Dr. Kathryn Hamel, PhD on Harnessing the Healing Power of the "Why Behind the What"
Have you experienced trauma? Do you find yourself wondering why your life is the way it is? Why people treat you the way they do? Why you do the things you do? Today's guest was once a victim of abuse and trauma who wondered all of these things, but who finally found her healing by understanding the "why" behind her "what." Once clear on the "why" behind her "what," she embarked on a career in law enforcement so she could protect and serve other victims. Fueled by that "why," she blazed her way through the male-dominated police academy and spent a collective 25 years in law enforcement. Looking for a way to continue her service post law-enforcement, she earned her doctoral degree and became a professor and, later, the Dean of Criminology and Criminal Justice at a university. She continues to serve others within her community as a consultant and CEO of the Hecht Trauma Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education, information, and services to people affected by trauma. In this episode, Dr. Kathryn Hamel chats with Ellie Shefi about healing through finding the "why" behind her "what." If you're searching for your "why," then this is an episode you cannot miss!
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Dr. Kathryn Hamel, PhD on Harnessing the Healing Power of the "Why Behind the What"
This episode’s guest is a decorated retired law enforcement lieutenant, distinguished academic, dedicated philanthropist, sought-after speaker and author of Body, Mind and Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Resilience in Law Enforcement. During her 25-year career as an active duty law enforcement officer, she investigated hundreds of cases involving rape, domestic assault, child sexual abuse and other forms of violence and she assisted victims of these traumatic events in navigating the criminal justice system while seeking justice on their behalf.
After retiring from law enforcement, she transitioned into academia, serving first as a professor, then as the Dean of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and later as a Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Organizational Development. A dedicated servant leader, philanthropist and mentor, she has nearly three decades of experience serving and guiding non-profit and charitable organizations. She created a post-graduate leadership academy. She serves on the board of KinderVision and is the Chief Executive Officer of the Hecht Trauma Institute.
Welcome, Dr. Kathryn Hamel, to the show.
Thank you so much. Thank you for that incredible introduction. It is my deep honor to be here with you and your audience.
Thank you for being here. Thank you for your 25 years of service. Tell us a little bit about what called you to serve and how you continue to serve.
Early in my life, I was a victim of abuse and in that victimization, I found that I needed an outlet. I needed a way to process the trauma and victimization. Early on, I decided that I was going to protect others who could not protect themselves. That started my passion for all things law enforcement. I figured that was the perfect transition from a life spent afraid and fearful to one that I could serve others and make sure that they were no longer subject to being victimized by crime and/or by people in their families. I identify now as a survivor, a warrior, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a stepmother, a friend and a dog mother.
I love that you took the challenges and pain that you experienced growing up and turned it into your fuel and your purpose. I love that you answered that call. Once you identified that as being your purpose and your mission, you dove headfirst into it. It is not easy being a woman rising through the ranks of a male-dominated profession. Talk to us a little bit about that.
After a life spent in crisis, chaos, and conflict, I needed to enter a space where I could do anything and everything to mitigate that crisis, chaos, and conflict for others. I’m always up for a challenge so I figured, why not move into a male-dominated profession? I did also follow in the footsteps of my big brother. He serves as a police chief in another county here in Southern California but beyond that, I found healing and was able to process what had occurred when I understood the why behind the what. Why do perpetrators offend? Why do perpetrators victimize others? I was able to turn that into that fuel that you talked about for getting through the police academy and the rigors of physical training.
I was very feminine. I had long hair and long nails and I liked girly things. Those in my life at that time were resistant to the idea of me being able to survive the rigors of the academy and to be perfectly frank, that fueled my desire. I had to one-up everyone. I needed to be better. I needed to perform defensive tactics better than the next person.
I remember a very pivotal moment in our defensive and weaponless defense training. It is called ground fighting and it is a combination of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, martial arts, and then straight street fighting. It was how to protect yourself from attack. They had matched me with a young man. I could almost sense on his face that he was like, “This is going to be simple. I can take her.”
It is very interesting because there was something that brought me back to those days of physical and sexual abuse as a young girl that I found this deep visceral power. I flipped him on his back and put him down on the ground. In about three seconds, I was deemed the winner of that particular sparring round. When I got up, I remember some of my close police recruit friends that were around me and they had this wide-eyed look like, “Who is this woman?” It was at that moment that I knew that I was going to be okay. If I could call upon that strength at that moment then I knew that I was going to survive the rest of the academy and I was going to be okay.
