Unveiling Implicit Bias and Overcoming Burnout: A Journey of Self-Discovery for Family Lawyers

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Implicit bias is a psychological concept that refers to the unconscious prejudices and stereotypes we develop without being consciously aware of them. It is a natural aspect of human nature, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.

Many family lawyers may adamantly assert that they are not biased, but the truth is that biases form as a result of our education, experiences, cultural background, and historical influences. Our minds naturally develop biases over time, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Interestingly, even highly intelligent individuals are not exempt from having implicit biases.

Within the legal realm, various studies have highlighted implicit bias in areas such as:

  • Hiring, promotions, pay, and assigning responsibilities, which can be influenced by factors such as gender, race, religion, appearance, age, disability, and sexual orientation.
  • Jury selection.
  • Client representation.
  • Professional relationships.

Our minds are like icebergs: our conscious awareness [is] the 10% above the surface of the water, and our unconscious [is] the 90% of the iceberg beneath the surface.

According to scientific understanding, our minds can be likened to icebergs, where only about 10% of our thoughts and awareness are visible (conscious mind), while the remaining 90% lies beneath the surface (unconscious mind). The unconscious part of our mind is not within our immediate awareness, making it harder to detect.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed by psychologist Tony Greenwald, Ph.D., has been instrumental in revealing the existence of implicit bias. It sheds light on how our perceptions of “good/bad,” “right/wrong,” and “like/dislike” are influenced by implicit bias, which affects everyone.

As we become more cognizant of the vastness of our unconscious mind, we gain awareness of how it indirectly impacts our conscious thoughts. When there is a conflict between our conscious and unconscious minds, it can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and eventually, burnout. For instance, if we consciously desire success but subconsciously believe we don’t deserve it, we may experience stress and internal conflict.

Being aware of these unconscious influences is crucial, especially for family lawyers dealing with complex cases and clients. Understanding and managing implicit biases can promote healthier mental well-being and lead to more equitable and empathetic legal practice.

What does this have to do with attorney burnout?

In my experience coaching individuals who are grappling with burnout, stress, anxiety, or depression, I often discover that there are underlying unconscious traumas, beliefs, decisions, emotions, or thoughts that clash with their aspirations, work, expectations, and dreams. Simply relying on willpower and determination tends to exacerbate these conflicts.

It’s akin to being trapped in quicksand, where gripping tightly and tensing up only intensify the struggle with hidden obstacles, making it more challenging and even perilous. Clients often describe this effect metaphorically as driving a car with one foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal and the other on the brake pedal.

This situation leaves them feeling like their wheels are spinning without making any progress, creating a sense of being stuck and unable to move forward.

5 Steps to Discovering Your Implicit Bias

Exploring and discovering implicit bias is essential for personal growth and creating a more inclusive mindset. Here are five ways to uncover implicit bias:

  1. Chart of Personal Likes and Dislikes: Create a chart listing things you like and dislike. Analyze how you make decisions about which column to place each item; these choices might be influenced by implicit bias.
  2. Questioning Beliefs: Make a list of your beliefs and then introspectively ask yourself why you hold those beliefs. Reflect on when you decided they were true and consider alternative perspectives.
  3. Identifying Negative Emotions: List the negative emotions you experience daily and analyze the thoughts that triggered those emotions. These thoughts could be the conscious expression of implicit biases.
  4. Resistance to Change: When contemplating aspects of your life you dislike, identify the beliefs that would need to change to improve the situation. Resistance to changing these beliefs may stem from implicit bias.
  5. Assessing Life Goals: Evaluate your life goals and consider if they are influenced by implicit bias. Even widely recognized theories like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have elements of implicit bias.

By actively exploring and acknowledging implicit bias, we can better understand ourselves and create a more compassionate and unbiased approach to our thoughts and actions.

The neuroscience of implicit bias validates the significant impact of the unconscious mind on our conscious experience of reality. Consequently, the notion that healing or releasing unconscious negative memories, decisions, beliefs, and traumas can genuinely enhance one’s overall experience holds true.

Family Lawyers: 10 Common Unconscious Biases

In the realm of family law, I frequently encounter these common hidden unconscious biases (decisions) among lawyers:

  1. Feeling like a fraud.
  2. Believing they don’t deserve success.
  3. Identifying as a victim.
  4. Viewing work/life as inherently challenging.
  5. Assuming that success requires immense sacrifice and hard work.
  6. Holding the belief that relationships are inherently painful.
  7. Believing that achieving the highest levels of success are reserved for others, not themselves.
  8. Attributing other people’s success to luck, discounting their own abilities.
  9. Struggling with feelings of inadequacy, thinking they are not good enough.
  10. Experiencing shame.

When you tell yourself these statements, observe your body’s reaction to each one. Does it feel like the truth, or does it seem like a lie? The challenge is that your conscious mind may not accurately identify these biases. The effects of these unconscious biases often manifest through your behavior, physical symptoms, and emotional responses.

By paying attention to how these hidden biases impact your life, behavior, and overall well-being, you can gain insight into their influence on your conscious experience. Addressing these biases and exploring their origins can lead to personal growth, improved mental health, and a more authentic and fulfilling life.

When Implicit Bias Conflicts with Conscious Desire

Experiencing symptoms of stress, such as mental and physical exhaustion, declining performance, and negative emotions like blame, shame, guilt, or despair, may indicate the presence of implicit biases that conflict with your conscious desires.

Another way to detect implicit bias is by examining how you perceive the world. Your outer reality often reflects your inner thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. In essence, you tend to notice what you are looking for, seeking evidence to validate your existing beliefs.

For instance, if you believe you are not good enough, you will focus on instances that seemingly support this belief, even if it is not true. This unconscious bias may lead you to gravitate towards people who reinforce this negative self-perception.

Becoming aware of our implicit biases empowers us to make deliberate choices for change. Until we gain awareness, we are akin to puppets controlled by these biases, unaware of their influence over our thoughts and actions. With proper coaching and training of the unconscious mind, change becomes feasible.

The key lies in identifying your implicit biases, as this awareness sets the stage for personal growth and positive transformation. By addressing these biases, family lawyers can improve their well-being, enhance their practice, and cultivate a more authentic and fulfilling life.

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