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Lawyers overreacting: 'My life is over'.

When Judge Hazard declared a mistrial for the wayward examination of a witness, Fred's thoughts immediately turned to doomsday. The perceived enormity of an inimical world hit him right in the viscera, and Fred frantically searched every panic button on his considerable emotional panel until he found the big button labeled "Catastrophic Response Mechanism."

The CRM was not an unfamiliar button in Fred's response repertory. Every time he tripped it, he felt a powerful urge to rush headlong for the nearest bunker. Licking his wounds and wishing he had opened a bagel shop, he limped back to his office, all the while solidifying the conviction that the case was lost, his practice would crumble and life on earth as he knew it would end.

The "my-life-is-over" perception occurs in many forms and in response to stimuli of varying portents. Fortunately, it carries truth only in those rare instances when one's feet are stuck in cement and the bird's-eye view provides a clear image of the truck bearing down. But, Fred had nothing more than the judge's gavel ringing in his ears -- hardly a death knell.


Significantly adverse events may well elicit feelings and perceptions that fate has tested us beyond our resources, but we only compound such feelings when we indulge in overreaction.

Overreaction always involves an intense emotional response to a precipitant lacking sufficiently objective threat to produce the response.

The response exists more in the antenna and the innards of the responder than in the merits of the situation. It's typically time-limited and passes as the energy for the response itself is diminished through howling, screaming, kicking, sobbing with peers, rending one's garments, or various more private self-assignations.

We all know character types who are inclined to push the limits of affect until every drop of emotional juice is squeezed from every circumstance. Sometimes, the gyrations of the overreacter even provide amusing theater -- at least in telling the story post facto.

Of course, normal psyches tend to feel some degree or moment of helplessness in situations in which we are being acted upon rather than being agents that guide, direct or at least influence the unfolding of fate. Hospitals, for example, are correct in defining a customer as a "patient" (i.e., someone passively affected). The reality of illness or accident diminishes the sense of self-direction, and we place ourselves in the hands of others with presumed expertise for making us well.

Not infrequently, clients of attorneys also experience "patientitis," initially with their presenting problem and sometimes when they get the bill. It's easy enough to identify the overreaction in the behavior of clients who bring us their problems (or in their responses to receiving our bills).

It is more difficult to recognize the flipping-out we may do as receivers of bad news.

The constitution provides every citizen with the right to overreact on rare occasions and preferably in some quiet corner of the universe in which we do' not inflict ourselves on innocent bystanders. Every instance of overreaction tolls an emotional cost, but the problem with overreacting involves the temptation to habit: Habitual overreacters become victims of their own making. Flailing themselves with their own misguided feelings, self-victims require an ever larger stage to act out the perceived wrongs administered by an increasingly unfriendly universe.


Touchy-feely shrinks have done a disservice to the public in promoting the notion that every noxious feeling needs to be attended to, catalogued, worked through, empathized with and given ample opportunity for public display. So sad.

Healthy people make quick and judicious assessments of their emotional needs and frequently decide to avoid the path of indulging rotten feelings. Some emotions are better dealt with quickly and set aside without harm to anyone, including oneself, but particularly one's audience.

Emotional discipline counts as much as every other form of discipline in forming and reforming character. Both victimizers and overreactors live by the self-fulfilling prophecy: They expect the worst, and their expectations make it happen. They find themselves buffeted like windblown kites with the lines caught in a tree.

When things go wrong, do our thoughts turn toward solutions or do they rush to indulge the "woe is me phenomenon? Successful management requires a series of self-guided steps.

1) Identify the noxious event as clearly as possible without tilting reality one way or another.

2) Allow the feelings, but examine them--with acceptance, ownership, and the recognition that bad times come and go as predictably as the good times.

3) Consult a tough friend about any sense of lingering woe. Expect to get pounded for your lingering woe. Thank your friend.

4) Develop various plans for addressing the problem.

5) Revisit the emotional aspects again after possible solutions have been thoroughly considered.

6) Rejoice that it's seldom as bad as it first appeared, and save that thought for future reference.

7) Congratulate yourself that you've saved your psyche the wear and tear of a debilitating and unnecessary emotional grind. Also, take solace that it hasn't killed you, so it's probably made you stronger.

Dr. Bernard G. Suran, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and diplomat and fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and the American Board of Professional Psychology.
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Author:Suran, Dr. Bernard G.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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