Divorcing Lawyer

  • April 01, 2021

Dear Advy,

I am a family lawyer in a medium size firm. I have always enjoyed this area of practice and think I'm pretty good at it. The trouble is, I am now going through a very difficult divorce of my own and I am finding myself over identifying with clients and being triggered by their stories. Family law is draining enough without me having an emotional breakdown every afternoon. Any ideas for how I continue to practicing effectively (changing my specialty isn't going to happen!) without dragging my personal messiness through every file?

- Divorcing Lawyer

Dear Divorcing Layer,

My advice consists of three parts:

  1. Boundaries
  2. Boundaries
  3. Boundaries

Of course, me telling you to set boundaries is a bit like shouting “Breathe slower!” at someone hyperventilating. So, how do you set boundaries in a real world situation like this?

1. Boundaries

It’s normal for you to see commonalities in what your clients are experiencing and what you are going through right now. My first boundary advice is to not beat yourself up for noticing them. The problem isn’t that you notice the commonalities. The problem is your reaction when you do. Your first job is to develop your awareness of those reactions.

Consider employing a number of mindfulness tools to manage that reaction. When you notice a thought about how Client X’s issue mirrors one of your own, take note of the thought. It can help to keep a journal near your workspace so you can jot it down to think about later. It’s amazing how much more tame that rambunctious sub-conscious of yours can be when it knows you’re going to indulge it later by thinking all it wants to about the subject at hand. “I’ll worry/obsess/think deeply about this later.” is a lot more effective as a self-management tool than “I shouldn’t ever worry/obsess/think deeply about this.”  The latter is kind of like going on a crash diet when you’re trying to lose weight. That pesky unconscious brain will find a way to get at the cognitive bag of chips if you totally deprive it of what it wants instead of just rationally controlling how many thought-chips you can eat. 

Now, in order to maintain credibility with your sub-conscious, actually make a habit of sitting with that thought you wrote down at a later time and in an appropriate setting. The thought itself isn’t bad and it might even give you some insight into your life and/or your practice. Noting the commonalities can be a way of becoming better at what you do if it’s handled the right way. Make yourself a cup of tea, sit in a comfortable chair and open the journal to write some more thoughts about your realization. You will probably find it is less upsetting and more enlightening than it could ever be in the moment it came into your head.

Try jotting down the time of day and circumstances that brought that troubling thought up. If you can’t do that at first, don’t sweat it but trust me this will help you become a super boundary setter later.

2. Boundaries

Here is another benefit of giving yourself the chance to sit with your trigger later on:  You can notice where the problems you are facing and the problems your clients are bringing to you aren’t the same. No two people, no two families, and no two divorces are alike. If you start noticing that your initial emotionally triggered response is often wrong, you may develop the ability to notice those differences in the moment. That has a salutary effect on your ability to help your clients. If the triggered you is giving them advice that’s actually based on your life and not theirs, you’re probably giving bad advice and at the very least you aren’t listening to them anymore. Anything that gets in the way of good listening is a problem. 

Use that reflection on your journal entries as a way of standing up to that little voice inside you that says “This is all about you!”.

3. Boundaries

Now you can also notice another thing about those triggering thoughts:  Is there a pattern of when/how you get triggered? I noticed you mentioned afternoons. Is it usually around the same time of day? Is it usually a similar kind of phone call/e-mail/video chat? Is there a kind of case or issue that is the strongest trigger? Look for patterns. If you can, ask someone you trust to look at it and tell you if that person can detect patterns you might be missing. That may not be possible early on or ever, but if you do have that outlet make use of it. 

Let’s say that you notice it’s usually around 2:30-3:00. When do you eat lunch? Are you hungry/tired/have a sore neck from day-long video calls?   

Now become your own best friend, and ask what you can do to make sure that you are less vulnerable to anxiety/depression/upset at that time. What can you do to help the You of the future maintain those boundaries?

  • Are you connecting with others outside of work or are you socially isolated?
  • Are you getting enough good quality sleep?
  • Could you reduce your work week? 
  • Could you reduce the number of hours you work in the day?
  • Could you take a vacation? 
  • Are there certain kinds of files that maybe you should turn away for awhile because they’re too close to the mark of what you’re going through? As a wise person once said, if you don’t want to slip, don’t go to slippery places.

Have a snack by the computer. Have a nap. Take a walk just before (or just after) that critical time. Look through your collection of cute pictures of your dog. Have some Gloria Gaynor cued up on your music player of choice and – for bonus points – close your door and dance/lip synch along (“Oh no not I, I will survive!.....”). Even if all you can do is shoulder dance at your desk, moving your body to something that is – pardon the hackneyed word – empowering, can give you some control back over that racing mind. 

Will you feel silly at first? Of course you will!  How silly do you think I feel revealing that I listen to ‘70s disco?  [In my defence, I said a firm No to hanging a disco ball in my office. Boundaries, I say!]  The thing is, it won’t feel silly forever and you probably won’t have to do it forever. This is your “stand tall” habit and you won’t need that help for the rest of your life. 

Or you will, and you’ll have discovered a new, innate talent for some powerful karaoke performances. Weren’t you looking for an excuse to pick up a glitter sweatband anyway? Perhaps I digress.

The point is that you are worth taking care of, even if right now the only person to take care of You is you. Think of the version of You that is just on the verge of being triggered and decide now how you’re going to compassionately help that person. Using these and other techniques will help you support that future You more effectively.

Be well,
- Advy

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