Compartmentalizing, as we understood and defined it, was a tool my wife and I used as part of a coping strategy in our stressful jobs. Something we employed to prevent being overwhelmed by excessive emotional attachment that could harm our helping the people we served.
Now, I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’m not the final word on this subject. This is solely my assessment of what seems to have worked for us while we were on the job. Perhaps someone can benefit from my experience, employing compartmentalizing as one mechanism in a larger coping strategy.
My wife and I were fortunate because we both chose public safety professions. She’s a retired firefighter, and I am a retired police officer. You hear about public safety professionals who feel they must shelter their spouses or partners from the harsh realities of a dangerous, stressful job. That wasn’t a problem for us.
Some people, rather than placing emotional events into a compartment, hold onto those disturbing memories. These events continue to churn and build pressure beneath a brittle barrier. So, they keep a part of themselves locked away where their suppressed emotions can fester and contaminate their domestic relationships. Additionally, that person’s spouse or partner may believe they are the cause of that person’s unhappiness. This can be malignant for any relationship.
My wife and I rarely talked about what happened on the job. Unless an incident was hilarious, bizarre, or catastrophic, we didn’t really talk about our jobs. Not intentionally to protect each other from the horrific scenes we saw, it just didn’t come up. When we did talk about the job, we were more apt to talk about the way politics was polluting the law enforcement profession and, to a lesser degree, fire departments.
The human crises we handled sorted themselves into secure compartments until their jagged edges had dulled, and they were either forgotten, harmless, or remained available only for unemotional recall. Even with compartmentalizing, some emergency calls you’ll never forget. For us, when we finished with an incident, we took it off our radar screen and moved on to the next call.
From where my wife’s ability to compartmentalize comes is no mystery. Her dad was a cop for 36 years, encompassing her entire childhood and early adulthood. She was raised that way. It was a part of her nurturing. For me, raised by a single-mother, immigrant, I’m not sure from where my natural ability to compartmentalize comes. Regardless of whether it is innate or learned, the ability to compartmentalize is important for cops in maintaining good mental health.
I always chuckle when watching cop, fire, doctor, or lawyer dramas on TV. The heroes eat, breathe, and sleep the cases they are working. They treat every victim as if he or she is their own parent or child.
These shows can affect how society views cops. As with people thinking cops should be able to shoot guns out of bad guys’ hands, the public may believe real cops are supposed to be emotionally consumed by every situation they respond to and every person they help. It’s unrealistic.
Sometimes strong emotional attachments do occur and are not only warranted but can be beautiful. I recently read about a cop who adopted a heroin-using mother’s opioid-addicted newborn. Great story but going that far is uncommon. I mean, the officer and his wife can’t adopt every baby of every pregnant heroin addict he meets for the rest of his career, right? Others will have to go into a compartment.
While empathy and sympathy are a necessary component of public safety, an officer cannot maintain a perpetual familial, emotional connection with every stranger he or she deals with. And it doesn’t take that type of empathy to do the job right. For example, do we want a paramedic to respond to his own child’s medical emergency or a cop assigned to the arrest of his daughter’s rapist?
The emotional connections are too close and can lead to serious errors in judgment. So concerned about his child, the paramedic performs the wrong procedures, maybe his child dies. During the arrest of a cooperative suspect, the cop shoots his daughter’s alleged rapist. While understandable, it places him in serious legal jeopardy, which further hurts his family. It’s like anything in life. If you feel the same emotional connections with everyone, you can’t feel true emotions with anyone.
For empathy and sympathy to be real, the feelings must be organic. You have to experience the emotions naturally, as the situation evolves, and as the people involved affect you. You can “fake” it to a certain extent, but you’ll never feel the same way about everyone all the time.
You can make a person feel you care more than you actually do. There is nothing wrong with this. Believe me, some people complain about stupid things cops can’t do anything about, things that a cop just doesn’t care about because there is nothing to care about.
But, as public safety professionals, we keep those feelings to ourselves and treat the complainant respectfully—even if that means respectfully telling them their problem is not a police matter.
I remember one mother who wanted me to physically force her 15-year-old bratty daughter from the house into the car, so she could take her to visit her grandmother. The woman seemed very nice, and, as a parent, I felt bad for her. But it wasn’t a police matter and, in this case, as you’ll read below, not even worth a compartment. The mom has been raising her daughter for 15 years, and she wanted me to “fix it” in five minutes.
In an article for Forbes.com, Ryan Blair wrote about compartmentalization (a psychology term for something similar to compartmentalizing, but more subconscious or unconscious) from the perspective of an entrepreneur, but much of what he wrote also applies to those in public safety.
He writes, “Put simply, it’s how our minds deal with conflicting internal standpoints simultaneously.” It’s a coping strategy we use to deal with stressful incidents.
Blair came up with a five-step process for compartmentalizing, which I’ve taken the liberty to tweak for public safety:
- Isolate the event.
- Intensely focus on an incident while you are directly handling it.
- Render your services methodically, efficiently, and appropriately for each situation.
- Once you complete the incident, place the incident into and close the compartment.
- (This one is verbatim—and my favorite) “Say ‘no’ to things that don’t deserve a compartment.”
Isolating the event means not allowing extraneous concerns to distract you from handling what’s in front of you. Victims and witnesses will never know you will divest your emotional investment once you head to the next call and begin to isolate that new event.
If you have an intense focus, the victim or patient will appreciate your undivided attention to his or her crisis—while you are with them. You may not be able to fabricate emotions toward the event or people involved, but you are able to focus on the event. Like my partner used to say, “Act as if you care.” It isn’t necessary to “care” for each person as long as you care about doing your job correctly. Then you’ll treat everyone appropriately no matter what you think of them.
Rendering your services properly is self-explanatory and relates to having an intense focus. Like New England Patriot’s head coach Bill Belichick tells his players, “Do your job!”
After you complete the incident, let it go. Refusing to dwell on bad memories will help you maintain your emotional health. Don’t fret about things you can do nothing about. (I know; easy for me to say. But, I did it, too.)
Some things don’t deserve a compartment. Like I mentioned in the above story with the daughter who didn’t want to go to grandma’s house, I love this advice because it’s so true. Compartmentalizing can be a useful strategy to deal with emotional overload but only if it’s used appropriately. Don’t compartmentalize things that may tweak you but are trivial—let that stuff go. Don’t let things bother you that shouldn’t. Don’t give power to events, things, or people that take your power from you.
As I wrote in my first book, Officer, the many ways people respond to offenses, perceived or real, committed against them can also affect cops’ reactions to situations. I wrote about a robbery suspect we caught who lay writhing in the middle of the road while we were handcuffing him. He was yelling and screaming as if we were torturing him. After he was in handcuffs, all of us stood, and no one had a finger on him. Still, he was screaming, gurgling, and gagging as if we were water-boarding him right there on the asphalt.
On the contrary, I responded to a serious assault in the First Hill area of Seattle. A man bleeding from a head wound sat on the sidewalk as paramedics treated him. A suspect had struck the victim in the head with a hatchet. The victim kept telling us not to worry about him because “you have better things to do.” I learned sometimes cops, especially newer officers, react to someone’s emotional reaction and not what is actually happening.
Again, this is what worked for me. Find what works for you. I hope this discussion has given you at least some food for thought. Perhaps you will find something useful from these musings that will help to get you through your career physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. You want to enjoy that retirement you worked so hard to earn, don’t you?