Dear People Pleaser,
Having a client express anger or frustration and not take it personally can be challenging, even when you know you have done your best. It can be especially challenging if you have lingering doubts in the back of your mind questioning whether there was something you should or could have done differently.
Many lawyers, myself included, hold themselves to impossibly high expectations. They expect perfection, defined as always getting the exact outcome your client wants. You can see how this way of thinking would destroy mental well-being and naturally lead to anxiety. Also, I have been caught off guard when the client is still disgruntled even after getting the remedy that is possible through the legal system because they want closure or an apology.
The Antidote: A Practice of Compassion Toward Self
Compassion is the deeply felt understanding of one’s own suffering and acceptance of that suffering combined with some movement toward alleviating the suffering. At its core, the practice of self-compassion is the journey to becoming a good friend to yourself.
Pause and think of the last time you were in the situation described in the question. Now imagine calling someone who deeply cares about you—this can be a family member, a friend, or a colleague. Imagine that you relay your own disappointment and your anxiety about the case to this person. What does this person say in response? My guess is that their response is probably rooted in compassion. Compare this person’s response to your own internal response toward yourself. How are they similar or different?
To meet your life’s disappointments with compassion necessarily means that you get more familiar with your emotional experiences. As Sebene Selassie writes in her book, You Belong:
Most of us just coast through life being swayed by deeply embedded physical and emotional triggers. How often are we paying such close attention to our physical, emotional, and mental experiences to witness these subtle connections? Probably not that often. Unless we practice.
Targeting Deeply Embedded Triggers
Consider for a moment that your reaction to the client’s disappointment is deeply embedded in you from the many layers of cultural and systematic influences. If you are part of historically underrepresented or marginalized communities, these embedded triggers can be especially intense because it is deeply intertwined with your sense of belonging. You may have gotten to where you are by overcompensating and overworking. You may be the first in your family to attend college or law school. You may feel as though you are carrying not only your own expectations but also your ancestors on your shoulders. This is a big burden to carry.
Meeting yourself with compassion is challenging because it requires you to get really intimate with what is happening. When the client expresses their displeasure, notice what comes up for you. What are the thought patterns? What are the physiological reactions? What is your emotional response? This is the practice of self-compassion. Allow the practice of self-compassion to develop alongside your law practice.
Example Reflection Questions to Get You Started
- What would I tell a colleague or a friend in a similar situation?
- What are the held beliefs behind my self-judgment?
- Are those thoughts helpful?
- Are those thoughts compassionate?
- What if the opposite thought were true?
- What would I have to let go of to let go of the anxiety?
- Am I striving toward perfection or excellence?
Over time, as your self-compassion deepens, you may notice that you have more capacity for meeting your own client’s emotional experiences with compassion as well, rather than deflecting or becoming defensive.