Anger May Help Lawyers Win in Court, but Not at Home
Posted Jul 22 2008 8:11pm
by Steven Stosny (Published in the Legal Times, 5-19-97)
Among professionals, attorneys may be the most susceptible to anger and resentment problems that lead to diminished performance on the job, greatly increased risks to health and psychological well-being, and ultimately, to unhappiness at home.
Virtually all my non-court-ordered clients with anger problems are attorneys whose continual irritability has disrupted their lives, including a few judges who fear that their anger at attorneys will unfairly influence their rulings.
The high rates of divorce, domestic violence, and alcoholism among attorneys are indications of this susceptibility that may have more to do with habits of motivation and concentration than with the stress of the job.
The practice of law requires diligent attention to a great many details that are not inherently interesting. To sustain intense focus and adequate energy levels in the absence of interest/excitement, the brain often taps into its most accessible reserve of energy, one of the more than a dozen forms of anger/resentment.
In reviewing a dull document, for instance, the brain might look for something to get peeved at, which provides the energy and focus necessary to complete the task. The brain must find provocation, however obscure, for a dominant-submissive response that evokes fear of defeat, failure, or humiliation (or fantasies of victory and dominance) to get its jolt of focusing energy.
This innocent use of anger as motivation does nothing less than put the sense of self at stake even in the most mundane tasks. Repeated over time, the entire personality shifts to a defensive adjustment. Even trivial disappointments seem like failure and rejection when consumed in a joyless drive and surrounded by a moat of irritability.
Because it acts on the entire central nervous system as an amphetamine, anger arousal always ends in a physiological “crash,” often experienced as depression when the issues stimulating the anger remain unresolved. Think about it. The last time you got angry, you got depressed afterwards. The angrier you got, the more depressed you got. And that is merely the physiological response, even if you kept from doing something while angry that you were ashamed of, like hurting the feelings of someone you love.
To escape the pain of depression, the brain will look for excuses to get angry. Thus, anger springs a terrible addictive trap by providing immediate relief from the depressed mood that it eventually worsens.
Anyone can become an anger junkie, using some form of anger for:
o Energy/motivation. You can’t get going or keep going without some anger or irritation. o Confidence, a stronger sense of self, you only feel certain when you’re criticizing someone or angry with someone. o Anxiety reduction. Anger makes you feel more at ease, especially in new or uncertain situations. o Relief of depression. You tend to need a morning jolt of anger.
The addicted brain compulsively justifies the anger it craves, ignoring all contrary evidence in the process. Thus, judgment and reasoning are greatly impaired during anger arousal. Failure to comprehend most relevant possibilities that justify anger. That’s why people justifying their anger can sound like alcoholics claiming that they drink for the unique nutritional value of booze.
Regardless of personal levels of intelligence, during anger arousal, we perform generally as if we have a learning disability. Laboratory experiments have shown that even subtle forms of anger impair problem solving and general performances.
In addition to increasing error rates, anger narrows and rigidifies mental focus, obscuring alternative perspectives. The angry person has one “right way” of doing things, which, if selected in anger, is seldom the best way.
With the lone exception of hurting someone, there is nothing you can do angry–or resentful, irritable, grouchy, impatient, or chilly–that you can’t do better not angry.
The effects of anger on health have more to do with duration than with frequency and intensity. The normal experiences of overt anger lasts only a few minutes. But the subtle forms of anger–resentment, impatience, annoyance, irritability, grouchiness, and “attitude”–can go on for days at a time. The effects of anger on health have more to do with duration than with frequency and intensity. The normal experiences of overt anger lasts only a few minutes. But the subtle forms of anger–resentment, impatience, annoyance, irritability, grouchiness, and “attitude”–can go on for days at a time. A person with continual episodes of anger has a five-time greater chance of dying before age 50. Anger elevates blood pressure, increases threat of stroke, heart disease, cancer, depression, and anxiety disorders, and in general, depresses the immune system (angry people have lots of little aches and pains or get frequent colds and bouts of flu, headaches, or upset stomachs.)
To make matters worse, angry and resentful people tend to seek relief from their ill moods through other health-endangering habits, such as smoking and drinking, or through compulsive behavior such as workaholism and perfectionism.
A person with continual episodes of anger has a five-time greater chance of dying before age 50. Anger elevates blood pressure, increases threat of stroke, heart disease, cancer, depression, and anxiety disorders, and in general, depresses the immune system (angry people have lots of little aches and pains or get frequent colds and bouts of flu, headaches, or upset stomachs.) To make matters worse, angry and resentful people tend to seek relief from their ill moods through other health-endangering habits, such as smoking and drinking, or through compulsive behavior such as workaholism and perfectionism.
According to Professor Arthur Miller of Harvard University Law School, good attorneys make opposing arguments seem like rank obscenities. This might be sound strategy in the courtroom—it may also explain why my clients who are judges see lawyers as impediments to their work—but it creates disaster in attachment relationships.
The formula for success in love relationships is quite the opposite: Validating the perspective of loved ones must precede disagreement. In fact, disagreement is not nearly as important as validation of emotions. People get the angriest, which means the most hurt, not about getting their own way, but when they feel misunderstood or disregarded by loved ones.
If adversarial skills work at all in the home they must be applied first to the building the case of loved ones, then fairly and compassionately comparing it to your own.
Winning is a goal for the courtroom, but in families, it causes only resentment, covert hostility, and intimacy barriers. Virtually every sexual problem I have ever seen in couples has its roots in resentment. When one person in a family wins, everybody loses.
A common myth about anger problems is that they only involve hurting someone or destroying property. But this is only one of dozens of kinds of anger problems. You have an anger problem if some subtle form of anger/resentment—that you might not even be aware of—makes you do something that is not in your best interest or keeps you from doing what is in your best interest. This could be simply putting a chilly wall between you and your loved ones, or a continual impatience that keeps you from noticing the compassion of others.
Practitioners most vulnerable to anger/resentment problems are the most actively adversarial, in general, trial lawyers.
Next are those faced with job insecurity on top of highly stressful work conditions: associates in general and partners in struggling firms. Lawyers with poor social supports and family problems and those who must fight invisible barriers of sexism and racism are also highly vulnerable.
To assess your risk of developing an anger/resentment problem, ask yourself: “Do my emotional responses seem like the fault of someone else? Does it seem that other people are trying to ‘push my buttons?’ Is the first thing that occurs to me when a problem arises ‘Who’s to blame?’ or ‘How do I get even?’”