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How not to be an emotionally resilient lawyer

04 February 2016

In the second installment on emotional health for solicitors, Julian Hall takes a look at the behaviours that undermine our sense of wellbeing.


In my first article, Are you an emotionally resilient lawyer?, I shared my definition of emotional resilience: 'My ability to deal with everything that life throws at me and still be capable of joy'.

In this article I examine the internal drivers that undermine our sense of wellbeing - in other words, the ways in which we make ourselves less resilient. But before we look at them, it's important to recognise that these unhealthy behaviours have two facets. It is well known in personal development circles that our greatest strength can, if over played, also be our greatest weakness. As we all grow, develop and learn, we are likely to fall into patterns of behaviour that we are comfortable with because they have got us the level of success, respect and friendship that we desire. The challenge is not to take these too far.

The five pillars of stress

These unhealthy behaviours fall into five categories that I call 'the five pillars of stress'. They are: approval, trust, priority, pressure and control. In essence, the five pillars are the ways that we attract and perpetuate stress in our fast-paced and complicated lives. The more pillars involved in supporting the stress in our lives, the more stressful our experience.

1. Approval

This is our need for approval from others. It starts in childhood and carries on into our adult lives. Of course, there are plenty of people in the world that it is valuable for us to have the approval of: clients, bosses, partners and so on. But when the need for approval becomes a key part in feeling stressed, it is likely that it has become unhealthy.

In the legal world there are hierarchies, pressures from clients and, in an ever-competitive world, reputation is vitally important. These are all factors that we must be aware of in order to run a successful practice. We must also be aware, however, of how our relationship with these pressures can change and become stressful.

2. Trust

This is a particularly challenging area for many people, and there are two sides to it. The first is our issues trusting others, and the second is whether, deep down, we actually trust ourselves. Solicitors who have issues trusting others may fail to delegate responsibility in big cases to juniors, be suspicious of colleagues' intent in meetings, or it may drive them to repeatedly check detail, causing extra workload and stress.

Often more toxic, is the deep-down and hidden mistrust of ourselves and our own ability. The fear that we may have been promoted beyond our experience or capability level - a form of imposter syndrome - is common. This can lead to us working excessively long hours or, in extreme cases, paranoia that we are continually being scrutinised.

3. Pressure

This pillar recognises the ability we all have to put pressure upon ourselves. In this case, it is not the pressure others put us under - and there are plenty of people willing to do that - this is about the different ways we put ourselves under pressure, whether it is by having unrealistic expectations of ourselves, or wishing to progress our careers at the fastest possible pace.

4. Control

Inability to let go of control is a challenge we all face. We have many different ways of fooling ourselves into thinking that we have control over situations when we don't.

The worriers among us are past masters at associating days and nights of worrying with a positive outcome and thus 'it was all worthwhile'. There are many situations where we have absolutely no control and, therefore, worrying and stressing about them will do no good. Yet we still do. There are other situations where we can influence but not control, and at some point we have to acknowledge that we have done all we can do and the rest is out of our control. To the control freaks among us, this is a very difficult thing to truly accept.

5. Priority

In pressurised, client-focused environments, it is often difficult to manage our own boundaries and maintain a healthy balance between workplace pressure and the rest of our lives. This area is characterised by people who do not realise - or have stopped thinking about - their own sense of worth and give everything to the firm and to their clients. Their inability to recognise, set, and manage healthy boundaries leads to overworking and, eventually, underperforming or ill health. Clients all want the best deal, the fastest result and the utmost attention to detail; these are three mutually incompatible goals. Recognising the need for healthy boundaries in and out of work can often be a key development area.

A recipe for misery

These five common behaviours are the ways we attract and perpetuate stress in our lives, both inside and outside the workplace. They are often interconnected, and are ways of building and maintaining misery in our own lives and making ourselves victims unnecessarily. There are plenty of people out there prepared to pressurise us, without adding to it through our own internal processes.

You will notice that throughout this article my message is very clear: these are all issues we cause ourselves. Standard challenges to this information will revolve around stating obvious facts such as: if we were to no longer care about what our clients thought of our work we would quickly lose our reputation and our business. True. But remember, our greatest strength can often become our greatest weakness if we do not hold it in check.

Full article first published by the Family Section. 

Find out more about the Family Section and how to join

Event: In-house Division workshop - Top tips for enhancing performance: Emotional Intelligence (Part II), communication and resilience (17 March)

Tags: emotional resilience | stress | wellbeing

About the author

Julian Hall is the founding director of stress, conflict and anger management specialists Calm People.
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