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4 principles COs can use to overcome negativity and negative thoughts

No one is immune to dark thoughts and impulses. Everyone is unique, however, in how frequently they allow these thoughts to intrude and what they do with them when they do

Negative thoughts, left unchallenged, run roughshod over happiness and potential. They bleed over to hurt family and friends, impact our effectiveness on the job and off, and set in motion a cascade of ill effects that make digging out from under them more and more difficult the longer we accept their truth. Overcoming negative thinking requires a skill set that is easy to acquire but possessed by relatively few.

We all experience negative thoughts from time to time. Whether a flash of contempt toward another, inwardly-focused self-talk berating our failings and tearing us down with the words of every detractor ever faced, or even ingrained prejudice about races, ethnicities, or other groups we know we shouldn’t have — should be ashamed of, even — but have adopted anyway, the inner workings of the mind are prone to an alarming hatefulness!

No one is immune to occasional dark (and sometimes hidden) thoughts and impulses. Each individual is unique, however, in how frequently they allow these thoughts to intrude and what they do with them when they do.

An Astonishingly Intricate Organ
A study conducted in the 1980s by University of Minnesota social psychologist Eric Klinger demonstrated the prevalence of spontaneous, unintended thoughts. Klinger found that:

“Within a 16-hour day… people have about 500 thoughts that are unintentional and “intrusive” and that last about 14 seconds on average. While most dealt with the concerns of everyday life, 18 percent were unacceptable, uncomfortable, or just plain bad — politically incorrect or mean thoughts. A remaining 13 percent were ugly, out of character, or downright shocking — say, murderous or perverse ideas.”
— Jena Pincott, , Wicked Thoughts, from Psychology Today Sept/Oct 2015

Klinger had volunteers carry around an electronic device for a week and, whenever it chirped, they would record whatever they were thinking at that time. What is surprising, in addition to how spontaneously active our minds are, is just how dark they can go.

The mind is a highly complex product of an astonishingly intricate organ. According to some scholars, even the dark, perverse, and prejudicial thoughts the mind generates — often against our conscious will — are likely evolutionary remnants that once served legitimate purposes. Bias against different racial, ethnic, or cultural groups is widely viewed as small-minded and rooted in simple bigotry — tens of thousands of years ago, however, when life was precarious and the tribes of our ancestors faced severe resource competition from neighboring groups, they may have developed as a necessary “early warning system” to potentially dangerous “others.”

How much might today’s reflexive racial or cultural biases be genetic vestiges handed down from long ago? Being in tune to criticism and disapproval from parents or other authorities when young is an important emotional survival skill most of us develop. How might the lessons of youth replay themselves even well into adulthood, causing us to become overly self-critical when we sense or fear disapproval from partners, colleagues, or social circles? Reacting angrily to criticism is a natural defense mechanism most of us learn early in life, at the age fairness is treasured and unfairness reviled, and an important emotion that prods us to action. What do we do with the anger when the unfairness is everywhere, the critics too many, and the fight too constant? Usually, the anger overwhelms us and leads our minds down very dark paths.

Being able to manage and control these dark thoughts — knowing when they are inappropriate or dangerous, as well as not allowing oneself to become too overly concerned about their existence — is critical for healthy functioning. Ideally, we will understand from where they come and think past the visceral urge to act upon them, or allow ourselves and our worldview to be negatively impacted. Realistically, we too often allow them to fester and consume us, overwhelming our ability to challenge them.

Negativity, Negative Thoughts, and the Police Worldview
So if occasional negative thoughts are a component of most people’s daily existence, how much more common are they among cops? Police officers confront the fallout of man’s darkest impulses, see humanity at its worst, and increasingly find themselves targets of derision and distrust on the heels of relatively rare but high-profile critical incidents that have many questioning the quality and honor of modern policing. Even worse, many cops find themselves under the microscope of not only the public but also their bosses and politicians, leading them to feel unsupported and unappreciated. Suspects, witnesses, and victims all lie whether the truth is convenient or not, and sometimes even trusted allies can betray in a cop’s world.

A lot of officers develop negative expectations of the public they serve, the political system governing them, and the bosses under whom they serve. Sometimes, this pessimism even extends to other cops, family, friends, and even themselves. Received criticism leads them to either form psychological callouses in defense, or to feel embattled and fragile, neither of which being an optimal response in a profession where both strong ego strength and critical self-awareness should be prerequisites.

In couple’s therapy, there is a concept known as Negative Sentiment Override. Coined by Dr. John Gottman, PhD, negative sentiment override (NSO) is what happens in a troubled relationship when the partners become so habituated to relational discord and unhappiness they come to hold predominantly negative feelings about each other. Then, even when things are going well and they should be feeling positive about the relationship and each other, negative sentiments based on past hurts and inured pessimism quash what should be a moment of happiness.

Something similar happens in law enforcement. Seeing people at their worst, expecting lies when the truth would work, the sense of near constant criticism, and low expectations of bosses and politicians (and sometimes even peers) breeds pessimism. Eventually, just like the couple who’ve learned to never trust happiness with each other, a law enforcement version of negative sentiment override emerges. Negativity prevails in thoughts and expectations.