One of the things that I learned very quickly is that I would not survive a career based solely on physical brute strength. I needed to understand psychology, why people do the things that they do, and I needed to find a way to be able to talk them into compliance, meaning that I would much rather talk someone into the back of a police car than try to utilize brute strength to put them into the back of a police car. That was a turning moment for me when I started to find my love for academia, human behavior, and why people do the things that they do.
I love that the why behind the what became such a driving force for you because that is transcendent. When we understand why something is the way it is or why people do what they do then it gives us a framework for decision-making, forgiveness, resilience and grace.
You touched on a really important aspect - giving us a framework for resilience. For my personal healing, I needed to understand why things happen and why me. It was important for me that it was not necessarily personal, it was something wrong with them or with him and not something wrong with me.
There is so much healing in serving others and helping others navigate.
While life is not fair and I did not deserve the things that happened, they made me a stronger and more resilient person. That strength and those lessons that I learned throughout that entire process of moving all the way through the criminal justice process on the other side of it, I was able to truly understand and help others that I encountered during my law enforcement career.
I would say that working with special victims was one of the most important times in my career. I spent 7 of my 25 years working on special victims’ cases. In that caseload, I dealt with infanticide, human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault, child molestation and child abduction. I also spent time on a Federal task force for child abduction response. Those were the times in my career that I truly found healing and was able to process my own trauma. I decided to live in service of others that were going through those very critical and traumatic times in their lives.
My life has also had its fair share of trauma. Like you, I have found so much healing in serving others and helping others navigate. It is exceptionally powerful that you went above and beyond. Not only did you go into a career in law enforcement but you niched down even more where you were serving the people that you once were in essence.
We are most powerfully poised to serve others who are going through things that we have experienced because that allows you to understand them on such a more profound level than someone who has never experienced any of those things. You were able to recognize the looks in their eyes, read their body language, hear their unspoken words, advocate for them and help them navigate with empathy, compassion and patience. That is incredibly powerful and I commend you for that.
Thank you. You and I have had many conversations about life, journeys, and events and circumstances from our past. One of the things that I believe is so deeply important is to understand that there are things that happen in life that are not fair. We understand that and it's important to take a moment to recognize the beauty and the tragedy that life is and then find purpose through your pain. My purpose was lived through serving others who had been victimized and now continues to be lived through serving those that are impacted by trauma. As I reflect back on this journey, I would not change a thing. I have spent a career in service whether it be law enforcement or in the non-profit sector.
I sit on the board of directors for an organization called KinderVision. KinderVision was founded by my late mother, Ashby Sebastian. KinderVision started as the result of a neighbor who was abducted and killed in 1991 in the city of Oceanside, California. At that time, crowdfunding was not a thing. The family had no means to provide memorial services for their child and the police investigation ended up being a prolonged investigation. We decided to step in to start taking up a collection to try to pay for some of the final expenses for the family. Out of that need to be in service to others during a very traumatic and tragic time, KinderVision was born.
That has been one of the legacies that I continue on behalf of my mother, but also because of my own experiences and the things that I encountered throughout my life - those were some of the other driving moments that helped me turn that pain into purpose. Serving others became my purpose and now, I get to do it in a couple of different ways. I’m deeply honored for that ability.
Tell us a little bit more about KinderVision. You have shared with us its genesis. Now, talk to us about some of the projects that are ongoing or some of the ways that people can get involved, connect, or donate.
KinderVision was founded in 1991. It was the result of the kidnapping and murder of a young woman named Leticia Hernandez. After realizing that there were no organizations at that time that were able to provide assistance with final expenses, KinderVision was born. Over the years that KinderVision has been in existence, it morphed from providing funding to talking about prevention and efforts to stop the victimization, the sexual abuse, and the molestation of our children and the most vulnerable.
A couple of years into the life cycle of KinderVision, that turned into connecting with local law enforcement agencies to provide fingerprinting and photographs of children in the case they were ever missing. This dates back to the early ‘90s, so at that time, the only way for detectives to identify someone was through their fingerprints or a visual depiction in either a photograph or some sort of film footage.
