Why do lawyers feel guilty at work?

Wikipedia has a good working definition of guilt. It defines it as a cognitive or an emotional experience, occurring when a person believes or realises – accurately or not – that they have compromised their own standards, or have violated a universal moral standard and bear significant responsibility for that violation.

Basically we feel guilty because our speech, emotions or behaviour is out of whackwith what we expected to do or to say in certain situations.

These feelings of guilt generally start in childhood; for example, the fear of failing to live up to your parents’ expectations. Such feelings can easily continue into adulthood, where they can mingle with the need to meet all sorts of other expectations, such as those of a ‘boss’, clients or even the wider community or society.

How guilt occurs at work

In the working environment, guilt may surface because we promise to do something, to deliver something, or to be somewhere – only to find that this does not happen. Over-promising can easily lead to feeling guilty about failing to deliver on these promises.

Or it may be that you have made a mistake and have the spectre of disciplinary proceedings or professional misconduct, hanging over you.

We often have an idealised version of what our working environment should look like and our role in it. Another example, I know I could have achieved that goal but did not see it through. But perfect lives and careers only exist on social media, so this drive for perfection sets up a pattern for feeling inadequate and guilty.

Self-disappointment is one of the foundations to guilt. Guilt is closely related to the concept of remorse. Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyse us or catalyse us into action. Which route do you take?

Taking action against guilt

Something I personally strive for, and a step I recommend to my clients, is to challenge assumptions that everything we do is needed yesterday. I have stopped automatically inserting an immediate time/date for reply. Instead I take time out to listen to the actualtimescale requirements so that an assertive conversation can take place about what is possible and what is not.

Another way for lawyers to manage guilt is to recognise that problems are part of their working day and a lawyer’s success or happiness should not be measured on the absence of them. Accepting that there are times when you will be double booked or miss an appointment. Apologise and ask what would make amends without assuming that you need to ‘beat yourself up’. On the other hand if this is happening all the time  – then a review of how you are managing your workload may be in order.

It is easy to say that when things don’t go according to plan, take stock and learn from it.  Some thought should be given as to how you want to manage these situations so that you remain effective and not spiral down into negativity or become paralysed by analysis. Guilt can lead to ‘covering up’ mistakes instead of focusing on the solution and preventative measures for the future.

This may mean that you have strategies for managing your behavioural expectations and building your resilience. Resilience can lead to incredible achievement. Most high-profile business leaders have lost businesses as well as built them. For example, Walt Disney had his theme park concept trashed 302 times and Howard Shultz (Starbucks) was turned down by banks 242 times.

Your guilt and its impact on others

Guilt often causes a natural inclination to apportion blame elsewhere, so you don’t feel bad. If this leads you to say something in anger, own it and apologise (once) for the ‘behaviour’ – not for being who you are.  Staying in anger or blame keeps you stuck in damaging behaviour patterns. Say sorry you acted in anger and acknowledge that something you have done has impacted someone else. This way, you can apologise without guilt and you make amends where you can, both to yourself and to the other person.

Then take time out to review the ‘trigger’ for the anger and/or guilt so that you can think, feel and behave differently in the future.

Some final thoughts

It is important to avoid negative feelings by recognising what you can do to release them. This allows you to feel better so that your actions come from this place and not fear.

A quick tip is to feel gratitude – including gratitude for the ‘learning’ experience. If that is a stretch then keep a gratitude diary to record every day activities for which you are grateful– such as a job or parts of a job you enjoy, the sunshine, great colleagues, chocolate (my favourite) etc.

If you want to make lasting change, you must identify the behaviour you wish to change and create a plan of action to make it happen. If this sounds daunting on your own, then coaching may be the answer for you.

I am more than happy to sit down and talk to anyone about the concepts explored in this post and how they can help you in your daily life. If you would like to discuss this please contact me: ann@yorkshirecoursesforlawyers.co.ukor telephone me; 07921540039

YCFL delivers strategic coaching, leadership, management and interpersonal skills training for the legal profession. Since 2003 Ann has trained nearly 7000 lawyers in leadership, management and interpersonal skills. Ann has also trained with the Coaching Academy and holds a H.N.L.P. certificate in coaching as well as being an N.L.P. Master Practitioner. She is a member of the Professional Speaking Association and Professional Speaking Academy.