Lessons From a Recovering Perfectionist in Law Enforcement

Written By Christopher Littrell

Detective Sergeant

Feb 2, 2021

Talking with other police officers, I often identify myself as a recovering perfectionist. I laugh at that phrase. What does it mean? As I contemplate that question for myself, I realize that it resonates with me. Six years in the Air Force ingrained that I had to be perfect, get all the awards, and be loved by all. In the military, this seemed attainable. I could fold my t-shirts, towels, and underwear to precision. I could bounce a quarter off of my bed, complete with hospital corners. Perfection attained! Or so I thought.

Reality struck me about a decade ago. I really started to struggle with the stress of investigating crimes against children and the pressures of being a father and husband. I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. It forced me to pause, reflect, and reevaluate how I was living my life. I contemplated leaving law enforcement. I raised my hand. I admitted that I needed help. I reached out to amazing peers, mentors, and a counselor who all come along side me to help me heal.

In this process, I realized a tough lesson. I was not perfect. I am flawed. Not everyone likes me, let alone loves me. Heck, sometimes my family would be happy to slap a FREE sign on me and leave me at the curb like an old sofa.

As a police officer, I see people at their worst. I respond to calls for service because something bad has happened. Nobody calls 911 to report their straight A student or the amazing meal their spouse cooked.  Sometimes I am a Godsend. People express their appreciation for my service in their tragedy. Other times I am the nemesis.

Recovering perfectionist in law enforcement

A couple years ago, I attempted to make a human-to-human connection with someone in mental crisis. Growing up I lived down the street from this person and we played together. I watched as other officers attempted to create space for the person to de-escalate, but it was not working. I thought I might be able to intervene.  I stepped forward and reminded the person who I was, that we played together as kids, and that I wanted to help. Their response… “I bet I hate you back then as much as I hate you now!”

So if I am not perfect, then what am I? I am human. I am flawed. I have strengths and weaknesses. Every great leader I have read or heard speak humbly admits their imperfections. This gives me encouragement to know the people whom I look to for wisdom are not perfect. It gives me perspective as a police officer as I serve my community.

This process taught me four principles for recovering from perfectionism.

Raise Your Hand

Law enforcement officers (LEOs) experience secondary trauma on a daily basis. This trauma can lead to a post-traumatic stress injury. When this happens, the first step in recovery is to admit that you need help. Once I accepted that I had a problem, it took a lot of courage to raise my hand. I was afraid. I thought that people would think less of me. I thought that my career as a police officer might be over. However, instead I learned lots of police officers have gone through a rough season of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. I learned there are a lot of resources available for help. I just had to raise my hand.

Redefine Thoughts

It took me a long time to understand that striving for perfection was part of the issue. Once I was comfortable with failure, it was no longer crippling. Instead, failure is the great teacher; an opportunity to reevaluate and learn. I had to challenge the negative self-thoughts that kept telling me I was not good enough as a father, husband, and police officer. Once I recognized this problematic line of thinking, I was able to move past my shortcomings. I was able to be comfortable with me.

Accept Grace

Grace is an interesting concept. According to many faiths, it is defined as undeserved forgiveness. Grace is given without expecting anything in return. It is FREE. I had to learn to accept grace from my family. I had to learn to accept grace from myself. In one of my most profound moments of healing, I looked in the mirror and forgave myself for experiencing post-traumatic stress. That might sound a little silly – I could not control the injury I had experienced – however it was extremely therapeutic.

Recovering Perfectionist in Law Enforcement

Support Mistakes

I realized that my perfectionism was not only an internal expectation. I was transferring this to the people around me. I remember telling my wife that she folded our towels wrong, because they were not Air Force regulation. She looked at me and asked if I wanted to be the designated towel folder. I recognized my error and answered, “No ma’am.” That is the problem with being a perfectionist. I expected other people to be perfect too. That is impossible and guaranteed to lead to disappointment and conflict. I found that after I fixed me, I was more gracious to other people too.

Bringing It together

LEO’s work hard to serve their communities. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, both in our professional and personal lives. High standards are good, but perfectionism is not. Through my recovery process, I exchanged perfection for greatness. I believe perfection is impossible in the complexity of life; with all the vying peoples and priorities. In contrast, greatness is a process. I define greatness as the degree in which we positively affect other peoples’ lives. It is a process that is attained through continuous effort, but never finished.

LEO’s who need help can use these resources:
COPLINE: 1-800-267-5463
Crisis Text Line:  Text BLUE to 741741
Lifeline:  1-800-273-TALK
Cop2Cop:  1-866-COP-2COP
Talk to me Post Tour:  https://ttmpt.org/
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through your employer

Chris Littrell

About the Author 

Christopher Littrell

Detective Sergeant

Christopher Littrell has been a law enforcement officer in Washington State since 2005. He has had the opportunity to serve as a patrol officer, gang detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant and detective sergeant. Previously Sergeant Littrell served in the United States Air Force as a Security Forces member and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. He has an MBA from Trident University International.

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