We started off with ten fingerprint cards. We bought fingerprint pads, backdrops, and a camera. We had VHS recordings of them that we would start to interview and find out things of, “What are your likes and dislikes? Where do you spend your time? Who are your closest friends?” Remember, this was before social media and the advent of forensic and DNA testing. These were ways for families to have fingerprints and photographs that they could readily give to law enforcement in the case of a missing child or an abducted child. That has since evolved with the advancement of technology into one of our programs, which is a peer-to-peer education piece. It is called The Greatest Save. This allows teenagers and young people to identify issues important to them.
There are different issues that are important to different generations and depending on geographic location as well. For example, in the South, human trafficking and sexual slavery are more prevalent. Our high schoolers in the South did a piece where they got together with their media and theater departments and were asking them to do 30-second PSAs. High schoolers all over the country are producing 30-second PSAs on issues that are important and critical to them in their region, culture, and current school district. High schools all over the nation are sending in their 30-second peer-produced PSAs.
Your challenges are the driving moments that help you turn your pain into purpose.
Our board of directors consists of Michael Regan, Rollie Fingers, myself, and a few others. One of the things that we do is every year we judge these PSAs and the winner gets to attend a Major League Baseball game. They get a suite. They are brought out onto the field and given an award for winning this PSA contest. The important part of those PSAs is then they are put into a database on our website. Any school teacher anywhere across the nation can have access to these PSAs and these media pieces to start these important conversations about prevention, anti-human trafficking efforts, sexual abuse and dating violence amongst the teen populations.
If it is drug addiction, social media addiction, or suicidal ideations, these are ways for teachers and mentors to start the conversations that can often be difficult and sometimes, you do not know where to begin. These are all offered as free resources to anyone through 11 and 19 years old. Again, it is called The Greatest Save. It is an incredible program and we have been long sponsored by the Major League Baseball Association. We have had a partnership with them. We are one of their recognized charities since the early ‘90s. We are really proud of the work of The Greatest Save. For those interested, it is www.KinderVision.org. Lots of our programs and community events are posted on our website.
What powerful work you are doing. I love the point that you brought up that different age groups have different things going on. They have different priorities, different causes that are important to them, different fears, hopes, and dreams - and not just different age groups, but different geographical areas. I love that you are shining a spotlight on that. I love that you are giving them a voice and allowing them to express their fears and needs. That is powerful.
Now, you are the author of Body, Mind and Badge. That book seems to be a convergence of so much of your life experience and of course, your law enforcement experience. Tell us a little bit about that book. Why did you write it?
Early in my career, I was involved in a high-speed police pursuit. I was pursuing an armed robbery suspect. It was a dark, cold rainy night. As we were navigating speed in excess of about 110 to 115 miles an hour, we ended up in a very curvy and hilly area of LA County. As we navigated these high-speed turns, I ended up losing control of my police vehicle after the suspect in front of me crashed into some K-Rail that had been laid out for some freeway construction. His vehicle then careened into mine. Again, it speeds at 111 miles an hour so there is not a whole lot of time for realizing what is happening.
Everything went into slow motion. I watched his vehicle come at mine, hit me, and I was instantly knocked unconscious by a shotgun that had been behind my head. Back in those days, we mounted the shotguns behind us so the shotgun came and hits me in the back of the head. I was immediately knocked unconscious and my vehicle did a couple of different 360-degree iterations.
I ended up upside down on the 5 Freeway in Los Angeles County. Interestingly enough, those of you that have had brain injuries prior understand that when you start to awake from a brain injury or traumatic events that occur and you have a brain concussion or in my case, a brain bruise, you wake up combative. One of the things that you are always taught in the police academy is to always retain your weapon. Regardless of circumstance, weapon retention is something that is very ingrained into us early on.
As I start to wake up, all I realize is that I am upside down. There is blood everywhere. My face and eyes were full of glass. I did not understand what had happened. I just knew I was very uncomfortable. I had extreme pain from the entire right side of my body. I remember an officer from LAPD. I couldn’t tell you his name, but I will never forget his face. He crawled into the wreckage of my car and tried to calm me down. He was explaining to me that I had been in an accident, I was injured and that I should not move. They were unsure of the extent of my injuries at that time. They were doing everything they could to get me out of the vehicle.
I remember the Jaws of Life, the sounds of crushing metal, the pain of being extricated from the car and then I remember trying to fight. I was trying to fight to retain my weapon because that is what I was trained to do. You perform how you train. I remember them trying to cut my uniform because they did not know how extremely injured I was at that time. When I finally was extracted, placed into an ambulance and taken to the hospital, I remember being unconscious again and it was probably a good thing. I had some pretty significant orthopedic injuries. I had a brain and a heart injury where I ruptured one of the valves in my heart.
