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Managing the COVID-19 Aftermath with Compassion

May 1, 2020

 

By Tabitha Hochscheid

The COVID-19 crisis is a defining moment in our lives, our profession, our society and our health. The crisis cuts across our entire society and exposes its fissures. We are all required to modify our behavior in ways we have never thought of before. Never has hand sanitation or how closely we stand next to others been so important. 

 

As a civil litigator, cases have ground to a halt. All unnecessary court business and the civil rules have been suspended. My only employee and I have learned to use Microsoft Teams to stay in touch and have created workspaces at home. I go to my office for mail and accounting a few times a week. My business will weather this storm.

My frustrations in this crisis are small compared to others, including small business clients, furloughed lawyers and at-risk front-line workers. I witness their suffering and feel deep compassion and empathy. Although we each experience this trauma differently, we are sharing in a common loss of life as we
knew it.
 

We are in period of prolonged or sustained stress which wears on our bodies and minds. Sustained stress for the lawyer is not just the stay at home order. We are witnessing the human suffering of our clients whose lives are dramatically and sometimes permanently altered by the crisis. The stress will not end when the crisis abates; the financial aspects of this crisis will continue to affect many for years to come. 

As with every crisis, there will be shifts in the legal industry. We may be called upon to change the way we do things as technological advances become integrated into the courts. New laws are being enacted at the state and federal levels weekly. New sub-areas of practice will be created. We are entering a period of change, and change is not easy for many of us. 

The economic suffering of those around us will endure long after we have a vaccine for the coronavirus. Witnessing the suffering of others will be an essential part of counseling clients for months, if not years, to come. Developing compassion skills will help us insulate ourselves from sustained stress, compassion fatigue and possible burnout.

We can easily become sponges to the grief and stress of others. Our brains are biologically designed with mirror neurons which allow us to feel the experiences of others. This mirror effect helps us with the ability to be compassionate and empathetic with our clients. However, without compassion skills, we risk becoming emotionally invested or entangled in unhealthy ways. 

Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. When you are empathetic, you are literally feeling another’s suffering. The ability to stand in the shoes of another and feel what it’s like to be him or her is empathy. That makes it different from sympathy, kindness or pity. It is more than understanding the perspective of another which most lawyers do daily.

Compassion is empathy plus action and includes four components: 1) Attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering; 2) Feeling emotionally moved by that suffering; 3) Wishing there to be relief from that suffering; and 4) A readiness to take action to relieve that suffering.

Empathy fosters the human connection and helps form and maintain the attorney client relationship. Compassion, on the other hand, can drive lawyers to “fix” problems or help our clients. 

Due to the uniqueness and magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis, lawyers are at risk for either empathetic overload or compassion fatigue. What happens when you “overload” on empathy? You find yourself suffering as much as your client. You become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering of others. Empathy overload can push you into compassion fatigue.

When you have compassion fatigue, you become unable to empathize or feel compassion for others. Compassion fatigue is common in the medical field. When you become numb to the emotions of others you can easily burnout. 

When dealing with clients who are under stress or who have experienced trauma, remember the following:

  • There are some situations you cannot fix, even without COVID-19. Be honest about what can be done and what you can do to help. Do not over-promise and do not see a client’s problem as an extension of you.
  • You cannot control the outcome in court or in life. Resolutions happen and that is not the same thing as winning or justice. Focus on the resolution when speaking to the client. Inform them there are no guarantees.
  • You are responsible for your work and behavior only. You are not responsible for the emotions of your client. You can only do your best. Your best is what you bring to the table. 

 

Developing self-compassion is essential. Turning compassion toward ourselves is something many of us have a hard time doing. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher and author of Self Compassion, states that three core components make up self-compassion. First, it requires self-kindness, gentleness and understanding of ourselves instead of harshly critical and judgmental. Second, recognition of our common humanity, which is feeling connected with others as we experience life, rather than being isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. You must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.

Developing self-compassion can help separate our emotions from the emotions of others. When we acknowledge our own feelings of stress and anxiety without judgment, we allow them to just exist. When we understand that our feelings are part of our common humanity, we no longer isolate ourselves from others and consider our suffering unique. Giving ourselves permission to feel the stress related to our job and the magnitude of our client’s problems strengthens us emotionally and allows us perspective on our duties. Turning into our own worst critic pushes us further toward burnout. Expressing compassion for ourselves keeps our inner critic in check. 

Uncertainty is the natural consequence of a pandemic. The entire world has been affected by COVID-19. Some of us will be lucky enough to resume our jobs and lives without ever getting ill and without much economic fallout. As lawyers, the crisis will be a part of our lives for a while as we deal with clients impacted by the crisis. Developing compassion skills, including self-compassion, can help us deliver crucial legal services without burning out. 


Tabitha M. Hochscheid founded the firm of Hochscheid & Associates, LLC in 2013. She focuses her practice in the areas of commercial litigation, business litigation, creditor’s rights, bankruptcy, and subrogation. The Health and Well Being committee was formed in 2012. The committee mission is to promote attorney well-being by providing education, peer-to-peer support and resources to attorneys and law students in the areas of mental health, emotional balance, stress management (including physical manifestations of stress) and addiction. The committee receives financial support from the Cincinnati Bar Foundation’s Ken Jameson Health & Well Being Fund.

Hochscheid is currently serving her fourth term as General Trustee on the CBA Board of Trustees.

 

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