How do you first react when you’re allocated that inexorable judge, or your most demanding client calls, or your nemesis at work saunters into your office? What happens when you feel anxiety, rage, frustration, guilt or shame? As lawyers, we often rely on the mind’s autopilot function to get us through the worst parts of our day. But when we forget to switch out of autopilot, we also unconsciously react without thinking about our daily challenges, both external hassles and difficulties we experience internally.
When faced with uncomfortable situations or feelings, like all people we tend to avoid them. We hold off from owning up to that mistake or confronting the explosive person in our team and make ourselves too busy to feel our anxiety or frustration. We’re not even aware that we’re sidestepping. We tell ourselves we’re too stressed, or it’s not worth the effort, or more caffeine will fix it, and get on with our next client.
But unacknowledged emotion doesn’t like being suppressed day after day. It will resurface with a vengeance when you least expect it, influencing your mood, your choices, your behaviour and your sanity. You won’t know why, but you’ll feel like you’ve been put through the proverbial wringer.
What if you could master not only your caseload but your state of mind?
If you can notice the way you’re reacting then you can start to break free from it. This is where mindfulness can help. Mindfulness allows you to become aware of your internal environment, the physical sensations in your bodies that automatically stimulate you to behave in particular ways.
This wakes you up out of autopilot and gives you the freedom to choose a wiser or calmer response rather than reacting blindly from the force of habit.
For example, when your senior partner starts to froth over a missed court date, you might start to notice a feeling of butterflies in your belly, tightness or shakiness in your solar plexus and intense heat rising in your chest or throat. Followed closely by a tremendous urge to swig an entire bottle, bury yourself beneath your desk, or strangle someone with your file clip. However, rather than unconsciously bolting, numbing out, becoming depressed or unhinged, you might instead take a moment to tune in to these sensations and urges in your body, allowing them and breathing deeply with them. And this allows you to unhook from them, so you’re not unwittingly hijacked by your feelings and end up doing something you’ll regret.
The prevailing culture in firms of ‘Only the strong shall survive’ is slowly shifting. The fact of the matter is that we are all human and if we ignore our natural emotions, we are at their mercy. You wouldn’t ignore an irate magistrate and neither should you dismiss your emotions as irrelevant trespassers on your pristine daily case plan. Believe me, before you can blink, they’ll both have you by the throat.
Victor Frankl, pre-eminent psychologist and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning, explains: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”.
In previous articles, I spoke about mindfulness tools for managing stress, overcoming worrying thoughts and building resilience. But how do you find this space between stimulus and response? How do you give yourself the freedom to choose how you wish to respond when your emotions are running wild? Take two minutes and try this:
1. Notice the feeling
Take a moment by yourself to pause, sit down, close your eyes and check in with your body. Feel the sensation of your feet against the floor and the weight of your body as it sits, letting that ground and anchor you. Notice what you’re sensing internally.
Which sensations do you feel in your belly, your solar plexus, your chest and your throat?
- Is there a warmth or coolness?
- Numbness or shakiness?
- Tightness or tension?
- Are you holding your breath or clenching your jaw?
2. Label the feeling
Mathew Lieberman from UCLA says that Affect Labelling, labelling an emotion you are experiencing, helps you to manage that emotion. Labelling increases the activity in the pre-frontal cortex which down-regulates the amygdala’s automatic, reactive, fight, flight and freeze response. He says: “The moment you see an emotion, you are no longer fully engulfed in it.”
What are these sensations telling you? Do you notice a feeling of anger arising? Or a sense of being uncertain or anxious or frustrated? If you can’t label it, how would you describe it? Just give it a couple of words.
3. Allow the feeling and breathe with it
Accept and allow these feelings even if they’re uncomfortable. Bring your focus to the sensation of your breath passing in one of your nostrils. Deepen your breath and feel it moving down into your lungs and belly. Breathe deeply into your belly.
Take your breath to any discomfort, imagining yourself breathing into these sensations and breathing out from them too. Allow a sense of softening, of opening and letting go. You can also say to yourself “It’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling right now. Whatever it is, it’s ok, let me feel it because it’s already here”. Follow your breath in and out, imagining your breath as an anchor to the present moment and whatever is arising.
We all feel angry or upset or worried or anxious at times. If we fight our minds by telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling, by getting angry with ourselves, trying not to feel, or getting frustrated about feeling anxious, it intensifies the anxiety and makes us feel worse. If we don’t like what someone is saying, or the pain we are feeling, or the way things are going and try to resist it, to push it away, we add to it. If we can accept whatever we’re feeling, allow it and give it space rather than fighting it, it begins to loosen its hold on you.
If we learn to meet our feelings where they’re experienced, we can integrate and release them. We take ownership of them so we don’t end up projecting them onto others and blaming those around us for our unhappiness. Unregistered emotion is also the button for our triggers. We all know that person who snaps at the drop of a hat. The one who gets stuck in moods and attitudes that don’t serve anyone well, least of all themselves. If we accept how we’re feeling in the moment, we can recognise that these thoughts, feelings and body sensations will arise and pass away, just like the rest of our experience. And with practice, instead of tightening and holding on or resisting, we can learn to let go.
About the author:
Jodie Gien @Mindful Future Project is a mindfulness consultant for corporates, lawyers and schools. Having previously worked for many years as a human rights lawyer and mediator, leading a team of lawyers and conciliators at the Australian Human Rights Commission and then as an executive coach specialising in mindfulness, she is committed to fostering potential and bringing out the best in people. Get in touch through LinkedIn or by email to email@example.com.