At that time, I was about 28 years old. I was going through fertility treatments with my then-spouse. I struggled with the physical pain of my injuries. I was admitted to a trauma center. I spent several days in a trauma center before I was then transferred to a local hospital for the remainder of my recovery, then I went home. It is interesting. Law enforcement talks about this brotherhood and sisterhood like, “I would lay down my life for you,” and then something like this happens when you are injured and it is out of sight out of mind. That was a difficult part of it for me. I was not in the briefing in the evenings and at the end of shifts anymore when we got off of work in the early morning hours.
I spent about eight months recovering and through that recovery, I would say a lot of the physical pain paled in comparison to the psychological things. I was told that I would not recover and that I would need a heart valve replacement by the time I was 60. I’m not quite to 60 yet so we’ll see if they were correct on that but I do remember being depressed.
I was depressed. I started eating a lot and gaining a lot of weight. I was not able to work out any longer because I had broken my shoulder and my knee. I’d ruptured my heart valve and I was on heart medication at that time. I remember very vividly one of the worker’s compensation representatives at that time that was hired by the city that I worked for came to my door and said, “Our doctors have said you are never going to go back to work. What do you want to do?” I was like, “What do you mean what do I want to do? I want to be a cop. That is what I signed on the dotted line for. That is what I want to do.” She tells me, “That is not possible. You are injured. The medication that you are on causes some issues where the city is not comfortable with you being able to operate heavy machinery or a firearm.”
I remember being angry. I was so angry that this had happened. It was one more thing that was not fair. I remember vividly telling the representative to leave my home that I was not going to retire, I would fight until the very bitter end of my retirement processing and I was going to be back. I made a solemn vow at that moment to be back.
There's always something to be grateful for, even in your darkest moments.
Fast forward eight months, I came back to work. My doctors released me back to work. It probably was against their better judgment but I was very persistent. I came back to work and I recovered. It took me about another year to fully recover. I was back to full duty within about eighteen months of my collision. I learned so many valuable points from that recovery process. I learned how to take care of my physical body, how to do rehabilitation exercises so I would be able to retire being fully mobile, nutrition, and overall health and well-being, and what does that mean.
We talk about resilience a lot but we do not do a deep dive into what it is and what it means. When I think of the word resilience, I think of the ability to overcome and to come out stronger. That is what this book is all about. The job inevitably comes with trauma. You can’t tell me that you can spend a career interviewing victims of crime, vulnerable populations and seeing death, chaos, illness, and conflict every single day and not be changed by it, so what you do in your off time and in your private moments to be able to be a more resilient, well-rounded and balanced law enforcement officer is what Body, Mind and Badge is all about. I’m excited to share it with the greater community.
What a perfect time to release your book. I do not think there has ever been a greater need. The world has shifted and law enforcement has taken the brunt of the last couple of years. There has been a series of events, with COVID just being the tip of the iceberg. To have your book as a resource and as a practical playbook of sorts for law enforcement, to be able to navigate with actual tools and strategies, and to be armed with practical things that they can do to take care of their body and mind so that they can show up as that empowered badge.
So they will be able to show up aligned, whole, centered, and present, and able to then go out and serve in the way that they are called to do. It is a powerful book. I hope everybody reads it whether you are in law enforcement or not. Many of the tools and strategies that you give are applicable across the board to body, mind, health, resilience, and trauma navigation.
While it is focused on the first responder population, you are correct. The things that I and the contributors talk about in this book are applicable across disciplines whether school teachers, attorneys, nurses, doctors, or stay-at-home moms and dads. It could apply to anyone and everyone. One of the things that is also important to have across the board is gratitude. It is gratitude for the lesson, for the journey, and for truly understanding that we can live our lives by design. Just because you have been through trauma or you have pain does not mean that you can’t repurpose that and serve others in a meaningful and productive way.
You touched on gratitude being one tool or one strategy. What other tools and strategies have you used as you navigated all of the different twists, turns, and traumas that you have endured?
