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Litigation News

Spring 2021, Vol. 46, No. 3

Managing Your Emotions So They Don't Manage You

Joseph Beckman


  • Leverage labeling to loosen the grip of the lymbic system.
  • The “amygdala hijack” is when you note that you're angry and proactively shift from the limbic system to the rational part of your brain to help you think through the situation.
  • The key is to exercise your mind the way you exercise your body to create habits that make this an (almost) automatic skill. 
Managing Your Emotions So They Don't Manage You
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As lawyers, we are experts at analyzing problems. We pride ourselves in our ability to be supremely objective, yet able to construct arguments that elicit from a judge or jury both the intellectual and emotional response to set up a client to “win.”

Despite your brilliant setup, your client “digs in.” Discarding your hard work and unassailable logic, your client continues to argue with you over one or more of the unchangeable (and foundational) pieces of evidence in the case. You patiently attempt several logical ways to redirect. You are measured. You assiduously avoid injecting any emotion, clearing out of the way the distracting (and potentially dangerous) flotsam your client is strewing in front of the boat you share.

Biting your tongue is sapping more and more of your precious mental energy. As your client continues to push points you know from experience are almost certain to lead to a litany of self-inflicted wounds at trial, you find it harder and harder to keep from sharing your honest assessment of your client’s preferred strategy. This scenario does not suggest that the client’s thoughts on trial strategy are never right. Rather, it illustrates a lost opportunity to manage your emotions so that they don’t manage you and, by extension, the situation.

The Unavoidable Amygdala Hijack?

The above scenario and reaction should not be surprising. You are human, as is your client. Both of your responses are shaped by the mass of cells atop your spinal cord. Your basal ganglia. Your limbic system. Your prefrontal cortex. Your frontal cortex.

Brain studies show that what we might call “negative emotions,” whether anger, frustration, or fear, are often accompanied by a release of the stress hormone cortisol. The release originates in the amygdala, the small almond-shaped structure at base of the limbic system.

The amygdala is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. This includes the processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and (perhaps surprisingly) pleasure. It is a more “reflexive” portion of the brain as opposed to the “higher processing” prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex “manages complex cognitive process such as memory, planning, reasoning, and problem-solving. This area of the frontal lobes functions to help us set and maintain goals, curb negative impulses, organize events in time order, and form our individual personalities,” according to Regina Bailey of

The amygdala, by contrast, is involved in autonomic responses associated with fear and (often related) hormonal secretions. On average, however, it sends about five times as many messages to your prefrontal cortex than it accepts back. Perhaps this is why Bessel van der Kolk, MD, the author of the classic The Body Keeps the Score, calls the amygdala “the body’s smoke detector.”

Preparing for the Unavoidable

So, how do you prepare yourself to respond to the piercing sound of a smoke detector in a constructive, calm, and appropriate manner? Maybe there are lessons from the fire drills we all had in grammar and high school. If you think back, there was usually an announcement reminding you that there would be a fire drill that day or that week. (At least that was the approach during the author’s academic years.)

When the fire alarm’s piercing sound went off, you may have been temporarily caught by surprise. Your brain, however, was prepared and had a logical response at the ready. You got up, lined up, and followed your teacher along the designated exit route to the designated assembly point where someone handled the class count.

Labeling: Teaching the Lymbic System to “Let Go”

The “amygdala hijack” is a term first coined by author and science journalist Daniel Goleman in his 1996 classic Emotional Intelligence. Goleman recently offered advice for possibly countering such a hijack: “When you note, ‘I’m angry,’ you shift activity from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of your brain that helps you think through how to best handle the situation.” It sounds easy, right? Surprisingly, it is. The key is to exercise your mind the way you exercise your body.

The bad news: to accomplish this, you need to invest a bit of time in yourself to create habits that make this an (almost) automatic skill. The good news: I respectfully submit you will benefit not only professionally, but personally.

Good Lord, Is This Mindfulness Again?

The short answer is yes. (My emotion is that of a wry smile as I recognize I can ask a question in a subhead and answer it in the five-word first sentence of the paragraph underneath.)

Think about it. While there are absolutely mental health benefits to training our bodies, we need to invest equally in our minds. Not surprisingly, one good way to train yourself to tune into the feelings of others is to train yourself to tune into your own emotions. In this day and age, “There’s an app for that.”

Name It to Tame It

According to Mood Meter, a popular app developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, “[l]earning how to identify your emotional state is an essential part of improving your Emotional Intelligence. Once you recognize your emotions, you can take steps to regulate them. In fact, research shows that simply naming your feeling will help you to tame it.”

The Yale Center was established in 2013. Its Mood Meter app quickly rose to the top of the charts, in part (perhaps) due to an intuitive “quadrant” approach to helping you identify your mood (though some of the more popular features were recently changed). Taking 30 seconds to record “how I feel” (based on moving around the proper quadrant looking for the “right” adjective) was instructive.

You Also Need to Look at Others

Once you build up your emotional muscles to become reflexively aware of your own emotions, the next step is to sharpen your skills for noticing those of others. This is one skill that has been, perhaps, enhanced by the increase in video chat applications that have come into widespread use during the pandemic.

Have you noticed, for example, how you better understand and appreciate the engagement of the people on a video call as opposed to a phone call? That’s partly because you are unconsciously pairing their words with their body language, particularly the micro-expressions on the speaker’s face.

The Bottom Line

Save for that small percentage of time we are in front of a judge or jury, we lawyers spend the bulk of our time and effort marshaling the facts to support our client’s case and business goals. We serve our clients best by being unfailingly objective. As a result, our “logic muscles” are extremely well developed.

You decide to do a ton of crunches to improve your abdominals. If you don’t do an opposite exercise to strengthen your back, however, you may end up with lower back pain. The same applies to your “emotional muscles,” which are the opposite of your logic muscles. If you fail to exercise them, you risk injury to one, if not both, of the pair.

So why not try something like Mood Meter for four to six weeks? You might be surprised how robust your logic muscles feel paired with a buffed-up set of emotional muscles!