Recalibrating Your Perspective

Healthy cynicism is critical to successful and safe policing but, like the immoderate drinker who easily becomes a drunk, immoderate cynicism can easily make an unfettered cynic.


A little grit in the eye destroyeth the sight of the very heavens, and a little malice or envy a world of joys. One wry principle in the mind is of infinite consequence.”  - Thomas Traherne

In this series, we’ve been looking at the effects of cynicism – the familiar companion of many, if not most, veteran cops – and how easy it is to slide from occasionally partaking of “healthy” doses of cynicism into overdosing.  While being somewhat cynical and guarded, at least on the job and on the street, is arguably necessary for a police officer to remain grounded, safe, and effective, going too far with it begins to have adverse affects personally and professionally, even contributing to burnout and depression.

Many officers begin to divide the world into clearly defined, black-and-white camps:  All people are viewed as either good or bad, and eventually victims or offenders (both of which may even be viewed with only slightly different forms of contempt).  Pretty soon, more and more people are cast into the bad – or at least the “a**hole” camp even if they’re not of the criminal element – and the pool of who the officer is willing to trust grows smaller and smaller.  Eventually the pool of “trusted people” shrinks to include only family, a tiny handful of longtime close friends, and other cops… and even then just CERTAIN family, old friends, and colleagues.

It does seem, as was pointed out in last month’s column (From Cynicism to Depression), that certain folks may be predisposed to cynicism.  For others, experiences form and confirm a cynical outlook.  Either way, it’s rampant in law enforcement.  Again, that is fine… to an extent.  When cynicism becomes so prevalent it provokes a siege mentality, other unhealthy behaviors, or outright depression, it’s gone too far – and the sufferer may be too far gone.  It is critical police officers manage their cynicism lest it hurt them, their relationships, or their career.

Recalibrating your perspective – Part I

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”  - Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s famous quotation on perspective seeks to explain our human tendencies we use to define our experiences and how we choose to manage them.  Our brains naturally want to characterize people and events, by comparing them to prior experiences and the knowledge that came from them, into easily understood categories.  Then, reaching into the “mental toolbox” it’s complied over years of experience, the brain finds a tool with which to manage the experience in front of it.  When the experience is some kind of a problem to be solved, the tool used will ideally be the best for that particular circumstance.  Realistically, however, the tool is likely not the “best for the job” so much as the simply the “most comfortable and easiest to use.”  It might work in the moment, but is it really the most effective?  Is using the wrong tool maybe even causing harm?

Is how you categorize people and situations really the best tool for the job, or to keep you from overdosing on cynicism?  Have you defined the people and their problems you encounter so narrowly it limits your perspective, or whittles away at any empathy you might hold for them?  If so, are you shortchanging them – and yourself – by narrowing your possible responses?          

The problem for cops is that the healthy levels of cynicism are hard to regulate.  Take lying, for example:  We know that suspects lie.  We know that they’ll lie even when they know we already know the truth.  They’ll lie even when they know telling the truth will benefit them!  For that matter, we know victims will often lie to us and there is always another level of unrevealed truth in so much of what we deal with. 

The logical conclusion becomes obvious, then:  People are liars

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