For those of you that love poetry, there is a poem by Robert Hastings and it is called The Station. I identify with The Station for a couple of reasons. The Station talks about being present, being in the moment, and enjoying the journey. For so many, we are of the mindset of "if this, then that." Like, “When I get that car then I will be happy. When I buy that house, then I will be happy. When my children graduate from college, then I will be happy.”
Design your path and enjoy the journey. Those of you are familiar with The Station, I have it posted in my office. Every day, I take a moment to reflect on the message and the meaning of The Station. When you get to the station, it is the end of your life. What has happened in those moments? What is your legacy? What is your dash? There is also something called the dash. The dash is what happens between birth and death? How are you a productive contributing member of your community and your society? How are you giving back? What are you doing to be in service to others?
I remember that everything I have been through - all the tragedy, the crisis, the chaos, and the trauma has made me who I am now and has made me better able to serve those that are navigating similar trials and tribulations, so I’m grateful for the lesson, for being in the moment, and for the journey.
So powerful! So the tools that have served as your North Star have been recognizing that the station is the end of your life, living in gratitude, shifting your perspective, reframing events and circumstances, reframing what you have gone through, embracing the lessons, finding the lessons, and then enjoying the journey. It is finding those moments, the moments that make up the experience of your life, your legacy, the vibrancy, and the experiences that you have that make life worth living.
Even in your darkest moments, there is something to be grateful for. Living in the moment is true happiness. Take stock of where you are and celebrate those small wins. Sometimes, you are putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, you wake up and you can’t imagine how you are going to move forward. Draw upon that resilience, strength, and inner power that you each have and find your path forward. I do not care if you have to crawl. Put one foot in front of the other and move forward because this too shall pass and you will come out on the other side of it as a stronger, more resilient, more loving, more capable and more amazing human.
Self-care is critical. Self-care is part of the journey. It is part of finding the fuel to put one foot in front of the other. What is your self-care practice? You are exceptionally busy. How do you make sure to pour into your cup so that you can continue to live such a life of service?
True happiness is living in the moment, being present where you are, and celebrating those small wins.
That was not always easy and I will tell you that being in law enforcement, working shift work and working graveyard shifts and night shifts, the only things available to me at that time were fast food. Meal prepping was not a thing. Maladaptive coping is a real thing in law enforcement. Alcoholism, infidelity, and all kinds of issues happen as the result of what I consider maladaptive coping. For me, it was food and occasionally alcohol.
One of the things that I realized very early on was it does not fix it. There is no magic pill or magic substance. I would say that one of the things that is important to me is nutrition and cardiovascular exercise. I take a moment every morning regardless of whether I’m exhausted or not to spend at least 30 to 45 minutes doing something that gets my heart rate going whether that is cardiovascular, walking my dog, running on the treadmill, or cycling. I do something every day to sweat it out and to make sure that I am in the best physical shape that I can possibly be.
I talk a lot in the book about nutrition. One of the contributors has shared a chapter titled, "Kale won’t heal you." It is really important that you take the time to nourish your stomach, your heart, and your soul. It is taking those 30 minutes every day and if you can’t find 30 minutes all at once then take five minutes here and go for a walk around the block. If you can’t find a full 30 minutes together, do something for 10 minutes where you take a deep breath and meditate. There are all kinds of apps out there. There is Headspace for calming and meditation. There are activity apps. For those who are Apple, Mac, iPhone or Android, there are apps everywhere where you can find a moment for yourself. Open that app and do something that gets you centered and grounded.
That is so important and to your point about using these apps and the tools that we have at our disposal, one thing that I have found in the hustle and bustle, the craziness of our day-to-day and our to-do lists that are a mile long, we wake up and think, “How am I going to get everything done?” I love to put reminders in my phone with a message that says, “Nourish yourself. Walk around the block. Breathe. Have a one-song dance party.”
For me, I love to move. I love dancing, so I have each of these reminders set to music that will get me to move, will bring a smile to my face and will make me laugh. We all have alarms on our phones. It is built-in so set alarms throughout the day, customize the message, add the alarm tone or the ring tone that makes you laugh, smile, or empowers you is another practical thing that you can utilize to prioritize your self-care. It can help you navigate the day and remember to choose you! Remember to put yourself on your "to do" list.
It is easy for us, especially as women, to be doing everything for everyone at all times and forget about ourselves, so I love that you shared your practices of moving your body, being mindful, taking a moment to breathe, walking around the block, being mindful of your nutrition and what you put into your body, and honoring yourself in mind, body, and soul. Thanks for sharing that.
