The Lawyer’s Compass: Equanimity – Tips on Finding This Often Elusive State

 In Living Our Best Life, Practicing Law and Life, The Lawyer's Compass

When someone is talking angrily to me, I don’t really hear what’s being said as I’m focused on how they’re saying it.

Any of us can get caught up in “an emotion spin cycle.” What could’ve been a frustration or a simple misunderstanding takes on a disproportionate appearance, like an image you’d see in a house of mirrors.

There’s a prescription at the end of this post from a doctor (of jurisprudence) on stopping — or at least — slowing the emotional spin cycle.
While preparing a client for their mediation the other day, I said,

“When you hear the insurance company’s first offer, it’ll make you mad. You may feel like telling them off and maybe even leaving the room. Their first offer is not as important as the last offerer, don’t get thrown off track.”

As I said those words, I realized I was talking equally to myself.

Emotions are powerful. When I’m mad, all I see is red. I lose sight of what’s most important. My brain’s been hijacked.

Part of my job of being a lawyer is helping clients deal with emotions around their injury and to help deal with negative feelings that gets in the way of their recovery – which is what’s most possible.

I know when I’m angry or mad, I’m more than likely to say something I’ll wish I never said, and, I can’t take it back. Has that ever happened to you?

Just last year I was working with an attorney who continually pushed my buttons.

When I saw his name on an email I could feel my blood pressure rise. The next thing I knew, I’d lose focus on what was most important. I veered from the path of my client and focused on how I felt about the other attorney.

Anger and frustration become seeds that thoughts, ideas and words grow from. And, when it’s harvest time, I don’t like what’s there for me to pick. Thoughts like “I’m not going to get pushed around. I’ll show him,” spin around in my head.

Has that happened to you?

Equanimity isn’t about denying emotions. It’s about maintaining equilibrium with your emotions, not letting them rule the moment.

Equanimity isn’t about rejecting how I feel or pushing my emotions away. It’s about understanding that just because I feel mad, insulted or pushed around, doesn’t mean that I automatically act on or say what I’m feeling. I have to keep focused on what’s most important — that’s what needs to rule the day.

It’s not a question of mastering my emotions; rather, it’s about not letting my emotions master me.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, wrote in his book, “Meditations”:

“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”

Here’s a prescription to help you stay in the state of equanimity …

Awareness – Being aware of the rising negative emotions is the first step in not allowing your emotions to master you. You can use them as the canary in the coalmine.

Deep Breaths – take as many as needed. If you can, close your eyes.

Remember – In one sentence, what’s most important.

Equanimity is a foundational piece that the practice of law, and life, are built upon. It keeps us focused on what’s most important – not adrift in the tumultuous sea of negative emotions.

When was the last time you wandered from the state of equanimity?

When you feel yourself caught in the emotional spin cycle, what helps you find your center?

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  • Dave Hurst

    “Anger and frustration become seeds that thoughts, ideas and words grow from. And, when it’s harvest time, I don’t like what’s there for me to pick”

    … Love this quote. Great post, Jim!

    • Jim Dwyer

      Thank you Dave.

  • Samantha

    I second Dave’s reply above! I strive to recognize those moments in which I find myself upset by intentional tactics employed by opposing counsel or similar superfluous distractions. Giving in to the temptation to react immediately only gives the opposition exactly what they want. When engaging with an attorney that I know gets to me, I’m a firm advocate of drafting a response, then giving it at least 12 hours or running it by co-counsel (or another attorney) before I hit send. After the cooldown period, I frequently find myself backing down, or crafting a reply that elicits a response that solidifies the ridiculousness of their position, while retaining integrity. Although it is easier said than done, acknowledging, ignoring and refocusing are far more powerful than feeding into the types of behavior that arouse emotional reactions that are unlikely to result in the best decision. As always, thanks for the reminder, Jim.

    • Jim Dwyer

      Recognizing when our buttons are being pushed and having an internal system established to deal with it is how we minimize losing our cool. Great work there Samantha.

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