaus in the Police Subculture
The personal and professional plateaus referenced by The Onion (and commonly addressed for real in the offices of professional counselors and clinicians everywhere) didn’t mention law enforcement specifically, but we will. Cops are every bit as susceptible to hitting unsatisfying and depressing plateaus as anyone else, and maybe even more so.

Look around your own agency, at your friends, and maybe even yourself. How many of your colleagues are burned out and bored, feeling they’ve seen and done it all or that opportunities to rise higher or take on different responsibilities have dried up? How many of your friends, through their words to you, express feeling they’re on a professional dead-end, or that life at home isn’t what they hoped it would be? And have you ever found yourself wondering some variation of “Is this all there is, or all I can hope for?” with regard to your work or personal life?

Maybe you find yourself on that plateau watching colleagues rocket past you into exciting assignments or promotions, or envying the degrees they’re chasing, the fun they’re having, or their family / personal life away from the department. Watching from a plateau can be depressing and devastating. It’s also something almost all of us will find ourselves doing at some point or another, whether our personal plateau is at work, at home, or both. Surviving a plateau requires us to take stock, regroup, and overcome inertia.

New Year, Same Old You
January is traditionally seen as a time of renewal and new opportunity. Declarations of optimistic New Year’s resolutions abound as the mood of collective self-assessment and ownership of shortcomings grips us, leading to high intentions of self-improvement. Most of those resolutions are doomed.

By now January is nearly over. How many of us had vowed to quit smoking, eat better, exercise more, go back to school, in the final days of December? How many have stuck to those resolutions?

The problem is most of the resolutions we make are to be doing the very things we should have been doing all along. We should have quit smoking (or never started) long ago. Eating right isn’t all that hard if you think about it, and didn’t you come out of (if you didn’t go into) the academy looking pretty lean and strong all those years ago? But it’s so much easier to grab some greasy, processed food on the run than make the effort to put together healthy meals three times a day.

A lot of the other resolutions (going back to school, applying for specialized training or assignments, etc.) may require effort and breaking out of our routines, but are commonly hamstrung by our own baggage or uncertainly — or perhaps sheer laziness.

Where did that come from, and why? Answering those questions will be essential.

The failure of most resolutions lies in their need for the formation of new (and replacement of old) habits. Conventional wisdom holds that forming new, healthy habits would take roughly 28 days to take hold and become ingrained; newer research suggests 6 months to a year is more likely and requires significantly greater commitment.

Frankly, to stay stuck — to remain “plateaued” — just simply feels easier. Doing the hard work to create a strategy, get moving, and build and maintain momentum required to turn a sustained, focused effort into a new habit requires serious commitment.

Happiness Is Worth the Effort
Maybe you’ve stalled in your career, but you have too much time invested to jump ship now and too many years before retirement, a unique impediment to drastic career change faced by many cops. How can you reinvigorate yourself and the enthusiasm you once had for the job? What changes can you make day-to-day to overcome burnout, boredom, or get out of the political doghouse? How can you make your police job fun again?

Has your marriage or another important relationship gone stale and needs attention to get it back on track? This is a problem almost all of us will face in our lifetimes; how we respond to it becomes critical to whether it’s reinvigorated or left to wither and die. How important your partner, family member, or friend is to you will be answered by how you move forward.

Do you sometimes feel like your personal growth has topped out, or your unfulfilled goals and dreams are now beyond reach? One of the dangers of plateauing is abandoning former aspirations and failing to form new ones. We take for granted we’re too old or tired for new experiences and life becomes boring. This has serious ramifications for our emotional and physical health; unresolved boredom can both lead to and indicate a clinical depression.

Make the commitment. Determine what areas of your life are stagnant or plateaued and where you wish they weren’t, and set about making the necessary changes. Call them “resolutions” if you want, or goals, re-commitment, or something else altogether, and decide to tackle the challenge of getting off that plateau.

Know that it will likely take a lot of time and effort, but ask yourself if it’s worth it. If you cannot see yourself happily maintaining the status quo — if you’re not satisfied with the plateau you are on — it’s worth it.

About the author

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Mike Wasilewski, MSW, have been married since 1994. Mike works full time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency while Althea is a social worker in private practice in Joliet and Naperville (Illinois). They write on a wide range of topics to include officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale, and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

You can keep up with them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, or check out their website at www.MoreThanACop.com.

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski

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