You have built a life of service and philanthropy. Your life has been so molded and shaped by that initial trauma that you experienced. You have continued to serve powerfully. Now, you are the Chief Executive Officer at the Hecht Trauma Institute. Tell us a little bit about the institute, your vision, and how you serve others there.
The Hecht Trauma Institute is a non-profit dedicated to serving those impacted by trauma by providing education, information, and services. My vision for the Hecht Trauma Institute is to have a positive impact on those affected by trauma. The Hecht Trauma Institute is a Certified American Psychological Association provider of continuing education credits. I, along with my staff, build courses that are specific to those who have endured trauma.
If you are not in the mental health profession and you just want to learn something about sleep hygiene, trauma-informed nutrition, shame, guilt, dissociation and how to process and navigate trauma then we have courses for you. Our course catalog is a robust offering of unique topics that relate to trauma. We have several that deal with adverse childhood experiences. An adverse childhood experience would be anything where a deep trauma occurs between infancy and eighteen years old.
A lot of people do not understand why they behave in the manner that they do or why they react to things the way that they do so our courses offer a lot of insight into the why behind the what. Why do I do what I do? Why did I respond that way when X happened or when Y happened? We’ll help you understand and process those things that have occurred. We are speaking globally. This year we are attending seventeen different conferences and presentations where we are going to be discussing topics from adverse childhood experiences to working with survivors of violent crime.
I have crafted a course on a trauma-informed approach to sexual assault and that is for law enforcement, first responders, district attorneys, practitioners, and medical professionals. It is about learning how to deal with sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors and mitigate their secondary trauma as it relates to getting information. One of the things that I realized very early on in my career was the manner in which law enforcement questions a victim or a survivor can often re-trigger trauma. I always talk about trauma treatment triggers trauma.
One of the things that we need to be mindful of as first responders and those that are working with victims and survivors throughout the entire criminal justice process is we are very, “Just the facts, ma’am. I need the information. I need to process the information. I need to get that information to another party for whatever reason,” whether that is a criminal filing or an investigation narrative to treat external wounds or physical wounds but we are not great at taking a step back and understanding this person has been through the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to them. By the way that we rapid-fire questions because it is what we are trained to do, we can sometimes add to their trauma. The courses that we design are designed to mitigate vicarious and secondary trauma for victims of crime.
That is so important. That work is critical. It is helpful even beyond law enforcement or first responders. It can be incredibly helpful to spouses or parents whose loved one has experienced trauma. It provides a framework for relating to them, an understanding of their triggers, and an understanding of the why behind the what.
Affirm yourself! If you have to say it to yourself each and every day, say, “I am powerful. I am loving. I am capable of being loved, and I am enough.” Own it!
As we talked about earlier, it is a full-circle moment for you to heal through that child who then needed to heal through her own understanding of the why behind the what. Now, you are able to empower others and give others that same gift of healing, empathy, understanding, resiliency, thriving through their trauma, growing through their trauma, and reclaiming their power.
There is so much of reclaiming your power when you understand the why behind the what and to your point that you mentioned earlier, that realization of, “It did not have anything to do with me. It was not my fault. It was not because of me.” Coming to that realization and then taking your power back is a gift that you are able to give so many around the world not only through the courses that you are developing, the speaking that you do, your book, and your non-profits but in the way that the ripple effect that you personally are able to have with all who encounter you because of that healing and the gift that you have given yourself.
It is an honor to bring this full circle and, to your point, serve in a different way. From the very beginning of my own victimization, moving through that, and helping those in the immediate stages of their trauma and their victimization, to now serving them in a different way and helping them understand and process what happened, why it happened, and how they can thrive beyond their trauma, it has been a great honor for me to now serve in this capacity as the CEO of the Hecht Trauma Institute.
For so many people who have had a tough time not only during the pandemic but throughout life, what are some practical pieces of advice or some tips and strategies or practices that they can use to navigate maybe the fear that they are experiencing or the blame, the shame, the guilt, or those inner voices in their head that are saying that it is their fault or they are not enough or they deserved it? How can you help them navigate?
First, I’d start off with it was never their fault. It is not your fault. Something was done to you. It is not something that you did. There is nothing that you did that brought it upon you. It happened because someone has an illness or a sickness or they like to hurt others. I often say that hurt people hurt people and because they were hurt, they have now made it their mission to hurt others because it is what was done to them.
