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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Victimization is a Choice

If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can to escape it. Right?

Actually, that’s a common misconception. The truth is when you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you are more likely to give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

I expect that you might argue this point by saying that you would fight to leave a bad situation in which you find yourself because that’s what most people believe. We don’t want to think of ourselves as weak or helpless and so we vehemently proclaim, “Not me”.

Think about the last time you declared that you weren’t going to vote in a local or national election. Did you say: “Why should I bother? Things never change” or “My vote out of millions doesn’t really matter anyway”.

A child who performs poorly on math tests and assignments will quickly begin to feel that nothing he does will have any effect on his math performance. When later faced with any type of math-related task, he may experience a sense of helplessness.

This concept, helplessness, occurs when people feel that they have no control over their situation and leads them to behave in a helpless manner. By that, they become paralyzed with inaction and it causes them to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Humans are adaptive creatures and once we have resigned ourselves to the notion that there is nothing we can do about our situation, we simply accept our fate. In the book, “You Are Not So Smart”, author David McRaney talks about the effects of learned helplessness and explains that an extended period of negative emotions can lead to giving into despair, thus accepting your fate. He uses the example of loneliness. If you remain alone for a long time, you will decide loneliness is a fact of life and pass up opportunities to engage with other people.

I was a detective in the Domestic Violence Reduction Unit for five years and it was there that I became aware of learned helplessness. Some victims began to feel as though they could not escape their situation and those futilities led them to accept their plight. This concept is important in understanding why battered women don't attempt to free themselves from an abusive relationship.

The loss of control in any situation will lead to feeling helpless.

In policing, we see this phenomenon daily. So many people believe that external forces such as genetics or social class dictate their fate when in fact, conscious choice and relentless action proves otherwise.

The best part about learned helplessness is that there is a cure. We can combat the symptoms of feeling like a victim through conscious choice. When we make choices for ourselves – even small choices – we are revolting against helplessness and gaining control over our lives.

It all begins with the conversations we have with ourselves inside our own heads. The negative self-talk perpetuates a state of victimization when all we can hear ourselves say are things like, “Nothing is ever going to change”. Instead, we can make a conscious choice to declare that things will get better. Once we start to believe what we say, our actions will follow. The seemingly simple act of changing our mind-set is not actually that simple because we are hard-wired for victimization. It’s easier to blame the world around us for our problems rather than to embrace the notion that our inaction is the precise reason we are miserable.

If you were a victim of neglect or endured abuse as a child, you can blame everything bad in your life on your unfortunate circumstances and drown in the pond of self-pity or you can choose not to allow your circumstances to define you.

You have the power to rewrite your story and break through the walls of helplessness.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Abuse and Intuition: Trust Your Instinct

When I was a patrol officer, I once was dispatched to take a report for a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend. The child’s aunt brought her to the hospital and notified police after her niece made some comments about the male anatomy and sex to which the average 7-year-old would not be privy.

The little girl had to have a rape kit completed, which is used to collect evidence such as clothing fibers, hairs and bodily fluids, which might help identify an assailant and provide evidence during a criminal trial. It’s an intrusive process that no one should have to endure — especially a little girl.

As I conducted a preliminary investigation, I couldn’t help but notice that the little girl was laughing and playing with the toys that the hospital staff brought for her. She certainly didn’t resemble a child who had been molested, and I secretly wondered if her aunt had misconstrued what she said or jumped to conclusions. After all, the girl didn’t seem scared or outwardly afflicted.

I followed that case to the end. As it turned out, the little girl’s mother didn’t believe her child. She vehemently defended her boyfriend, with whom she had been in a relationship for two months before allowing him to move in and babysit her daughter. The boyfriend was eventually arrested and charged.

I would go on to respond to many similar cases. I learned very quickly that there are some common myths associated with sexual assault, and that the human psyche is very complex.

One might think that a victim of sexual assault would be fearful of their abuser, but quite frequently, that is not the case. Depending on how savvy the abuser is, there is a level of manipulation that is choreographed. Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence.

