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From Shut Down to Alive!

October 15th, 2009

 
The other day my friend Paul, a corrections professional, told me that he once was a tender-hearted, warm person. “Now,” he mused, “after 16 years in corrections, I feel shut down. If somebody really hassled me I might feel some anger. Otherwise I’m a flat line. I can’t feel much inside, either good or bad. In a way it’s easier not to be getting worked up over things, but I know something’s not right!” He added, “Linda keeps complaining that I’m too distant with her and the kids.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

Paul’s answer came after a long pause. “I think I just got too used to keeping myself under control in order to remain professional.”

A little more discussion revealed that Paul learned to exercise extreme control over his emotions so that he could:
 
1. Operate as he’d been trained instead of reacting emotionally;
2. Maintain his safety by not giving away personal information.
 
Due to professional demands, the emotional side of COs—what gives life flavor and the sense of being alive inside—sometimes gets shoved down so effectively that it may become difficult to retrieve that side of oneself at will.

Law enforcement officers, by the way, face similar challenges.

Too much self-control can become too much of a good thing.

COs function in an environment which is potentially enemy territory. They must stay in charge and show self-restraint even in extremely emotional situations. And experience has taught them that the less people know about what “gets to them,” the safer they’ll be.

So COs learn to put on an imaginary “mask and shield.” They figure out ways to keep the lid on what’s inside.

The problem is that, like with any habit, the more it is exercised, the more automatic it becomes. The “mask and shield” become a way of life. The poker face becomes routine. Emotions get suppressed and ignored before they even hit awareness.

The shutting down around inmates can carry over to other staff and to personal relationships.

After a while COs may not be able to easily put their finger on what they’re feeling or needing. They might even forget they are capable of generating tender emotions. They may lug the war gear around even on friendly territory.

It does not take long before relationships with significant others suffer. Personal connections are nurtured partly by appropriately sharing emotions and innermost thoughts with loved ones. When COs’ emotional life gets constricted, relational ties are starved.

What can COs do to maintain access to their hearts, given that they need to stay “in control” at work?

Here are a few ideas.

1. Remind yourself of how you experienced emotions prior to working in the criminal justice system. Years ago, how did you use to feel around a trusting child? A playful puppy? A beautiful sunset? Seek to reconnect with such emotions. Give yourself permission to feel tender emotions.

2. Make the effort to identify emotions when they pop up. Pay attention to body sensations such as muscle tension or a racing heart. What emotions are related to these sensations? Treat this new venture of self-awareness like you would take time to taste a new ice-cream flavor.

3. Keep from judging your emotions as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Emotions give you information about how you feel about whatever is going on in your life. We are accountable for the actions we take in conjunction with our emotions, not for the emotions themselves. Allow emotions to show up on the radar screen of your self-awareness. Focus on them without judgment. What are they telling you about what’s going on with you?

4. Experiment with expressing emotions appropriately to people you trust. Which emotion can you share more easily? Affection, happiness, excitement? Sorrow, anxiety, embarrassment? Disappointment, frustration, regret?

5. For those of you with a faith perspective, do a Bible study on emotions experienced by God. Reflect upon some of the Bible passages that describe God feeling love, anger, compassion, sorrow, regret, jealousy or joy. Remind yourself that since you are created in God’s image, you too will experience the whole spectrum of emotions. Allow yourself to experience and manage such emotions responsibly.

And, above all, become willing to work on reconnecting with your “heart.” The flavor of your emotional life and your most important relationships depend on it!

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  1. rudeman
    December 3rd, 2009 at 12:45 | #1

    I can totally agree what Paul said. When I first started in corrections I did put on my imaginary “correctinal face” and operated like a machine. I had to given the type of inmate I was dealing with.
    Now after 15 years as a CO I have learned that it’s okay to be real, and be human, even while doing your job.
    But it can also agree that it is sometimes hard to take off your correctional face when I go home, and I have to be reminded by my wife that I’m “home” and I can be human again.

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