Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations or negative experiences in a positive way, and it is critical to being a good lawyer. If an opposing lawyer is disrespectful to you, do you snap at the lawyer or do you act in a calm manner? If a colleague or a member of the public criticizes you, do you get defensive or are you deliberate in your response, or do you just let it go? Most lawyers were never formally trained in being aware of our own or others’ emotions and feelings. We are taught to look at facts, study the law, and develop conclusions. But being able to relate to others is a key trait that lawyers need in all aspects of their careers. Lawyers need to be able to understand others’ feelings and put themselves in their shoes at times. Lawyers need to learn how to work with others who are angry, frustrated and stressed. Learning how to manage emotions in times of high stress is crucial to a lawyer’s success.
Being able to recognize your emotions is the first step in improving your emotional resilience. Take some time to honestly reflect on how you deal with negative situations, such as being wrongly accused of something, getting negative feedback, or comforting a colleague who is upset. Once you start identifying your emotions, you can learn how to deal with them in a positive manner.
If you find yourself in a negative situation, try telling yourself some of these phrases, and you will be more prepared to get through stressful experiences.
If you are on the fifth day of trying a high-profile murder case that shows disturbing images of the victim, you might tell yourself that it is nearly impossible to withstand this. Your emotions are at an all-time high and you feel for the victim and the family. If you are emotionally resilient, you will know that you will get through this, even if you are uncomfortable and uneasy with the situation. You know that the past cannot be changed and that the feelings of the family are out of your control. There is nothing you can do to take away their pain.
You have a case that has attracted media and social justice warriors’ scrutiny, and you are pilloried by the media and protesters. The politicians camp outside the courthouse with cameras and microphones everywhere. You will probably be angry and anxious and might think to yourself, “Of course this is happening to me. The media is going to label me as a monster.” Emotionally resilient people will not let this experience define them or ruin their future. They know that these things happen and they can move on.
Life is not always fair, and emotionally resilient people understand this. You might think life is unfair after a divorce, a death of a loved one, or having a disability. Some people may get trapped in these negative emotions long after the event has passed. Emotionally resilient people are able to eventually bounce back to their normal emotional state. When you accept the truth and learn how to not take things personally, you are on your way to emotional resilience.
Gratitude means being thankful. It means showing appreciation for and returning kindness. It’s a personality trait, a mood, and an emotion. When we are grateful, we are more likely to feel good about ourselves. It’s a way to remind ourselves of the things that make us happy. We tend to look at the negative sides of situations. Even if something does not go your way, be grateful for all the other positives in your life.
Sometimes we are hurried or in a bad mood and something happens that makes us even more annoyed. Perhaps you are on your way to the office, and someone cuts you off while you are driving. You could get angry at the driver or try to cut that person off. But what will you gain if you try to get back at that person? Instead of dwelling on “the nerve of that person who does not know how to drive…,” just let it go. The situation will not get any better if you try to retaliate.
Did you accidentally say the wrong thing to a colleague in distress? Instead of asking yourself why this negative experience happened to you, think about how you can use this incident to learn and grow from it. Tell yourself you will try to remember to think before you speak.
Setbacks and challenges will happen to you, but remember that emotions are not permanent. If you feel like another lawyer or colleague is trying to push boundaries and it makes you angry and you want to lash out, take a moment to reflect on your feelings. Tell yourself that getting angry will not help the situation. Know that this feeling will pass.
You see things realistically even if they are not the way you want them to be and you can still move forward. If you are in a less than ideal situation, such as getting caught in the rain without your umbrella, you realize that you cannot change the situation. It is what it is. You deal with it. There is no use getting emotional about it, because it is unchangeable.
Being emotionally resilient is not something we are born with. It is a trait that all of us can learn. Many people who experience hardships in life and get through them do not become weaker. They become stronger. The next time you find yourself in a stressful or emotional situation, try telling yourself one or two of these phrases. As Nietzsche said, “What does not kill you can make you stronger.”
Mote is Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program.