Offenders reinforce these feelings by what they say and do to their victims. They use the shame and fear to bind the victim to them and isolate them from others who might help them. Victims are often terrified that they will not be believed and ashamed that they don’t know how to stop the abuse. They often feel trapped between wanting the abuse to end and being terrified of other people learning what has been done to them. That fear can keep victims silent while the abuse continues. Seventy-five percent of victims never disclose abuse, keeping it a secret forever.

Some victims remain silent because they don’t have any proof of the abuse, which makes allegations their word against that of their abuser. While it is helpful to have physical evidence (which normally results from immediacy in reporting), it isn’t always possible to obtain. That doesn’t mean there cannot be a solid case for a conviction based on victim testimony.

And though it might be difficult to understand, some victims defend their abuser and may even deny they are being abused. People react to trauma in different ways. It is not uncommon for victims to maintain contact with their abusers, because they might still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse. This is especially prevalent when the abuser is a member of the family or a close family friend and in instances where the victims are children. There is no “book” on how children respond to trauma. You would be wrong to assume that you know how a child would or should respond.

Sexual abuse doesn’t just occur when a mom allows her new boyfriend to move in. It happens in families with blood relatives and close friends in backdrops you might not suspect. When you discuss “stranger danger” with your children, also reinforce that, if anyone ever abuses them, they need to tell.

Be vigilant in safeguarding the children in your life by listening to your intuition. When something feels wrong, it usually is.

"Fight or Flight" and why it Matters in Policing

The “fight or flight” phenomenon is our body’s innate response that prepares us to fight or flee from a perceived or actual threat of harm.  Often times, we don’t know what our primitive reaction will be until we are thrust into a situation that evokes fear.  If you’ve ever been the subject of a practical joke where someone jumped out and scared you in surprise, chances are you either started swinging or you ran away from the threat (some people literally freeze and become paralyzed with fear but I’m not sure how that reaction fits into the theory).  Each of these responses is our body’s natural way of protecting ourselves and we instinctively react the way we are wired. 

In the videos that captured the terrorist bombing in Boston, you can literally see “fight” or “flight” in action.  Some people ran away from the blast while others ran towards it.   The “fight” people began tearing down barricades and jumping over them to tend to the injured. 

The profession of law enforcement requires that you be a person of natural “fight” instinct.  This doesn’t mean one should be aggressive as the terminology might infer.  Rather, it means that in those situations where fear and threat is present, a police officer must have the ability to act in spite of it.  It is this very instinct that takes over when officers run towards the gunfire, jump into a pond to save car accident victims or immediately spring into action when bombs explode in the streets of a populated marathon. 

Instinct and the “fight” response alone is not enough.  It is these natural tendencies that cause one to gravitate towards law enforcement but it is the training given to first responders that elevate them to the level of action.  Our commitment to a higher level of training is the perfect marriage of skill and instinct.
Police are trained to understand that if there is one explosion, there is a strong likelihood that another will follow.  Where there is one bad guy, we must automatically assume there are more.  Even with this mindset, people of action put their personal well-being aside to tend to those who are injured and ignore personal risk in doing so.

“Fight” or “flight” are two very different ways of responding to stress and those whose natural instinct is to run away from the threat does not make them cowardly.  It is simply the survival method inherently hard-wired within them.  Some people will seek safety and shelter to protect themselves and there is nothing wrong about that response.  Some may even say that it is the wiser of the two reactions because it reduces the risk of harm.  However, these individuals would not likely flourish as police officers, firefighters or first responders.

I have always thought public safety to be a higher calling.  I believe this because people of action are drawn towards service professions like policing and firefighting because there is something inside of them that desperately desires to serve others while simultaneously protecting them.  It is these needs combined that make up the servant heart and the warrior spirit. 

When the servant heart and warrior spirit are present, there is a greater purpose that transcends the individual.  After feats of heroism, we often hear police and fire personnel downplay their actions and describe their reaction as instinctual.  They didn’t consciously make a choice to act or even weigh the risk of acting – they just did what was needed to be done in the moment.  

This profession not only requires people of action but also those who understand the awesome responsibility that accompanies the position. 

Servant hearts and warrior spirits are all around us and I’m grateful for those men and women – the boots on the street -- who answered the higher calling and honor the badge and the nobility of policing every day through their action.