Dealing with Lawyer Guilt

Guest post by Gregory A. Mattacola.

In my introductory post to this series on improving the mental and physical health of lawyers, I mentioned the guilt a lawyer faces on a daily basis. You know the guilt. The guilt of never being totally where you are, i.e., when you are working, feeling that you ought to be with your family or when you are with your family, the guilt that you should be working. Or how about when you are exercising, the guilt that you should either be working or with your family but definitely not doing something as selfish as getting a workout!

Guilt will kill. It will drive you mad. It will cause you to question yourself all day long. How many of us have felt our blood pressure rise as we get caught up in a file and keep thinking “I can’t believe I’m spending all this time on this issue, I should be preparing for the Smith depositions, I am never going to be ready, I ought to be doing that, not this, the other side is going to see that I’m unprepared, the client is going to fire me, this is just awful!” What does this do? It causes you to not be in the moment. And when you aren’t in the moment, not only are you feeling the guilt of those other things you aren’t doing, but now you’ve not properly maximized the time of what you are doing. You’ve dropped the ball in every regard and undoubtedly feel even worse about yourself. Then comes the anxiety, the depression, the feelings of being overwhelmed, the whole vicious cycle.

How do we get off the vicious guilt merry-go-round? First lesson and it’s a simple one: clean up our language. I’m not talking about the “F Bomb” here (although we could all do well to reduce that as well!) No, I’m talking about the words that trigger the guilt. Look at the examples above. “I should be . . . I ought to be . . . This is awful.” Every time you use these words, should, ought, must, awful, you are letting an unreasonable thought process dictate your feelings. These words put a demand on you, lead you down a road that just isn’t rational. Who says you should be doing something else? Really – it sounds silly but ask yourself, who says? What all powerful being has set forth the edict that what you are doing is not the right thing? The only person that has likely done this to you, is you. So stop it already.

Examine the scenario above. Then try this: “Wow—I can’t believe this project has taken so long, I never would have expected that. Well, I’m halfway through it so let me bear down and get it done right so I don’t have to revisit it. Yet, I still have the Smith depositions to prepare for. Well, if I reschedule the Jones meeting this afternoon and use that time for Smith, along with some early morning hours, I will be more than prepared and it will all be fine, I’ve dealt with worse than this, that’s for sure.” Can’t you just feel your blood pressure dropping when you examine the problem in the context of the next 18 hours and map out a plan? Versus “awfulizing” it and making your cortisol levels skyrocket, taxing the heck out of yourself in the process? And see how reminding yourself of past scheduling/time crunch nightmares that you successfully dealt with can give you the confidence to calmly deal with the current one?

It all seems ridiculously simple because it is. And yet, mindfully keeping track of your language and thought process when dealing with stressful issues will often be the difference as to whether you deal with it rationally or irrationally. In other words, stop “shoulding” on yourself. You deserve better.

(photo: Kim Pierro)

Greg Mattacola owns a small firm in Rome, New York, and writes The Mattacola Law Firm Blog.

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