Orientating Towards Learned Optimism and Post Traumatic Growth
By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S.
Suddenly Summoned Back on Duty:
I reside in a quiet suburban neighborhood in a low crime area, near Salt Lake City, Utah. The neighborhoods I serve while on duty as a police sergeant, are substantially more active with prolific crime. I anticipate responding to violent crime scenes while on duty, but rely on the ability to return to a place of safety, where I can enjoy the suburban bubble. This was true early in my career while working in inner city San Diego neighborhoods and continues as an expectation today.
A few years ago, those expectations were suddenly interrupted, as I exited my police issued vehicle after a full day of work. While in the process of unloading equipment, a frantic fifteen year old male juvenile ran across my driveway and informed me in colorful language that he and his friends had been playing with guns and that one of his friends had “accidentally shot his friend.” I was not surprised by this news, since I was well aware of the criminal activity that the juvenile residents and friends associated with his house had been engaged in perpetrating. This particular house constitutes the one anomaly in the neighborhood and had been quite active for several years.
When I arrived in the basement of the residence, I located a deceased twelve year old juvenile male with a gunshot wound to the head. As I was assessing this juvenile for signs of life, the original juvenile who flagged me down seemed to be looking for someone. Since I was alone, I continued to direct him to remain in the hallway, in order to allow me the ability to monitor his behavior. He seemed compelled to move, despite repeated orders to remain in place. He walked forward a few feet, while looking into an open door leading to a closest under the stairs. He exclaimed, “My other friend shot himself!” I located a 15 year old juvenile male standing, while wedged in the closet with a single gunshot wound to the head and the gun at his feet. It appeared to be self-inflicted.
The investigation conducted by the local agency, revealed that three firearms were stolen in a burglary by the juvenile male and several of his counterparts, who had fled the residence on foot prior to my arrival. Six juvenile males had been in the basement playing with the loaded stolen firearms. The initial fifteen year old juvenile and the deceased fifteen year old male had been taunting the twelve year old with two of the guns, by pointing them at him and asking him if he was scared. During their sadistic horseplay, the second fifteen year old accidentally discharged the firearm, striking the twelve year old in the head at point blank range. Apparently horrified by his actions, the juvenile shot himself. Sadly, the lone adult at the residence, the mother of the original fifteen year old, had been unconscious while under the influence of opioids and did not wake until several police officers rushed into her room, as they completed a safety sweep.
Both the immediate response and investigation of numerous similar violent episodes is a common experience shared by law enforcement professionals across the globe. Further, officers bear the additional burden of knowing they may be required to respond decisively, in order to address a traumatic circumstance, on or off duty. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2004) speaks of law enforcement and military professionals, wielding the gifts of aggression, courage and decisiveness, while simultaneously retaining empathy and compassion for their fellow men. The desire to apply our gifts to care for society, while confronting deviant behavior, as well as other miscellaneous injustices motivates action (Grossman, 2006). While the profession represents some of the best among us, brave individuals possessing a special talent to venture into dangerous, corrosive and traumatic environments, law enforcement professionals retain human traits and limitations. Although some officers may develop a cynical disposition, experience burnout, Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), or even Post-Traumatic Stress Order (PTSD), emerging research suggests there is an alternative path often experienced by first responders (Plat et al., 2010). Further, many aspects of the emerging field of positive psychology continue to offer poignant and practical contributions capable of application to the law enforcement professions. Prominent psychologists have explored aspects of this burgeoning field, including the concepts of post traumatic growth, learned optimism, spirituality, growth mindset and developing grit.
Post Traumatic Growth:
Decades of research has been dedicated to the exploration of the negative psychological concepts of cynicism, burnout, PTS, and PTSD. As mentioned previously, the evolving field of positive psychology has provided good news for individuals seeking to fortify their psyche with optimistic emotional science. Although officers often incur both negative and positive effects in the aftermath of traumatic circumstances, research is shedding light on the breadth of growth law enforcement professionals often realize as they reconcile their experiences. Although the concept of experiencing growth as a result of traumatic experiences is not a new idea, I believe this notion has previously received insufficient attention when discussing cognitive and emotional processes experienced by law enforcement professionals. As officers reflect upon their experience, significant beneficial changes in both emotional and cognitive perceptions of life can occur as confidence increases, gratitude elevates and empathy amplifies in the lives of individuals experiencing post traumatic growth (PTG) (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003). Often, a serious trial, coupled with simultaneous mastery, builds gritty neurological pathways molding character capable of elevated levels of future success (Duckworth, Eichstaedt, & Ungar, 2015). I personally identify with the concept of positive emotional growth, when I contemplate the plethora of traumatic events I have experienced over my 18 year career and consider the valuable insights gained as a result.
Roadblocks to PTG and Learned Optimism: Reconciling Defensive Pessimism and Optimism:
In a professional setting, optimism can be a pesky and even dangerous concept to employ. A phenomenon discussed by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (2002) and experienced by law enforcement professionals across the globe, occurs during academy training, as officers and agents are taught to employ hyper vigilance as they scan for hidden threats, such as ill-intentioned suspects, concealed weapons and dishonest citizens. The law enforcement professional quickly learns that maintaining an overly optimistic view of the circumstances and intentions present in a response scenario, equates to poor officer safety, inferior investigative practices and an overall failure to properly perform his duties. While maintaining a pessimistic view of the intentions of others allows the officer to locate and nullify threats, properly interrogate suspects and otherwise succeed as an effective law enforcement professional, such an orientation can create destructive consequences, as the officer attempts to operate in other aspects of his life, such as family relationships and other personal ventures.
