Vulnerability: The Key to Emotional Survival

Published by VALOR (valorforblue.org)

September 14, 2020

Author: Assistant Chief Christopher Davis, Retired

I started playing sports when I was eight years old and continued to play through high school and for a short time in college.  After college, I served more than three years in the military and then went into law enforcement.  Throughout it all, I believed that I had to appear strong and invincible if I was going to be accepted and successful.

For the majority of my 25-year career, I believed that being too emotionally open or displaying vulnerability was a sign of weakness.  It took an almost career-ending incident and emotional breakdown for me to realize that I had to do things differently if I was going to survive mentally, physically, and spiritually.

I would like to take credit for realizing that I needed to change the way I presented myself to others, but I can’t.  In my case, seeing a psychologist, practicing yoga, working out, and taking prescribed medication helped me improve to a point where I realized I needed to make a change.  Specifically, I needed to be me—and if that meant being more open or vulnerable on occasion, then that was what I needed to do.

My lessons learned:

  1. Being vulnerable and open to the vulnerability of others is a sign of strength not weakness.
  2. We can be open or vulnerable to varying degrees. If you project a level of vulnerability that is not in line with who you are, there may be negative consequences.
  3. Being open when it is safe to do so is liberating. Once you know that you can take off the armor and express genuine feelings, the weight of appearing to be tough all the time dissipates.
  4. Putting on the invincibility armor is tiresome. It can unnecessarily drain personal resources and wear away at your resiliency, which may affect your performance at work and at home.
  5. Most officers appreciate a genuine show of openness. It gives them the ability to show their vulnerability.
  6. Being open and sharing your vulnerability means that you are comfortable with who you are.
  7. Being open to vulnerability is a process that takes time. When you think you need to behave a certain way, it takes effort to change.

After delivering live presentations, I often reflect on feedback that I receive (verbal and nonverbal) and think about the ability of officers to accept my message.  In my opinion, we will continue to suffer individually and as a profession until we can smash the stigma associated with being vulnerable and open.  The fact that suicide is a leading cause of death for officers may be indicative of a culture that does not allow us to genuinely express feelings without fear of embarrassment or repercussions.

So, on an individual level, how do we begin to show our vulnerability and be more open?

  1. Conduct a self-assessment. Do you feel the need to hide your vulnerability, to appear to be invincible 24/7?
  2. Share your feelings/concerns with someone you trust. Let them know that you get stressed, scared, and angry just like everyone else.  Ideally, your comfort level with being open with your feelings will improve over time.
  3. Enjoy the feeling of liberation when you do let your guard down and let others know that you have feelings.
  4. Evaluate your behaviors. Are you contributing to the stigma in your agency?  Do you encourage others to be open?  Something as simple as asking a coworker how they are doing—how they are really doing—can help change the culture within your agency.

I am a firm believer in learning by other people’s mistakes.  In this case, I hope you can learn from my mistakes and allow yourself to be more open throughout your career.  Like mental health, being vulnerable has a negative stigma, and until we can smash that stigma, we will continue to suffer individually and as a profession.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors. They do not reflect the views or opinions of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Assistant Chief Christopher O. Davis (Retired) served with the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Police Department for more than 25 years.  He recently retired as the Assistant Chief of Police and supervised the Investigative Bureau, consisting of approximately 150 detectives.  Over the course of his career, Assistant Chief Davis worked in patrol, investigations, internal affairs, and the training division.  Prior to law enforcement, he served for three years as a U.S. Army officer and served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.  In 2013, Assistant Chief Davis was involved in an “organizational stress” incident that had a devastating effect on his personal and professional life.  In 2016, he began sharing his story with the hope that his lessons learned could benefit others who find themselves in a similar situation.  He has given his “Organizational Stress:  You Can Survive” presentation at several venues throughout the country.  Assistant Chief Davis holds a master’s degree in public administration from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Dayton.

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