Lo♥︎ing Legal Life: the trouble with stoicism

This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC look at how to cope with the vicarious trauma that can come with a life in the law.

HeartBeing a lawyer is a profession that comes with purpose, meaning and great responsibility. Lawyers serve their clients by helping them to navigate what can at times be treacherous terrain.

This often means that the role the lawyer plays draws them into much of the pain and the trauma a client may experience, which has the effect of causing trauma to the lawyer themselves, many of whom do not have the training a therapist or coach does, to remain relatively detached by being suitably resourced.

Vicarious trauma in the law

For judges and lawyers who practice in areas such as child protection, family law, or criminal law, though not exclusive to these areas alone, both will witness unimaginable abuse, trauma and misery – the nadir of human life and death experiences as we comprehend them. No matter how resilient or stoic judges and lawyers might believe themselves to be, there is no human who can remain untouched by the experience of vicarious trauma: the trauma of the helper.

Vicarious trauma will change the way you see the world and disrupt your sense of what is normal. Without realising it, a new perception of the world can seep into the subconscious as compassion fatigue, the perception of life shifts to one that is more dangerous, and the ability to calibrate the good, the great and the wonderful becomes diminished.

It is therefore imperative for lawyers to keep in mind that they are not required to be stronger emotionally and mentally, because they believe their job requires them to be. It is important that judges and lawyers understand that they are vulnerable because of what the job asks of them.

To be a lawyer, a great lawyer, it is all the more important to recognise the humility of being human, that as a human you are not impervious to pain and suffering, and that the greatest strength is to ask for help when you need to; help to check in with yourself, and help to maintain the fine tuning of the instrument that is you.

The true cost of giving service in the legal profession today must include an enhanced awareness of the need for self-care.

The trouble with stoicism

Until recently it was believed that stoicism was a necessary personal attribute to stay in the game, characterised by a calm acceptance of hardship or comfort, triumph and failure, sickness and health. The stoicism of the British people was renowned and sometimes even revered. Yet it is when we are disconnected from our feelings – the very things that make us human – that we forget who we are and create havoc for ourselves and those around us.

The need to resource yourself

An effective alternative to stoicism is resourcing. A resource is anything life-affirming that makes us feel comfortable and secure.

Resources are like assets – the more you have, the better off you are.

Resources offer hope and confidence. When we are feeling desperate, stressed, stuck, struggling with confused emotions, it can be all too easy to lose sight of our own strengths, abilities, knowledge, and coping skills. Without sufficient resources, a person’s ability to function in life is undermined.

We know when we are under resourced because mind and body feel drained and negative feelings get activated. When this happens it is important to call upon the appropriate resource to support us. This can be anything from a positive memory, a person, a loved pet or favourite animal, a place or one’s own personal capacity. Resourcing is integral to the life of any successful professional. When the four pillars of human foundation – emotional, physical, mental, spiritual – are fully supported and resourced, we have what is required to masterfully navigate life both in the professional and personal realm.

We are fortunate that in the modern world, unlike the past, we have available to us professional services and groups to support wellbeing and that can enable us to connect with our personal resources. The gift that these services bring is a safe place to gently unlock that which has become altered by trauma, so that we can reframe the trauma from work and clients in a safe and supported environment, acknowledge what has happened, validate our response and liberate ourselves to live fully.

There is a clear new bottom line: to live and work effectively in modern times you need effective modern methods of survival. So take time to resource yourself. By doing so you will carry with you the tools to engage successfully with challenges at work, enabling you to move on from each challenge strengthened, rather than diminished.

The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them atzita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and atjames.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.