Life's Not Fair; Being an Emotional Winner

When I was sill in elementary school I decided that I’d become a cop. Certainly my strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and evil would serve me well as a law enforcement professional.


In all of my law enforcement training classes I have a presentation slide that says simply “Nobody ever said life was going to be fair.”  Whether I’m talking to cops, dispatchers, trainers, commanders, sworn or civilian, this statement always generates discussion. 

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard some variation of “life isn’t fair.”  I first heard it growing up on a farm in northernIllinoisin the 60’s and 70’s. I was a pretty happy kid, but I was always looking for things to be “equal.”  Why did my brother have different chores than I did?  Why did that girl in my 4-H club have a nicer horse that mine?  Why did we have to go to church every single Sunday when some of my friends got to sleep in?  “It’s not fair!” I whined.  My mom, an elementary school teacher, never got angry, no matter how much I complained.  She’d just smile wryly at me, say “Elizabeth, nobody every said life was going to be fair,” and send me on my way. 

When I was sill in elementary school I decided that I’d become a cop.  Certainly my strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and evil would serve me well as a law enforcement professional. I became a police officer and less than four years later my mom died of cancer at the age of fifty-five.  She never smoked, she rarely drank, and she was the kindest persons I’ve ever known. Life really isn’t fair. 

For the next several decades 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 of a sudden, I’d be at the mercy of someone or something else.  I’d watch bad things happen to good people.  Life seemed so unfair sometimes.

Fortunately, in 2002, a former cop-turned-psychologist named Kevin Gilmartin published a book called “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.”  It’s still one of the most valuable resources for any cop, correctional officer, soldier, dispatcher, probation/parole officer or anyone who cares about someone in the law enforcement profession.  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 and I needed to learn to accept that.  I think Dr. Gilmartin would have gotten along pretty well with my mom

I started to study this issue in earnest. I’d always been searching for ways to increase my optimism and to help my students do the same, but up until now I’d been more concerned about teaching officer safety, career survival and topics like community policing, communication and investigations skills that I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to my own  “emotional survival.”  I attended Dr. Gilmartin’s class.  Like many of my other training role models like Dave Smith, Val VanBrocklin and Bruce Sokolove, Dr. Gilmartin tells his 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.

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