Here’s a letter I received recently. Yes, it’s real, but I’ve removed anything identifiable to protect the sender:
I read your thoughts of the legal profession on Above the Law and thought you neatly summarized my situation. I wish I was the type of person who could expel all the anger but instead I feel my self esteem disintegrating. It’s starting to become apparent to my co-workers (i.e. I cry at work). There’s one other female associate in my office and she’s going through the same thing. My problem is I believe the negative things my bosses tell me. I explained this to my boss (when he asked why we were crying) and promised him I would try to develop better coping skills. How do I make myself not care when he goes off on me?
For better or worse, this letter is typical – I hear a lot of stories like this.
An institute director I used to work with – a grizzled veteran of the therapy trenches – used to tell patients he wished he could make the world a better place, but he couldn’t. He could only better prepare them to deal with the world the way it is.
That’s how I feel about law firms. They can be brutal, and I can’t do much about that. But there are ways to deal.
My advice to this woman is to stop acting like a baby bird.
Allow me to explain.
Under stress, it is natural to regress to a child-like way of relating to the world. That’s because stress makes you feel overwhelmed, which is how young children, who are small and helpless, feel all the time. Feeling small, helpless and overwhelmed takes you back to a time early in your life, and old behaviors can kick in. You can start relating to authority figures like parent figures, focusing on pleasing them and forgetting that you have an adult’s right to judge your own behavior on your own terms, and to fight back and defend yourself.
There’s a good evolutionary reason why children are such natural parent-pleasers. A child evolves to survive by pleasing a parent. That’s because nature can be brutal – and so can parents. It has been shown again and again that, lacking sufficient food, a mother bird will toss a new-born chick out of the nest to die. It happens in most species, and at some level, the parent animal is selecting the child that fails to please for culling.
Baby chicks are warm and fuzzy. Nature is not. When a little bird fails to please its parent, that chick quite rightly panics and blames herself – and frantically tries to please as though its life depended on it.
You don’t have to act like a baby chick. Not at a law firm.
If you fail to please a partner, you don’t have to panic like a child and locate the blame within yourself. That will only make your self-esteem plummet and regress you all the way back to a weeping infant.
That path leads directly to depression.
Awareness of what you’re doing could be enough to snap you out of it. You’re not a child – and that miserable partner isn’t your dad. You’re an adult, and you’re doing your best. You might not always be right – but you probably aren’t always wrong, either. Meanwhile, he sounds like a jerk who doesn’t know how to manage.
Managing means motivating and inspiring an employee. It means finding a way to praise work, and keeping the criticism constructive and upbeat, so your employee always has an attainable goal – a way to do better. That’s what it means to motivate.
Some of you might be ready to write in and say I’m being too soft – that this lawyer is probably doing a bad job and deserves criticism. But even if that were true – and I see no reason to assume it is – this guy still appears to be a terrible manager. You don’t make people cry. Not at the office. That isn’t motivating.
You might also say that this associate is being manipulative and using tears as a way to control her boss. To some degree, that’s probably true. From the sound of things, the partner is abusing his position – and the associate is being inappropriate as well by regressing to a degree that is distracting and unprofessional.
There isn’t much I can do about law partners being poor managers. But if you find yourself in this associate’s position, there are better ways to handle someone like that. For starters, you can snap out of the regression, and act like an adult. This is not an appropriate situation in which to break down in tears. It is a situation in which you could own your right to anger, and take action to help yourself.
You’re not helpless. You are capable of objectively critiquing your own work, and knowing how you’re doing. For most associates at law firms, the problem is that you know, objectively, that you’re doing good work, or at least trying your best – but you’re not receiving the recognition you deserve. That’s typical. The trick is to stop expecting water from a dry well. Law firms are filled with terrible managers who never praise their employees. You have to understand and accept that as a fact of life. You may have to objectively critique yourself – and remind yourself of past achievements – in order to maintain a realistic view of your accomplishments and your abilities. That, sadly, is part of working at a law firm.
You could also stop breaking down emotionally during confrontations with lousy managers. Instead, you could take a time-out to pull yourself together, speak to a partner like this one about his people skills – and maybe get a job with someone less socially autistic.
Fight back. Let that partner push you out of the nest. You’re not a baby bird. You’ll do just fine on your own.
[This piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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