Understand that you did not do anything to deserve it and it was not fair, but do not wallow in that. Do not stay in that place. Understand it, acknowledge it, and then again, start to move forward. Do what you can to get out of that place. If you have to crawl out of it literally or figuratively then you need to do that. If you need to take a step back, take a breath, acknowledge that something terrible happened, and then put one foot in front of the other, do that. Do not turn to maladaptive coping, alcohol, pills or any other sort of addiction. They are not helpful and healthy. That will only make you spiral further.
It is about taking those moments to step forward. Seek out a support group. Seek out friends and family and be able to accept their love. Many abuse survivors feel that they are not worthy of being loved or that they shouldn’t be loved and they feel so ashamed or they feel this survivor guilt. We see that with war, with abuse survivors, or survivors of intergenerational violence.
Affirm yourself in your head if you have to. Say it to yourself each and every day. Say, “I am powerful. I am loving. I am capable of being loved and I am enough.” Take that out and own it and when you go out into the world and start to talk with others and seek out others that have been through similar experiences, start to love yourself. That would be the first thing that I would say. Acknowledge what happened, do not wallow in it and do not stay there. Step out of it, move forward, put one foot in front of the other and know that you are worthy of love and of being loved.
I’m a big fan of the sticky note. When I work with clients and they are new in their journey, I’m a big fan of writing down those affirmations that you shared. I write down "I am powerful, I am healing, I am healed, I am whole, I am loved, I am loving, I am worthy, and I am brave." Whatever resonates with you, write it down.
Sticky notes are your best friend. Write down your affirmation and put it everywhere that you spend time. Put it next to the bed, on the bathroom mirror, by the coffee pot, on the refrigerator or on your computer. Take a sticky note and put it on the dashboard of your car. Put it where you will see it as that constant reminder because sometimes it takes a while until you believe the words you are saying.
I know, at least for myself, at different points in my journey whether it was abuse, rape, homelessness, domestic violence or any of the different things that I have walked through, I did not believe it. When someone would tell me, “You are powerful,” I did not believe it. If someone told me, “You are capable,” I did not believe it. If they said, “It is not your fault,” I did not believe it. So I learned to put the affirmations on sticky notes and put the sticky notes everywhere so that I would force myself to see it and speak it out loud so that I was engaging that physiology. I was speaking it and I was hearing it. I did it enough times until I started to believe it or until it sunk in. I’m a huge proponent of the sticky note and that constant reminder.
Especially those of us who have experienced trauma, we have heard for years that we are stupid, we are not good enough, we are fat, or we are worthless. We have had it drilled into us so rewriting that narrative, taking our power back, taking control, and stepping into the life that we desire sometimes takes practice. It takes that repetition to reprogram. I’m a huge fan of the sticky note and those reminders on my cell phone to create those new habits or reprogram that dialogue.
Now, you have been in communities and in professions where you had people who could mentor you and have been further along in the journey. You had sergeants and lieutenants. What is the best piece of advice that you have received along your journey?
I would say that let go of how you thought your life should be and live your life as it is. Design your life in the way in which you want to have your legacy spoken after you have passed. I thought my life would be different. I thought my experiences would be different. I had to learn to let go of what I thought my life should be and design my life into what I want it to be, which is what I’m doing through non-profit work, philanthropy, mentorship, guiding and developing others, and then working through trauma-informed expertise to help those that have been impacted by trauma navigate their process and come out on the other side of it a better and more whole person.
That is so profound to let go of what you thought your life would be and build the life that you desire. There is wisdom in that. That is what I like to call a mic drop moment or a golden nugget. There is one constant in life and that is change. If there is anything that we have learned over the course of the pandemic, it is that life is not necessarily how we envisioned it. Life twists and turns and it changes.
It is incredibly powerful to be able to let go of the tunnel vision of how you thought your life would be like, “This is my path.” To your point earlier, it is to be present, to be grateful, to be in the moment, to see what is and also to be open to the possibility of what can be. That also goes to your point of creating the life that you want and stepping into that. What advice would you give your younger self?
I would have told my younger self to stop and smell the flowers. I would have told my younger self that a perpetual quest for things would not make you happy and that it was the moments and the memories at the end of the day that mattered and to stop this incessant quest for the next thing - whether it is a degree, a house, a car, or that new outfit. Those things, at the end of the day, are not things that matter. The things that matter are your relationships, your support system, and living your life in your most authentic and empowered way so that you can look yourself in the mirror and smile at who is looking back at you.
