6 threats to personal excellence

Don't let victim thinking undermine your warrior spirit and sabotage your aspirations for peak performance

“An insidious disease is sweeping North America and taking a toll on our profession,” trainer Brian Willis warns.

It undermines the warrior spirit and sabotages aspirations for peak performance. It’s endemic in many departments and lurks as a constant threat to every officer.

This affliction is called victim thinking.

Excellence is not a one-time single act but a collection of habits.
Excellence is not a one-time single act but a collection of habits. (Photo/Police1)

Signs of Victim Thinking

In his popular presentation titled The Pursuit of Personal Excellence, Brian Willis itemizes both the symptoms and the mental therapy for this crippling ailment.

A veteran of 25 years as a cop in Calgary, Alberta, and himself a survivor of past bouts of self-defeating behavior, he knows the subject firsthand – and encounters it often as he travels throughout the U.S. and Canada, helping officers cultivate a winning mindset in both their personal and professional lives.

“We all experience times of victim thinking,” Willis says, “when we feel like a puppet, with someone else pulling strings that control us. The key is to identify when we’re there and apply the strategies for getting out.”

Any of these symptoms sound familiar?

1. Rear-view living 

“You spend a lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror of your life, reflecting on ‘the good old days,’ when things were simpler, there was less paperwork, fewer cameras, less bureaucracy,” Willis explains.

“We have selective memories. We forget the inadequacies of those days: revolvers, crummy holsters that your gun fell out of on a foot chase, bullets that wouldn’t penetrate a suspect’s jacket. Think of the technological advances that help us today. We need to honor the past and learn from it, but not live in it. The ‘good old days’ are really just the old days.”

2. Dwelling in denial

You avoid engagement and initiative. Willis says: “Your thinking is, ‘It’s not my ________.’ Fill in the blank: ‘responsibility,’ ’fault,’ ‘problem.’

“You’re the opposite of the person who has no connection with the original problem but still says, ‘I’ll fix it and make it right.’ You find blame rather than solutions.”

3. Chronic bitching

“Cops hate two things,” Willis wryly observes. “Change and the way things are. And some complain endlessly in bitch sessions – about their bosses, about their peers, about the city, about training, about budgets, and on and on.

“When you walk away from all that griping, where is your energy at? At a high level, or through the floor? How much positive is ever achieved from all that grousing?”

The frequency with which you use the words “bullshit” and “asshole” will give you a thumbnail assessment of how badly you’re infected with the bitching bug, Willis says.

4. “It won’t work here.”

Someone makes a suggestion for improvement, and you say, “Yeah, that’s good stuff, but it’ll never work here.” “This is abdicating to victim thinking,” Willis believes. “Some adaptation may be necessary, but the essence of good strategies can work regardless of where you are.”

5. “I’m just a _____.”

“When you belittle yourself as ‘just’ an officer or ‘just’ something else low on the food chain, you’re convincing yourself you have no power to do anything,” Willis says.

“We all have the capacity to be a leader. Every agency has some people with no rank, no title, and no position who nevertheless are powerful leaders. It’s a matter of what you do and how you carry yourself. In most agencies, 90% of the people are sergeant or below. With the right leaders within those ranks, if they wanted to change things, they could. You have to decide you’re in a position to lead, then do it.”

6. Lonely righteousness

You reach the point where you think you’re the only person in your agency who has an accurate fix on how things are and how they ought to be. “You’re always pointing the finger at someone else who’s misdirected,” Willis says.

Countering Victim Thinking

Maximizing your personal abilities requires that you take responsibility for the choices and outcomes in your life, Willis teaches. “The strategy for change is simple but not easy,” he says. “What’s necessary is not complex but it takes an on-going effort because you will face challenges along the way.”

1. Imagine excellence

“First, focus your attention on what excellence looks like and feels like,” Willis says. “Close your eyes and imagine in detail what you can be, can do, can have and can become. Imagine what that would look like and feel like in your personal life, then shift and imagine it in your professional life.

“Do this exercise periodically and ask yourself, ‘If this is what excellence looks like and feels like, where am I in relation to that goal? Do I need to change something to get closer to where I want to be?’”

2. Build a bridge

If you are hanging on to behaviors, attitudes, memories, or grievances from the past that impede your progress toward a more positive mindset, figuratively “build a bridge and get over it,” Willis says. “Let it go and move on. There will always be things or people in life that suck and that we can’t change, but we can’t allow them to sabotage what we love and need.

“As cops, we’re conditioned to look for what’s wrong in the world when we’re on duty, and we often extend this into our personal life. Without sacrificing our job performance, we need to consciously step back when we can and look for the good in the situations and people around us.”

3. Commit to new ways

“Excellence is not a one-time single act but a collection of habits,” Willis explains. “We are what we repeatedly do.”

Don’t expect to immediately and wholly transform yourself.

“Write down one thing at a time you’d like to change or accomplish and build a habit that reinforces that,” Willis suggests. “Make a commitment to always be better in some way tomorrow than you are today. That opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. When you focus on what you can control instead of complaining about what you can’t control, it changes things dramatically.”

4. Watch your environment

Quoting the acclaimed motivational thinker W. Clement Stone, Willis cautions: “Be careful of the environment you choose, for it will shape you. Be careful of the friends you choose, for you will become like them.”

In evaluating your environment, identify the five people you spend the most time with and “examine their influence on you,” Willis advises. “In policing, we have a culture that can be very hard on each other. Are the people closest to you energizing and enhancing you, or diminishing you and encouraging mediocrity? To achieve excellence, you must remove yourself from the unacceptable.”

5. “I get to…”

An attitude that can cause you to miss opportunities is always looking at the obligations and events in your life as things you have to do, Willis says. “Instead of thinking ‘I have to,’ think ‘I get to.’ Just changing that outlook will start to change things for the better.”

6. Dare to soar

“What holds a lot of us back is fear – not fear of failure, but fear of success,” Willis says. “We fear that excellence will bring bigger responsibilities, higher expectations, greater accountability, perhaps animosity from some of our peers – all of which may prove true.

“To embrace excellence, you must have the courage to soar. When you truly ask yourself what’s holding you back, the honest answer usually is ‘me.’ It takes guts to change from making excuses to making improvements. But remember, the greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we are capable of becoming.”

This article, originally published 11/21/2012, has been updated. 

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