“It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.”

Understanding what annoys or upsets us in other people can give us the power to make adjustments, to work on ourselves, and to adapt

Aaah we all love Taylor Swift, don’t we? Queen of the tortured lyric. She’s been reverberating through my head of late (and not just because I’m analysing her latest album for clues regarding her exes…) It’s that this lyric in particular ties in with something about the psychology of being a lawyer. And in particular, in our emotionally heightened area of family law.

You see, all of us talk about difficult clients, difficult counterparts, difficult colleagues and bosses. Now I’m not saying that other people aren’t difficult (unfortunately). But what’s more interesting (and, ultimately, more liberating) is to look at the part we have to play in the whole thing.

Because when someone upsets us or makes us angry, there’s a disturbance within us. We’ve become hooked. And, as annoying as it sounds, that’s because there’s some sort of vulnerability in us that we need to look at.

Why do I think it’s important to be able to see and acknowledge those vulnerabilities? Because it gives us power. Power to make adjustments, to work on ourselves. To adapt.

So what are these vulnerabilities of which I speak?

These are the common ones I see in lawyers in my therapeutic work:

  • An external locus of evaluation – a tendency to look to the externals to provide/bolster their self-esteem – whether that’s other people’s opinions, exam results, case outcomes, directory listings etc etc.
  • Insecure and yet overachieving – most people in the legal world have been the “clever kid” at school, which has led them to fuse their self-worth with their achievements. Also, there’s a lot of truth in the idea that, the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. So how could we not feel insecure, given that we clever types have a heightened awareness of the world and all its intricacies?
  • Internal drive – the vast majority of the time, the desire to succeed in high-achieving types has not come from our parents or care givers. It’s just there in us, innately. And it’s hard for us to put the brakes on it in order to protect our own wellbeing.

On top of these, there are particular elements at play for family lawyers. I mentioned in a previous column my theory that family practitioners are usually “wounded healers”. And it’s that empathy we have, that interest in and personal experience of difficulty that we bring to the work that make us great at it. But it’s also what makes the work difficult!

Empathy becomes crippling if it gets to the point where we can’t send the client that invoice because we know they’re going to struggle to pay it.

We can’t seem to hang up the phone to that vulnerable client because we’re worried about what they might do.

We can’t deliver difficult messages to our clients because we’re afraid of their anger.

These traits show up with our colleagues and others too. I remember a partner I used to share an office with as a junior solicitor. What I now realise is that he shared some key character traits with my dad. I remember us having a disagreement one day which resulted in me storming out to have a wander round the local park. What I now realise is that I’d completely regressed into my teenage self and was reacting accordingly. Or with another senior partner, whenever I was called into his office, I responded to his direct questioning by becoming almost mute, like a child, struggling to get my brain to work enough to answer him.

I had to look at my own part in these dynamics. And it takes courage to do so.

To acknowledge that “Oh, the reason I’m reacting to that piece of constructive feedback in such a big way is because I’m hypervigilant when it comes to criticism.”

“That angry client is getting to me partly because it taps into my overriding desire to be universally loved.”

“I think I’ve developed complicated dynamics with that vulnerable client and haven’t drawn boundaries with them because I believe that it’s my responsibility to rescue people.”

The only one we can control is ourselves. And, funnily enough, admitting that, sometimes, in some ways, you’re the problem, can be the thing that gives us the most freedom.

(c) Annmarie Carvalho 2024

Annmarie Carvalho is a therapist, trainer and former family solicitor and mediator at The Carvalho Consultancy. If you’d like to receive training on this subject, get in touch at www.carvalhotherapy.com/ info@carvalhotherapy.com

Lyrics from Anti-Hero, (c) Taylor Swift 2022, (written by Swift and Antonoff).