What is one thing that you wish somebody would have told you that you had to find out for yourself the hard way?
I would say that early in my law enforcement career, one of the things that I thought I needed to do was be tough. My badge was very heavy. I would say that I did not necessarily need to be tough to get the job done. I needed to be mentally strong and tough, but as far as physical strength, I did not have to fight with everybody that I came across because I had the mental strength and ability to get them to do the things that I needed them to do without applying any sort of brute physical strength to the scenario, but I would say that when I started in the early ’90s, women were still not accepted in the profession and the way that you got your bonus was that you got into a fight.
People would also try to size me up if you will. When I would show up on the scene of a call whether I was the senior officer in charge or not, it was, “I can take her.” I do not need to engage that type of attitude or mentality. I simply did not need to but it got me so upset and uptight. My inner voice was screaming, “I went through the academy. I worked hard. I went through my probationary period. I work out every day. I deserve to be here.” I did deserve to be there but I wish someone would have been able to reinforce that for me.
I did not have a lot of female role models at that time. The department that I started my career with was about 3% female. I would say that now those numbers are trending upwards. I would say that it is my hope that the senior officers who are females in positions of influence are able to take the newbies and the young recruits under their wing and share with them that they are enough and that they do deserve to be there wearing that uniform.
The fact that you did not have a female mentor in law enforcement, was that some fuel for why you mentor so many? Did that change a little bit of the trajectory of your life?
It did. My mom died when I was very young so I missed out on that female mentor role model. It was filled with other friends and other family members, but a very pivotal piece of my very early life was missing for me so I did not have anyone that I could turn to, and especially anyone I could turn to in the profession. Again, women were not accepted at that time. It was very difficult to navigate in an appropriate way while remaining my true, authentic self. I did not have to be this person who was angry and working in chaos, crisis, and conflict always. I could be Kathryn and I could serve others in a meaningful and appropriate way without having this show of force show up before I even entered the room.
I would say that the reason that I worked very diligently to get my teaching credential and also to become a police academy instructor was that very reason. I wanted to make a powerful impact on other women who were coming up through the ranks and also the men. I have prided myself on hundreds of mentees over the course of my 25-year career and then with the finishing touches of creating this eighteen-month post-graduate leadership academy, it has been important for me to be able to impart the lessons I have learned to others as they navigate those up-and-coming promotional opportunities and as they find their place in their law enforcement communities.
Thank you for showing up and being the leader that you wish you had, for being the example that you wish you had and for being the mentor that you wish you had.
As we start to wind down here, let's imagine that you have now come to the end of your life best lived. You have left it all on the table. You have lived that life that you have designed. What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want them to say about you?
I would want to be remembered for my ability to help people navigate critical moments and pivotal moments for them in their lives and that I was loved, I was capable of being loved and that I gave love and return. Leaving all the material things out, I want to be remembered for moments to others that mattered. Was I a part of a moment that mattered to someone else? If the answer is a resounding yes then that has been the life that I wanted by my own design. I’m leaving it all out there for everyone to see and acknowledge that she helped me in a pivotal moment in my life and for that, I'm grateful.
How can people learn more about you? How can they connect with you and get a copy of your book or participate in any of these courses?
My personal website is www.KathrynHamelPhD.com. On there, you will find all kinds of offerings and consultancy opportunities. For those interested in courses and any of the consultancy information or services that the Hecht Trauma Institute offers, that website is www.TraumaInst.org. We also have a podcast. We are now in season two of our podcast and that is called Life Beyond Trauma. I encourage everyone to take a look at it. You can also find me on LinkedIn. It's Kathryn Hamel Ph.D. I look forward to connecting with everyone. Thank you so much. I'm so grateful for the opportunity and for your friendship.
Thank you so much for being here and for your time. Before we sign off, do you have any parting words?
Live in the moment. That's true happiness. If you spend your time looking for the station, you'll miss the journey. Embrace the journey. Be kind to yourself and to others. You are worthy of being loved and you are worthy of loving. With that, design the life that you want.
- Body, Mind and Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Resilience in Law Enforcement
- The Greatest Save
- Life Beyond Trauma
About Dr. Kathryn Hamel, PhD