Defensive pessimism is a construct explored by psychology research and refers to setting low expectations and considering the possibility of negative outcomes. This mindset has been attributed to professionals such as, law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges. In many scenarios, this approach ignites a reflective process, allowing the individual to consider an assortment of possible outcomes ranging from catastrophic to optimal (Felder, 2014). I assert defensive pessimism is the very construct taught to law enforcement professionals and encourages precise officer safety and thorough investigative behavior. However, properly framing the application of defensive pessimism and optimism to various contexts, as officers vacillate between the need to employ proper officer safety tactics and ensure professional success when on duty, while simultaneously achieving personal success and comprehensive emotional well-being in private life, requires mindfulness, practice and skill.
I suggest situational application of optimism and defensive pessimism is required, in order to achieve an optimal balance between professional success and personal emotional health. While an officer’s professional success may depend on deploying a healthy dose of defensive pessimism, such a construct may be incompatible with achieving personal and relationship success while off duty. The officer must learn to embrace optimism and suppress defensive pessimism when pursuing other ventures outside of the police role, such as during casual conversation, where interrogating spouses, friends, children and acquaintances is inappropriate. I admit a measure of personal culpability in succumbing to this pitfall. Martin Seligman (1992) suggests that “flipping back and forth” between pessimism and optimism is not only possible, but necessary in order to address various life challenges. I suggest the tendency for many law enforcement professionals to remain in the defensive pessimistic view indefinitely, plagues our profession with a noteworthy measure of personal and family distress.
Learned Optimism, Growth Mindset and Developing Grit:
Dr. Carol Dweck (2010) is well known for her scientific examination of the concepts of learned optimism and developing a growth mindset. According to Dweck (2010), those embracing a growth mindset assign temporary and adjustable reasons for failure and permanent attributions for success. Thus, an individual embracing a growth mindset would reject a lack of talent as the culprit for failure, while attaching temporary explanations, such as insufficient effort, as the primary obstacle inhibiting achievement. In either a professional or personal context, officers can significantly increase their emotional elasticity and durability by embracing and developing learned optimism and a growth mindset. Those embracing learned optimism and a growth mindset have been shown to realize greater levels of success in various pursuits, including athletics, music, entrepreneurial endeavors, Special Forces training and a host of other ventures.
According to Angela Duckworth (2015), individuals must learn how to fail, get up again and believe success is achievable by altering previous choices. Considerable research suggests high achievers embrace optimism, characterize failure as a temporary condition, and believe that success will eventually become a reality with deliberate and consistent work, regardless of inherent talent. Such an orientation assists officers as they reconcile temporary failure in professional advancement, family goals, or other important personal pursuits. Additionally, choosing to embrace a growth mindset orientates law enforcement professionals towards the reconciliation of trauma, embracing its negative aspects as a temporary condition, while assigning post traumatic growth as a pending and permanent reality.
In previous eras, concepts of spirituality have been largely omitted from scholarly scientific studies, even while such ideas remain infused into mainstream culture. Such notions are demonstrated in film, print, internet discourse and popular culture. Perhaps some have feared that exploring this realm would risk alienating large segments of society. However, I reject this notion, primarily because the vast majority of people believe in some type of Supreme Being and embrace spirituality as a pertinent and critical component shaping their reality. Spirituality has been defined by some researchers as a belief in something greater than the self. It is this conviction that drives law enforcement professionals, and many humans in general, to perform tasks laden with personal risk, to both their physical and emotional well-being. This belief connects behavior to a sense of purpose, providing a critical tool for developing emotional resilience sufficient to accomplish the mission. Spirituality also allows law enforcement professionals to view traumatic experiences and their accompanying apparent injustices, as purposeful in a schema greater than the self and the immediate unfairness demonstrated (Tovar, 2011; Charles, 2009). Thus, law enforcement professionals can place diminished importance on answering why questions and instead, seek to assimilate the lessons and attain the growth meant to be internalized as a result of the experience.
Integrating Positive Emotional Paradigms and Personal Achievement:
As I reflect upon the experience outlined at the commencement of this article, as well as many other similar encounters throughout my law enforcement career, my passion for endorsing the concepts discussed magnifies. Legacy law enforcement culture has previously ignored research and training in the realms of emotional resiliency, perpetrating a significant disservice upon the profession. While I support the notion of a gritty law enforcement culture, requiring officers and agents to venture into traumatic environments, accomplish the mission and drive on, we cannot continue to expect such an effort, absent robust emotional support. Providing adequate training in cognitive and emotional resiliency will provide the profession with tools capable of mitigating the negative effects of traumatic experiences and facilitate post traumatic growth.
Additionally, these concepts can be integrated into our professional and personal values and subsequently provide a framework for orchestrating greater levels of comprehensive accomplishment. I believe humans were designed to pursue and realize perpetual levels of achievement. When we are generally progressing in this manner, we experience optimism, a sense of purpose, directional clarity, contentment and joy. Conversely, when we remain in stagnation, or worse, follow a course of personal destruction, due to either acts of commission or omission; pessimism, confusion, apprehension, and unhappiness will usually be present. All humans experience difficulty while navigating mine fields, such as relationship strain, health challenges, financial stress and other miscellaneous obstacles.
Law enforcement officers and agents certainly must confront formidable injustice and human suffering, as well as threats to personal safety in their professional roles. However, it is possible to embrace concepts such as learned optimism, spirituality, growth mindset and post traumatic growth, as we pursue excellence in achievement, specific to our personal circumstances. While cynicism, burnout, PTS, and PTSD will remain salient issues to be addressed in the law enforcement professions, scientific research combined with personal and professional experience suggests we can orientate towards learned optimism and experience robust post traumatic growth.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
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