Don’t Ignore Your Check Engine Light, How to Use Emotions as Information

Article by Francie Kilborne

Article by Francie Kilborne

The law is reason, free from passion --Aristotle

For centuries, lawyers and judges have posited that logic is supreme and emotion has no place in the legal world. The image of blind justice – shutting out all input except the relative weight of each side’s logical argument – epitomizes our profession’s discomfort with and disdain for emotions. Whether or not you believe that emotion has a role in legal decision-making, there is no denying that human beings are emotional beings, and, jokes notwithstanding, all lawyers are human. If A = B and C = A, then B must also = A. That means that lawyers are emotional beings. The Horror!

How do we deal with these pesky emotions that we seem to be saddled with? We can do what my son did when the check engine light went on in his car: ignore them and hope they go away. Indeed, that’s what many of us are taught. Pretend that emotions don’t exist or at the very least, that they don’t matter. Even purportedly “progressive” or “enlightened” people seem to think that you can meditate away your anger or sadness. Mindfulness practices are powerful tools, but swallowing your feelings and putting on a happy face isn’t a good long-term solution for dealing with difficult emotions. It’s like putting tape over that check engine light and hoping you’re your car will fix itself.

If you ignore or suppress your emotions, what happens? Consider this scenario: someone at your office, we’ll call him Bill, repeatedly tries to take credit for your ideas and work product. You want to be seen as a “team player” though, so you don’t say anything. Bills keeps doing it. Then, one day, after Bill has just taken credit for something you put many hours into, your 4- year-old knocks over her milk and spills it all over the floor. What happens? You explode and yell at your daughter. And then you feel terrible for exploding, thus reinforcing the idea that anger is bad and should be repressed at all costs. But ignoring your emotions never makes them go away. They resurface, sometimes misdirected at the wrong people, sometimes as depression, and sometimes as physical illness.

And the alternative? What would happen if you vent your anger, yelling at Bill when he takes credit for your work? If others are present, you end up looking like an out-of-control toddler. Other time-honored tactics for dealing with anger at the office are sarcasm and back-biting. These approaches might make you feel better in the short term, but over time will do nothing to solve the underlying problem and will erode others’ trust in you.

So what’s the answer? If it’s bad to suppress emotions and equally bad to vent them, how are we supposed to handle them? Are they just a curse that we have to suffer with for our entire lives? Or is it possible that they serve some purpose?

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Lindsey Oh