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6 Ways Police Veterans Become Trapped

Grappling with yourself through post-service transition.

Key points

  • The shift from duty belt to waist belt can highlight an officer’s lack of competence in the norms of civilian culture.
  • Early maladaptive schemas, occupational forces, and life transition dynamics can negatively impact a healthy transition to civilian life.
  • Introspection and intentionality can assist in moving a transitioning officer out of inertia.

As a newly separated cop, one of your first “assignments” in the post-service life is helping yourself create a healthy trajectory during a period of significant (and often uncomfortable) change. Of course, this can be easier said than done considering that many cops, while on the job, aren’t always aware of or able to acknowledge their current trajectories as something that may be unhealthy. They often figure that everything is copacetic if they can go home every day, stay out of jail, and keep their job.

Unfortunately, these primary goals do not always leave time to reflect on personal wellness. When the badge or uniform is eventually gone, it’s not uncommon for transitioning officers to find themselves gasping for air while watching loved ones and friends breathe quite comfortably as they go about their daily routines.

Upon exit, an officer’s suitability for adaptation will be challenged by a number of individual and environmental factors known to influence the change management process. In particular, carving out a healthy pathway may require a confrontation with yourself as you go about relearning the rules, attitudes, and expectations that govern the society you now live in. In fact, the fight for identity, purpose, and meaning often begins with the question, “Am I still a sheepdog or must I now take my place among the sheep?” You need not travel far to feel the weight of this conflict, as it can evidence itself right at home, driving to the grocery store, when starting a new job, or simply talking to your neighbor. I discussed these challenges more broadly in my previous post “Loving and Leaving the Badge.”

Secondly, because many officers leave their careers with early maladaptive schemas that were reinforced through their occupation, it might not feel natural to cope with the challenges of change in ways beyond what they've been conditioned to do. For you, that can mean 40, 50, or 60 years of self-defeating strategies “teed up” for your swing into life after law enforcement. Consequently, your new trajectory may start off tainted with a poor capacity to be self-directed, regulate your emotions, form meaningful relationships, and pursue a purposeful life that doesn’t require a badge or gun to give it purpose.

By the way, don’t expect the society you are now relearning to “meet you halfway" as you seek healthier pathways. Rather, it will be up to you to reach out to others who do not understand your needs and talents. If they dismiss or ignore you, at least you will know the difference and that gives you power. After all, in the larger scheme of “fights” on the job it was always (1) you vs. you, (2) you vs. them, and (3) you vs. the system. Upon exit, #2 and #3 can no longer hurt you (unless you let them), which leaves you with the only confrontation that ever mattered to begin with. This is important to acknowledge in transition because there are a number of ways you can get “stuck” as you work through the challenges of identity change and adapt to a new normal:

Pandora’s Box

You stay bottled up and do not communicate your feelings. From the fallout of your career to reintegration roadblocks, opening up about your post-service struggles can bring on more painful feelings and a fear of failure or humiliation. While there are a number of factors that impact how any person manages their feelings, the occupational conditioning of emotional control creates a nearly universal (and unintended) consequence for cops.

Shawshank Effect

You enjoy a new freedom, but grapple with how to live in it. From an operational and sociocultural standpoint, a police career “institutionalizes” you. Consequently, the shift from duty belt to waist belt may highlight your lack of cultural competence in other domains. On the other hand, you might not be willing to accept new norms and expectations, either of which can place you at a perceived disadvantage when your brotherhood, department, or mission is no longer there to take care of you.

Mea Culpa

You try to work off perceived “debts" to family, friends, God, and those you’ve ever hurt, punished, or blamed. It’s often not until you are completely removed that you realize the mess you and your career left behind. With your weak underbelly now exposed, you may find yourself having to “tuck tail” and rely on people you may not have treated very well in the past. To make things right with yourself, you may wish to reconcile with members of your agency, your spouse and children, old friends, or even the community you served. Unfortunately, not everyone may be on the same page, which means forgiveness, grace, and compassion may come later (or not at all).

Death by Normalcy

You try to fit in but feel disengaged from your authentic self. Civilian life has a flair for the mundane, and there’s only so much golfing, traveling, or spending time with family you can do before you feel the urge to scratch the “warrior” itch. Even domestic chores and family responsibilities can get you down when you know that your job is no longer an outlet for adrenaline and excitement. Moreover, the residual symptoms of stress, trauma, and other impacts associated with your occupational conditioning may still dominate your brain and body. Without abatement, all are known to confuse and complicate a healthy trajectory.


You keep making wrong choices or taking on too much and fail to enjoy your strengths and abilities. Ultimately, if you perceive changes to your roles and routines as punishment instead of something meaningful, then suffering becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits your personal growth. After a few repetitions of rolling your “boulder” up the hill, you may also try to “fix” the situation (or other people) to alleviate that suffering or knock others down to your level. Why should you be the only one who is miserable?

Fear of Shining

You are afraid to move forward because of past failures. If you are a person who has built a life with flawed data about yourself, it’s common to experience triggers from the “shadow” of negative past experiences. These reflexes are a result of events across the lifespan but given that law enforcement was your life for a significant period of time, your career may be the biggest “shadow” scaring you into inertia.


The shift to civilian life will challenge your suitability for change and underscores the value of looking inward as you plot a new trajectory. Take caution as you chart your individual course. A more recent societal shift in attitude often rewards instant gratification, propagates suffering as something bad, and pushes a lightning-speed pace by which we now tackle problems in our personal and professional lives. Consequently, intentionality and stepping back to see the forest for the trees has become a lost art in the pursuit of progress.

I can tell you from my own experience that I spent more time victimizing myself and looking for others to blame than I did taking personal responsibility for my circumstances. A shift in attitude, however, didn’t come quickly, easily, or without help because I found that the society I was relearning didn’t care about my post-service plights. It was up to me to figure out my place in the universe and embrace it. If this sounds similar to a mid-life crisis, you wouldn’t be wrong but, ironically, the “search for self” often comes at a time when the average officer is eligible to retire. For others, it may be a result of the exit itself. Either way, the more you understand how you can become “stuck” the more prepared you are to anticipate roadblocks and work through them.

More from Brian A. Kinnaird Ph.D.
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