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Emotional Regulation: What It Is and Why Lawyers Need It

Kendra Brodin


  • Law schools and legal employers are struggling to meet the growing demands for lawyers who possess intellectual capability to perform the demanding work of a lawyer.
Emotional Regulation: What It Is and Why Lawyers Need It Duangjinda

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Law schools and legal employers are struggling to meet the growing demands for lawyers who possess not only the intellectual capability to perform the demanding work of a lawyer, but also the emotional intelligence to perform that work with interpersonal skills, while also maintaining a sense of well-being. Lawyer well-being and lawyer performance – two critical issues that historically have seemed antithetical to one another.

In today’s legal climate, well-being and performance are less of an “either/or” and more of “both/and,” leaving both law schools and legal employers scrambling to find how to teach both emotional and substantive skills. Many firms, other legal employers, and law schools are beginning to teach emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) and emotional regulation (ER). While you may have heard of emotional intelligence, emotional regulation is a relative newcomer to the vernacular. Emotional regulation is a component of emotional intelligence. Together, EQ and ER can help lawyers improve their well-being, heighten their interpersonal skills, and build fulfilling and successful careers.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation means that you can pause between experiencing a feeling and choosing a reaction. When we emotionally regulate ourselves, we slow down for a moment after an emotional stimulus and we think things through, make a plan, and objectively evaluate what is happening around us.

Emotional regulation also means that we can control our thoughts, feelings, and actions in service of our longer-term goals. We can think before acting or speaking. We can build emotional resilience and act in ways that are consistent with our values and goals, not just at the whim of our emotions.

Easier said than done, right?

Lawyers often have big, strong personalities. We are trained to defend our perspective. We are trained to not be wrong. We are trained to win. But sometimes we are caught off-guard by a negative comment, a ruling that doesn’t go our way, a colleague that annoys us, or opposing counsel that seems bent on making everything harder than it needs to be.

When this happens, we might get caught up in our emotions and react strongly, rudely, or aggressively. The thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, has been taken captive by our amygdala, the part of our brain that senses danger and activates our fight, flight, or freeze response. Instead of having control of our emotions and regulating them, we are experiencing emotional dysregulation. Our brain thinks we are being attacked, and our body prepares to protect us.

The problem is that when our brain and body go into this protective posture, our prefrontal cortex – our thinking brain, our intelligence center, the most evolved part of our brain – goes offline. From a primitive perspective, when you are about to get eaten by a lion, you don’t need to know how to solve complicated algebra problems. You just need to stay alive. Your executive, higher-level functioning goes offline, and so does your emotional regulation.

The goal is to get that prefrontal cortex back online and fast. Emotional regulation processes allow us to buy time before we act on the fight or flight triggers.

Lawyers can’t do their best work without having their thinking brain fully activated. Without emotional regulation skills, your brain is at risk of being taken over by strong emotions at every turn, turning off your greatest professional asset – your thinking and analytical skills – and risking your professional relationships and personal well-being.

Why Emotional Regulation Matters

Every day, we face hundreds of situations, large and small, that could create emotions.

When you have the skills of emotional regulation, you can handle those situations much more intentionally. In fact, studies have shown a significant positive correlation between emotional regulation and management of depression. The same is true for anxiety – people with lower levels of anxiety demonstrate higher emotional regulation and emotional intelligence.

There’s more. A person who is emotionally regulated has a better judgment of their feelings and actions. When we have emotional regulation, we can judge which outcomes would be best and how to best achieve those outcomes. With emotional regulation, we can help the initial flood of emotions to calm down before we react.

When we can increase the time gap between the circumstance (or stimulus that causes our emotion) and the response, we can increase our rational thinking and reasoning. Not only will we make better choices, but we also won’t feel the intense surge of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness, or angst that takes a tremendous toll on our mental and emotional well-being, ultimately leading to professional missteps, interpersonal challenges, and burnout.

Here is the emotional regulation superpower: if you want to be a good lawyer, you must know when and how to express your emotions. Sometimes it will be appropriate to express your emotions in the moment, but usually, it makes more sense to wait for emotions to calm down in all involved before reacting. And, for some situations and emotions, you will wisely choose to never react but to process the emotions privately.

The skill of emotional regulation allows you to moderate yourself, control your emotions, and choose the right reaction at the right time. As a lawyer, this allows you to communicate calmly in stressful situations, objectively analyze the information and data coming to you rather than reacting emotionally to it, and make reasoned, cool-headed decisions.

Here are some of the benefits of emotional regulation:

  • Alignment between your actions and your values
  • Build open communication between yourself and others
  • Demonstrate persistence and resilience when times are tough
  • Finding the good in others and in situations
  • Flexible and adaptable thinking
  • Focus on your intentions, goals, and desired outcomes
  • Give your best effort even when it’s hard
  • Jumping in to lead when needed
  • Learning from challenges
  • Moving from a negative to a positive frame of mind
  • Self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Soothing and calming yourself without the aid of alcohol, drugs, shopping, or binge-watching.

How to Build Emotional Regulation

Here are six ways to build emotional regulation so you can react purposefully when emotions are running high.

First, develop self-awareness. Can you name what you are feeling? Can you identify the emotion? Are you sad, frustrated, embarrassed, nervous, or something else? Don’t judge or try to change the emotion. Just notice it and name it. It’s sometimes tempting to run from our emotions and not deal with them, but it is important to give yourself some time to identify your feelings. Sit with the emotion even if it is uncomfortable. Once you have processed the emotion and let it pass, it won’t feel quite so charged, and you aren’t as likely to say or do something you’ll regret later.

Second, use mindfulness and mindful awareness. Take a few deep breaths. It may sound like it won’t matter, but deep breathing gets your body out of the fight, flight, or freeze and brings your prefrontal cortex (your thinking brain) back online. Mindfulness has been shown to improve attention which helps to regulate negative emotions and improve executive functioning and higher-level thinking.

Third, try to see the situation from another perspective. What would an objective person think about what happened? Would they see it in the exact same way that you did? What are some alternative ways to think about what happened? Try thinking some less dramatic thoughts. Instead of “My client hates me and will never give me work again,” try thinking “My client is frustrated with the mistake I made, but I will learn from what she told me and will show her that I can do high-quality work in the future.”

Fourth, try adaptable thinking. You may be tempted to react a certain way or interpret a situation through a particular lens, but what would your best friend or your mentor say? Try thinking about the advice someone else would give you given the objective facts of the situation. You might discover something you hadn’t previously considered.

Fifth, have compassion for yourself. When you can have self-compassion, not just in the moment, but all the time, it will increase your emotional regulation. Remind yourself of the things that you do well, the abilities you have, and what you bring to the table. That way, when things don’t go right and you are tempted to react in an unproductive way, you can draw on a reservoir of tools to calm your flaming emotions. For example, try reminding yourself on a regular basis of all the things you have achieved in your life and what you are proud of. Keep a gratitude journal (science has proven it truly raises your mental health and sense of emotional well-being.)

Sixth, when you are really having trouble consistently regulating your emotions, seek emotional support from a professional. A therapist can help you dig into your thinking and history to unearth some of the roots of your emotional dysregulation so that you can replace unproductive emotional reactions with ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that bring you the results you want and help you build the professional reputation you desire.

Emotional regulation may become one of your favorite tools in your lawyer toolbox. Not everyone has it because it is hard to acquire and takes practice. It’s much easier just to fly off the handle, but the payoffs are huge when you can regulate and manage your emotions in healthy, productive ways.