Vicarious trauma comes from being traumatized through hearing the stories of others. For example, a lawyer who is working with people who were present at 9/11 might hear so many brutal stories of that day that they feel as if they experienced the same thing as the client, therefore also becoming traumatized.
Because of possible vicarious trauma, family lawyers need to set healthy boundaries, while also remaining empathetic. It can be difficult to keep that balance. A family lawyer must remain distanced enough so that they don’t traumatize themselves, while listening empathetically.
A family law practice is not for everyone. Practicing attorneys play a crucial role in assisting clients getting back on their feet and moving into life again feeling more grounded and focused than before. As discussed earlier when an attorney is triggered because of a client’s actions that may be driven by some recent or past traumatic event in their life, mindfulness can help the attorney maintain that balance. Mindfulness is not used here as some catch all phrase imagining it will solve all problems. More specifically, when an attorney and/or her client go the balcony to observe the situation, they can draw strength and guidance by detaching from the situation and gaining a greater awareness from afar. This is a mindfulness practice, taught to executives who are dealing with conflict situations all day. In the family law arena, we assist our clients by suggesting that by observing the conflict and your reactions to it, there lies the possibility that you can reduce the charge it has over you.
For counsel and her client, reducing reactivity in the present, increases the possibility that a client may realize they have a lot more resources at hand to deal with what may have seen like an intractable issue. As in the case of the two brothers who were in a paper mill business in Louisiana, and one brother was continually, yet unintendedly making fun of his younger brother. When we began working with the brothers it seemed like everyone’s desire was to work things out between the brothers so they can join back together in running the mill. However, the more we were able calm the level of reactivity amongst the brothers, they both were able to realize that maybe it was better to split up the ownership. It was not the outcome they thought they wanted at the beginning of the process, but it was the outcome that seemed appropriate given their individual development cycle.
How Do You Work To Ensure That Your Emotional And Physical Limits Aren’t Exceeded In These Cases?
I have to remind myself that the service I provide to my clients has a sense of purpose and mission that is greater than myself. It is paramount that I take care of my clients’ welfare. In doing so, I must also practice self-care.
Epigenetics is the notion that one recognizes that they have past trauma. For instance, one might have suffered a loss in the family as a child. If it isn’t recognized and healed that sense of loss and suffering then could become generational. By healing the hurt, we can shift the genetic make-up so that the trauma is not passed down through generations.
Epigenetics is linked to an area of neuropsychology called neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity suggests that through language and behaviors, we can begin to establish new patterns in the brain to create new ways of being. Being aware of epigenetics and neuroplasticity will help a lawyer become a better coach for their clients.
I know you are saying what has any of this to do with family law. It is actually at the heart of it. An effective family law outcome whether through settlement or court ordered, is aimed at having a clean slate for the parties to start a new life from. Family lawyers will be the first to tell you if you keep doing the same things repeatedly you will likely get the same results. Meaning all clients have an opportunity for transformation and real personal growth/development if they see it and take it. Without having some guidance and awareness about how past abuse or harm could repeat itself causing future harm, a client and counsel might be not only dealing with a difficult opposing client, but a difficult client as well. Our job is to reduce the fears, tension, stress surrounding our client representation.
Why Is It Just As Important That The Attorney Take Care Of Him Or Herself When Working On These Difficult Cases?
We see how rapidly things change in our society, how technology changes, how medicine changes, how law changes, and how relationships change. The more equipped an attorney is to take care of himself, the better he can support his clients. Attorneys are encouraged to learn some self-reflection techniques so they can check in with their own reactions to a client’s story. The balcony metaphor works especially well for attorneys who are struggling with a difficult client. Observe what is reacting inside you to their behavior, language, story. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to observe without judgment what arises for you. Whatever it might be don’t ignore it. Pay careful attention as this may become a great teacher and guide for you as you move forward with this and future clients. However, most important is your-self care and you as counsel’s capacity to reduce your own reactivity and be even more effective in dealing with challenging client matters.
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