Photo: Vince Taroc.
As I enter into my 24th year in law enforcement, I look back and wonder what I could have done differently to cope with the ups and downs of the job. Some days it seems there's always some schmuck hell-bent on ruining my day.
There have been times when I was really good at not letting the person get to me, and then there were other times when I wasn't and just added to the drama. In reality it is my reaction to the situation that has either helped or made it worse. So what advice would I give to myself if I could do it all over again? I'd take a good look in the mirror and say, "Learn to understand and make better use of boundaries."
A Rose by Any Other Name...
Like me, you deal with boundaries every time you show up for work. Those your agency sets have familiar names like standards of conduct, use-of-force policies, and arrest procedures. These boundaries establish what is allowable on the job. As an individual, you also need to define for yourself what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, especially when it comes to dealing with your co-workers.
I discussed the concept of interpersonal boundaries with Ms. Kelli Willard, a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. She says: "Maintaining good personal boundaries is a key to resolving interpersonal conflict. Knowing where your own emotions end and where the other person's begin is crucial to owning only your actions and reactions, thus avoiding the escalation that usually results from entanglement." As I interviewed her for this article and took notes, the term entanglement struck a chord with me.
I realized how many times I had allowed myself to get sucked into someone else's drama. I thought about the times I had gone to work in a good mood only to have the air sucked out of me and be drowned by some "boat anchor" that was having a bad day. Willard helped me realize that people don't ruin your day; it's your self-entanglement with them that does.
According to Willard, one of the best ways to stay untangled is to set boundaries and stick to them. Once you set boundaries for yourself, you establish what is and is not acceptable to you as a person. Those boundaries then set the tone for all of your daily interactions. For example, I tell new supervisors all the time that you can be friendly but that doesn't mean you have to be everyone's friend.
The Laws of Boundaries
Willard recommended that I look into the works of two well-known authors, Henry Cloud and John Townsend, who have written extensively on setting boundaries in an interpersonal setting. Though their work focuses on marital relationships and not specifically on law enforcement, I found some of their advice crosses over to other interpersonal settings as well. In the book "Boundaries," Cloud and Townsend refer to "The 10 Laws of Boundaries," which I found very helpful. These laws include the laws of sowing and reaping, responsibility, and respect.
The law of sowing and reaping states that each of our actions has consequences. Someone will pay for them. The law of responsibility states that we are responsible to each other but not for each other. In other words, we are responsible for our own actions and we can't blame them on someone else. The law of respect teaches that if we want our boundaries to be respected, we must respect those of others in turn. If each of us understood how to apply these three simple tenets at work, our time there would be so much easier.
Keep Emotions in Check
The life of a police officer consists of an endless stream of decision-making. Many of these decisions are emotionally charged. No one, however Zen or Buddha-like, is bulletproof when it comes to his or her own emotions. Under the right conditions, everyone has a button that can be pushed.