Coping with the hard knocks 101 –tips from a Family Court lawyer

Coping with the hard knocks 101 –tips from a Family Court lawyer

This post is intended to share knowledge that might be useful to you when you next encounter adversity. It’s not advice on the law. It is observations from 12 years of working with people at the darkest times of their lives. I write it in the hope that it might help. If you find it useful please share it.

In my family law practice in particular, I have seen people struggling with things that really have the potential to hurt individuals deeply. The Family Court deals with many of the toughest issues people encounter in their lives, including separation, death of family, family violence, and disputes about the care of children. I have seen the range of reactions and the consequence to a person’s quality of life that a given reaction may bring.

The people that fare the best in bad situations are those that don’t get overwhelmed by difficult emotions, that act pragmatically and are able to keep making good choices towards reasonable goals. People that fare worst are those that fixate on negative feelings and become motivated in their decision making solely by these emotions. Anger is the most problematic and affects many people in the midst of separation from a spouse or partner.

Emotion is one of the mind’s systems that we use to interpret the world. Many of the negative emotional responses we have are part of the body’s survival system. Anxiety is a fight or flight response triggered by hormones released into the body. Fear is an emotional response designed to motivate us to avoid danger. Anger is more complex but evolutionary psychologists consider it a means of the mind to motivate action in competitive situations. The problem is emotional reactions can hamstring us in the modern world. Fear and anxiety are key things that can prevent us achieving our potential; fear of public speaking is the classic example. Anger usually leads to poor and rash decisions that are against our wider interests.

When you are hit with a problem you will have an emotional response; its part of being human. The people that cope best are those that don’t get buried by the emotion that comes with the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you not to feel; I’m telling you to recognise it for what it is. It’s a way that we interpret the world, in some circumstances it is useful but in others it is not.

silhouette of family at the beach

“A good plan for resolution will have the effect of making you feel much better about the problem.”

The other system that we interpret the world through is our higher reasoned thought. These two ways that we process the world are intertwined and each influences the other. A feeling of anger can influence conclusions we draw about a situation. Often when you’re angry about something someone has said, you attribute a malicious intent to the statement maker. Equally rationalising a situation can reduce the anger we feel. Thinking about the wider context might very well lead to the conclusion that a person may have had no malicious intent; they may have simply misspoken.

Why does the effect of a given circumstance vary person to person? Some may suffer terribly in a particular situation whereas others will not. Much is explained by how each person processes the problem and contextualises it. We frame a problem with our narrative. A separation can be the end of the world or a clean slate with the chance to avoid making the same mistakes. The way we look at problems also relates to experience. That first heartbreak was one of the worst feelings right? That is probably because you weren’t equipped for it by your experience.

All of this is actually good news. It means that despite the emotional reaction a problem might trigger, we can work with it, frame it in the right way, lessen its effect and make good decisions. I am not saying it’s easy. In fact, changing the way you think about a problem can be very difficult. Key to being able to do it is recognition that it is possible and within your control. Even if your emotional experience of a problem is overwhelming you can work to get it to a place where it isn’t. Your experience of it will see you better equipped for the next hard knock.

Context is key; make sure you have the problem in perspective. I always like to compare issues I encounter to that of someone in a less fortunate position. Find ways to interpret events in a fashion that allows you to move forward positively. You might say to yourself: lost my job… well at least I have good prospects to find another (whereas many people these days do not) and I will probably be happier taking a new direction.

Developing a gratefulness for the good things in your life will equip you well to think about the wider context of issues and problems. So will an attitude of seeking experience and understanding. An open mind builds the experience that can help us process the world in positive ways.

If you have read what I have set out above and accept it, then it should lead you to another conclusion. The way we feel about a problem can be quite unrelated to finding a solution.

How are decisions best made in tough situations? The answer is by pragmatically separating the way you feel about the problem from finding the solution. After all, the way you feel can and will shift and change. Set realistic and reasonable goals to overcome the problem that is confronting you. Take it in logical steps. Reality check your thinking by consulting with someone that is objective and that you trust. If you need to seek help from a professional that has experience in resolving the issues you are encountering, DO IT. If you can’t afford advice, a Community Law Centre can often help. You might also be eligible for legal aid. Chances are a professional has seen the problem 100 times before. They likely have a solution and the steps to get there.

A good plan for resolution will have the effect of making you feel much better about the problem. Stress, fear, anxiety and anger exist in the mind. If you focus and fixate on a problem as a catastrophe, your anxiety will often simply grow. If you focus on a rational solution, your anxiety will decrease.

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