The Cost of Negativity
Our thoughts and worldview have an impact on wellbeing, and negativity is harmful. Some of the most notable effects are:

  • Reduced confidence in both self and others
  • Impaired social functioning (generalized unhappiness, less personal and professional satisfaction, lowered self-esteem, low energy)
  • “All or Nothing Thinking” (the inability to see nuance, instead seeing people and circumstances as “all bad” or “all good”)
  • “Catastrophizing” (Not only is a situation all bad, it is the worst thing ever!)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Negativity becoming the desired state-of-mind (accepting a positive only leads to disappointment)
  • Thought distortions (negative thoughts leading to paranoia, faulty reasoning, and misinterpreting words and events)
  • Adaptation of the “Fight or Flight” response as normal state of being (including dangerous biochemical shifts when the physiological state of what should be a rare mode becomes everyday normal)
  • Compromised physical health

Negative thoughts, left unchallenged, run roughshod over happiness and potential. They bleed over to hurt family and friends, impact our effectiveness on the job and off, and set in motion a cascade of ill effects that make digging out from under them more and more difficult the longer we accept their truth. Overcoming negative thinking requires a skill set that is easy to acquire but possessed by relatively few.

Four Principles for Overcoming Negativity and Negative Thoughts
Negativity feeds on itself, growing ever larger to crowd out opposing thoughts and perception; it even drives us to seek out supporting evidence — of which there is plenty in today’s info-soaked world — and chokes off the idea that there is also a lot of good to be experienced, or that there may be a different and more optimistic outlook to be had. Overcoming negativity, and the emotional and physical toll it takes, requires focused effort on our part to change outlook and perspective.

Much of the negativity we feel stems from a sense of helplessness, and this might be especially true in policing. Whether frustrated by outside criticism, internal politics, feelings about real or perceived anti-police sentiment, media coverage, or the capriciousness of the legislative and legal processes defining a cop’s work, most of the resulting negativity comes from how little control any of us really have over any of it. Helplessness leads to frustration which, repeated over time, produces hopelessness.

Understanding this leads to the first necessary principle for overcoming negativity and negative thoughts:

1. The only thing we really have any control over is how we choose to respond to the stresses and demands of any given moment.

If you are expecting to change those things bothering you the most, understand you may be even more frustrated should (when?) you fail. That is not to say, “Don’t bother trying.” Of course you should try — “fighting the good fight” is both noble and a remedy against despair, and positive change only comes from challenging the status quo. Just know it is an uphill battle that may need fought over and over, the forces against you are highly motivated against change, victories may only be incremental and localized, and all of this is okay.

What you do control and where you can guarantee change is in your actions, efforts, and even thoughts about the challenges and frustrations before you. This leads to the second principle:

2. When negative thoughts strike we only have about 60 seconds to overcome them before they start to take root.

Accepting negative thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs at face value without ever challenging their veracity allows them to become the standard against which later, less-pessimistic ideas will be judged. And, as Dr. Klinger’s research showed, with “unintentional” thoughts coming at us all the time from within our own brains, it may not be long before another comes along to perpetuate the negativity. Openness to the possibility of being wrong, or at least not seeing the whole picture, forces us to critically assess our thoughts and beliefs about the world and habituate more open-minded, rationally considered thinking. Our third principle leads to one of the best ways to accomplish this:

3. Understanding and practicing mindfulness — the awareness of our moment-to-moment “where am I now” experience of thoughts and feelings — is proven to be highly effective combatting negativity, depression, and anxiety.

More than a hot catchphrase at therapist’s offices and yoga studios, there is reason mindfulness is big and growing: It works. Conscious awareness of our thoughts, and their emotional impact in the moment of experience, allows us control over them instead of vice versa. Mindfulness has been incorporated into various therapeutic modalities, including some where it is a primary component, with great success.

When experiencing a “trigger” likely to lead to toxic negativity, being mindful of how it is affecting us helps put the brakes on runaway thoughts, lets us feel without being consumed by the emotions it prompts, and allows integration of both into our experience while our rational mind maintains control to override the negativity. Our fourth principle is key to breaking the grip of negativity, and stems from the practice of mindfulness:

4. Slowing down our minds, taking the time to ask ourselves “Is the information I’m receiving real and accurate? Am I interpreting it correctly? Is there more to the story I should find out? What have I not considered?” leads to a more positive and self-aware perspective.

Emotional reactivity is common to a lot of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, and very much so among people with highly negative and angry outlooks about other people and the world.

Police officers are under incredible stress today, and it is understandable some fall prey to negativity and negative thoughts in a climate of criticism and scrutiny. Developing the skills to overcome them is imperative for your emotional and physical health, however, and entirely in your power.

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Mike Wasilewski, MSW, have been married since 1994. Mike works full time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency while Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego (Illinois). They write on a wide range of topics to include officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale, and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

You can keep up with them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, or check out their website at

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski