HELEN CONWAY

SUPERVISOR - COACH - TRAINER

compartmentalised figures

Is compartmentalising stress the best strategy for lawyers?

This week I heard a retired Judge speak to a non-legal audience about the challenges of doing High Court cases. * The audience was treated to just fifty minutes of well-told stories about children forced to deal in drugs for the County Lines gangs, children trafficked from the Philippines, vulnerable women from India enticed into surrogacy arrangements they later regretted.  When questions were invited, the very first one was, “Are Judges given therapy to deal with all of this?”

That’s a question I am asked often, but the speaker’s answer was different to my stock reply of “No, but they should be.” Rather the speaker said, “No. Judges don’t get therapy. You go home and you compartmentalise.”

It struck me that there were two ways to interpret that response. Did they mean that compartmentalisation is the alternative to therapy, a skill that you learn as an experienced practitioner to enable you to deal with horrific stories day in, day out. Having that skill negates the need for therapy. Or, were they saying, compartmentalisation is the effect of not having therapy. It’s the psychological state you are left with in a system that doesn’t provide the support the wider society immediately recognises that Judges (and I would say practitioners)  should have. 

What is compartmentalisation?

(A) Putting things in boxes

Compartmentalisation as a psychological concept can work on two levels. The first is about putting things in boxes. Each area of life has its own space. When you are at home you think about home when you are at work you think about work. Like having a desk with separate in-trays for bills, kids’ schooling, work documents and so forth, this level of compartmentalisation is about clear boundaries and the firm allocation of time and attention. It prevents non-stop worry and allows for some balancing joy and recovery.

However – and this is the kicker – it only works if the box you have for work is capacious enough for what you put in it. If we spend our careers filling it with more and more and yet more and never actually dealing with any of the stress and distress, it will over-flow. Compartmentalisation is not about depositing the stress and toxic material into a vault, never to be opened again. That’s repression which medical research shows endangers our physical and emotional health.

Compartmentalisation is about delaying the processing of the stress until an appropriate time, maybe through self-help methods like journaling or by processing experiences with a therapist or coach or supervisor. When it overflows you get intrusive thoughts, thoughts that breach those boundaries and interrupt your leisure and sleep. Intrusive thoughts are a recognised symptom of anxiety, depression and PTSD, all of which can be caused or made worse by workplace experiences. 

(b) The defence against cognitive dissonance

Compartmentalisation on the second level is the technical term for a ‘psychological defence mechanism’ against ‘cognitive dissonance’. That in turn is the mental pain we feel when we experience a clash of values or beliefs within ourselves. It’s what happens when we are asked to do things within our job that don’t feel right to our values. For example, a Judge may feel that the lack of legal aid requires them to preside over a fundamentally unfair trial putting a litigant in person at a real disadvantage. Sometimes it is a clash between what they must do at work and what they do outside of work. Perhaps they have a talent that is an innate part of their self-expression that clashes with the job – say a Judge is a talented musician and to further his success wishes to advertise that they will be playing jazz at a particular club at a particular time and that draws criticism about his revealing his personal life on the internet and about his personal security.

Is compartmentalisation a good strategy?

It can be argued that we all have to compartmentalise to some extent and it’s the sleight of mind that keeps us sane. The problem is, it’s only a temporary solution and actually goes against the natural human instinct to become whole and integrated. 

Dr Cecile Rozule wrote a lengthy but well worth reading paper for the Journal of Business Ethics about  what she terms the ‘moral threat’ of compartmentalisation.  Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:

Compartmentalisation is a fact of life, especially when it comes to separating our professional actions from our personal aspirations.   We generally argue that we do not have a choice but to do what we personally condemn, that business or workplace forces us to change our values, that psychological fragmentation ultimately keeps us sane and enables us to enjoy life in spite of our uneasiness at work. In brief, we survive because we compartmentalise… this picture fails to consider the moral implications of compartmentalisation. [it] limits our ability to connect to our values to be moral agents and to act with moral courage and moral integrity.

Jung argues that the ultimate purpose of a human life is to achieve individuation, a state of complete transcendence of our dualities and full manifestation of our individuality. In order to achieve individuation, one must embark on a quest for self-knowledge, confronting self-deceptions and accepting the burden of our short comings. Compartmentalisation prevents self-knowledge by allowing fragmentation of the individual, depriving us from the most important source of moral strength we possess; the self, our self. Embracing wholeness and seeking integrity by refusing to yield to the compartmentalisation temptation is beneficial to both the individual and society at large.’

It maybe that for some the first level of compartmentalisation is all that is going on. If there are no internal value and ethical clashes and the ‘box’ of stress is emptied by one means or another then the tactic might be sufficient. (I found two things of note when listening to the conference speaker. One is that many of the cases they spoke about seemed to have clear moral imperatives. Once the facts were established, no one would doubt the right course of action. In fact, they commented that they felt their stress was more about the pressure of delay and lack of resources to do the job. For other Judges they may find the more everyday conflicts they deal with actually throw up greyer areas and that their dilemmas are more morally challenging. Secondly, I know this Judge to have strong personal faith and as such they may – and I raise this as a supposition only, having never asked them the question – find that their faith practice is a strong mechanism for allowing them space to empty their box of stress on a regular basis.)

However, for other Judges and practitioners, compartmentalisation is not sufficient. If they are not supported to process what is in the compartment then the box will eventually fall apart and the stress and distress will flood out. Or if the individual is in a job that is actually misaligned with their fundamental nature, eventually the weight of holding up a mask at work becomes too much and real psychological distress happens. Real question are raised about what life is about and whether a shift to a different career or a different role within law is what is required. 

What then? Therapy, supervision, coaching, guidance from a spiritual advisor…however we find it, support is necessary if lawyers dealing with toxic material are to stay well. Non-lawyers can see that clearly after just fifty minutes of hearing about the job. They see no shame, no weakness in that, just an obvious human need. To do our job well we need to see what they can see, that sometimes we are simply asked to carry a burden that is too heavy for one person but that by asking another to take the handles of our bag and to walk with us a while, the burden between us, open to examination, we can continue to bear the load. 

*The speaker expressed personal views only and did not speak officially on behalf of the judiciary.