Your day is off to a great start. You got up early and had a smooth ride through the morning traffic to the office. The sun is streaming in your window as you sip your coffee and begin sorting through the mail.
And suddenly you see it. An envelope from the Statewide Grievance Committee. Your heart leaps into your throat and your mouth goes dry as you reach for the letter opener. Palms sweating, you slice open the missive and pull out its contents.
It can’t be.
You’ve been grieved.
If you’re fortunate you haven’t yet had an experience like this yet, and perhaps you never will. But each year a small but consistent percentage of lawyers are grieved. Practice long enough, particularly in areas of law with non-business clients (like family law, torts or criminal law), and the envelope will eventually land on your desk.
Even though most lawyers understand this intellectually, knowing it usually does not stop an internal tornado from rising up and swirling around in your innards.
There are legal and practical steps lawyers needs to take when they have been grieved. Advice is available from a variety of sources on how to respond to a grievance. But the focus of this article is about how to deal with the very real physiological and emotional responses most lawyers experience when they are grieved.
You Are In Shock
Our nervous system does not like surprises. And in most cases, lawyers are (very unpleasantly) surprised by the arrival of a grievance. It is normal to have a period of shock or disbelief when the nasty and unexpected happens. “I can’t believe this is happening.” Give it a little time and the next thing you know…
Your Survival Response Is Triggered: Fight, Flight, Freeze
From the perspective of your body’s nervous system a grievance is experienced as an unexpected attack much like what our ancestors experienced when a lion leapt out from the brush to pounce on us. Our autonomic survival responses kick into gear, the infamous trio of “fight, flight or freeze”. These aren’t rational, well-considered responses but a function of visceral and automatic survival mechanisms. Rapid, automatic threat responses determined who was going to be “lion lunch” and who would live to reproduce and continue the species. We are descended from the fast-responders who didn’t become lion lunch.
How might your survival responses manifest in response a grievance? You’re enraged and raging. (Your fight response.) You’re anxious or terrified. (Your fight response.) You check out mentally. (Your freeze response.)
Your Survival Response Subsides
In theory once your shock and initial threat responses have been engaged and experienced, your higher cognitive functions come on board. You can start to take productive action to deal with the grievance. So after your initial reactions you will feel calm, cool and collected (if not entirely happy) as you move forward responding to the grievance, right? Um….often NOT.
In fact some lawyers find they cannot become calm and rational to deal with a grievance. They obsess about it. They can’t sleep. They talk about it nonstop. They rail against the injustice of it and literally or metaphorically “stomp their feet”. They’re racked with fear or they’re full of dread. They get headaches, stomach aches and back aches. What’s happening?
Judge, Jury and Executioner
How might we describe in the most simplistic and emotional terms what the accuser in a grievance is saying to a lawyer? Here are some possibilities:
- You made a mistake.
- You did something wrong.
- You did something bad.
- I want to hurt you.
- You should be punished.
Yikes. Pretty stark.
Your Past As Prologue
All of the above statements are potential hot buttons that are likely to bring up early life experiences and deeply ingrained beliefs based on how we have been treated when we erred either unintentionally (mistakes) or intentionally (deliberately misbehaved).
Human beings (yes, that includes lawyers) are complex emotional and psychological creatures who have a tendency to experience current events and assign meanings to those events based upon their past experiences. While it’s not possible to know every lawyer’s personal history, we can make some educated guesses about the territory to explore to understand how a particular lawyer’s personal history might be affecting their experience of being grieved.
Here are some questions to explore how your own emotional history might be affecting your response to a grievance:
How were you treated by parents and teachers when you made a mistake? Were you gently corrected, encouraged and provided with further instruction? Or were you criticized and shamed, particularly in front of others?
Was asking for help allowed or was it viewed as a sign of weakness? Were you supposed to know how to do things without being taught?
When you broke a rule or misbehaved, were you given just and appropriate consequences? Were you humiliated or shamed? Were you physically punished or hurt? Were you shunned?
When you did something wrong, were you told you were a bad person or simply someone who happened to do a bad act? Were you offered forgiveness, an opportunity to atone or redemption? Were you told, or treated as if, you were defective and bad?
Have you ever been bullied or assaulted? Was it repetitive or ongoing? Did anyone act to protect you or was your plight ignored? Were those who hurt you ever held accountable for their actions?
It is very common for our past emotional lessons to intrude into our current lives, particularly when we are not conscious that it is happening. Answering these questions can help you track down where some of your excessive angst about a grievance may be coming from. “Gosh, this feels like fifth grade when Mrs. Jones made fun of me in front of the class because I couldn’t answer her questions, and everybody laughed.” Or, “No matter what I did it was never good enough for my dad.” Or, “Nobody seemed to care when the other kids pushed me around. I learned not to rely on anyone but myself when I’m in trouble.”
The work of emotionally distinguishing your personal “then” from the “now” of a grievance today can go a long way in reducing or even eliminating some of the distress you are experiencing. No one wants to be grieved. It’s annoying, it takes your time and energy and it is decidedly unpleasant. But if you’re feeling like you’re bad, enraged, terrified or deserve to be punished, try taking a deeper look into your past and see if you can distinguish it from the present.
And remember, you’re not alone.
(Solo Practice University offers an entire course on how to deal with a grievance from a grievance committee member. Check it out! Also, here is another great course on legal ethics so you can make sure your practice avoids them.)
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.
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