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Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

Dealing with Difficult Personalities ~ By Sarah Myers

In the practice of law, there are many circumstances that increase the possibility we will encounter difficult personalities, particularly when the adversarial process is a prized component of the profession. When we work or live with individuals who exhibit negative traits, such as aggression, being a know-it-all, compulsive talking, the need to be the center of attention, co-dependency, or shaming, it can take a toll on our emotional, mental, and even physical well-being. Understanding the origins of these behaviors can help us respond in ways that improve healthy communication with others who might exhibit these traits while preserving our own sanity in the process.

We all grew up in environments where certain emotions were allowed to be expressed and certain emotions were not. In some households, for example, a child was encouraged to speak proudly about his or her accomplishments, while in others, sharing accomplishments was a punishable offense. Depending on our upbringing, we learned and practiced certain methods of communication and expression that we continue into adulthood. One such method common among many judges and lawyers is perfectionism.

The practice of law is a highly detail-oriented profession, and that lends itself to the need for perfectionism. Research shows that perfectionism interferes with successful relationships and personal well-being. A 2015 study by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that attorneys in the U.S. have significantly higher rates of problematic drinking and mental health problems than the general public. The statistics aren’t surprising, considering the amount of stress that attorneys are under, or that they impose on themselves as a result of their perfectionistic tendencies.

Perfectionism is an attempt to control the world around us and within us, which is essentially an exercise in futility. It takes courage to accept the imperfect world that we live in and the imperfect people in it. When the unpredictability of the imperfection frightens us, or we believe that things have to be a certain way in order for us to be happy or content, we might try certain tactics to make us feel better, such as being highly critical of others, overreacting to situations, making sure everything in the environment is spotless, or obsessing over every little “mistake.”

If someone has been practicing a certain mindset, such as perfectionism, for years, it becomes an addiction. Thankfully, addictions to emotions or personality traits can change. This takes mindfulness, awareness and discipline. Sometimes outside assistance from friends, family, therapists or other mental health professionals is needed. Sadly, the very nature of such behaviors and ways of thinking often prevent the individuals who could benefit from mental health assistance from getting it. In the meantime, what can we do when we have to deal and cope with these individuals and their behavioral addictions that negatively impact us on a daily basis?

The first step is to recognize that this individual is essentially paralyzed emotionally and behaviorally in a perpetual child-like state. Examine their reaction to a situation as if that person were a child or adolescent. Adults, especially those who have traumatic or compromised pasts, such as being emotionally neglected as children, are simply children in bigger bodies. Dramatic, melodramatic and passive-aggressive expressions of emotion are childlike traits. If an adult is exhibiting these traits, or experiencing negative, neurotic thoughts on a regular basis, they are stuck in the past.

In certain contexts, these traits are rewarded by our society. Narcissists, for example, are so self-absorbed that they lack empathy for others around them and can become angry if they are not the center of attention or do not receive enough adulation or praise. These traits, by definition, make them narcissists but also allow them to control companies, a courtroom, a law firm, a legislature, a country, the military or even the stock market. If we reward difficult personality traits, or willfully ignore them and therefore enable them, there is hardly an incentive for these individuals to change. The second step thus involves changing our own reactions to their behavioral addictions.

Oftentimes, naming “the elephant in the room” is a helpful way to deal with awkward situations when a person is exhibiting difficult personality traits. However, we obviously can’t tell opposing counsel or a senior partner at the firm, “You are reacting to this the way a three-year-old throwing a temper tantrum would.” The difficulty in the legal profession is that we can logistically or perceptually become trapped by the threat of retaliation if we speak honestly with those who are exhibiting difficult personality traits. It takes an immense amount of courage to respond to the situation maturely, regardless of how the other person is behaving. This is the essence of not taking something personally.

The third step is to take a deep breath and take a literal or metaphorical step back from the interaction and, if possible, physically remove yourself from the situation, even if you have to cite the excuse of looking for more coffee. Hopefully, upon your return, the individual will be in a slightly different mood, or has been distracted by something else, and you will be “out of the line of fire” and able to continue a professional conversation with that individual. The worst thing you can do is “poke the bear.” Sinking to their level and getting your nervous system activated (with fight/flight/freeze/faint responses) will only make things worse. Stay calm and speak your mind as clearly as you can without blaming, criticizing, judging, belittling or attacking the other person. Just because they are acting like a child doesn’t mean you have to join them in their sandbox mentality. D

Sarah Myers, JD, LMFT, LAC is the clinical director for the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP). COLAP provides free and confidential services for judges, lawyers and law students. If you need resources for ANY issue that is compromising your ability to be a productive member of the legal community (including your personal relationships), or if there is someone you are concerned about, contact COLAP at 303-986-3345. For more information about COLAP, visit coloradolap.org.

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