Can’t Explain Own Professional Behavior

After working almost 20 years at my firm (which specializes in real estate), I have suddenly handled (or failed to handle) a case in a way that I never did before. Essentially, I put off and avoided dealing with this matter (even, at some point, leaving mail unopened) for months. The case was annoying in some ways, but certainly not more difficult than most of my work. Fortunately, with the help of colleagues, no harm was done, but my own behavior confuses me. On all my other cases, I continued to work to my usual (high, if I may say) standards. My anomalous lapse in attention comes at a bad time, when the firm has been tightening its belt and reconfiguring expectations, so I am concerned as to how this episode will affect my future there. In other respects, my life is going really well – my mood is pretty good, my family life is gratifying. Why would I shoot myself in the foot this way?

While the term “acting out” is most often used with regard to more antisocial, impulsive, or overtly destructive behaviors, its essential meaning may apply to your situation – expressing an inner emotional conflict through behavior rather than in other ways (such as talking, writing, or problem-solving).
People in the grip of significant depression or addiction often fail to attend adequately to a range of responsibilities; in your case, however, you addressed your other duties appropriately, and this one stood out as an exception. Likewise, your lapse does not sound like an ADHD-type failure to remain organized or focused. Instead, one clue we hear is your mention about the changes that are afoot at your firm. Perhaps, after all your years there, you are not thrilled with these changes. (So many recent developments at law firms seem to have more to do with business and competitive survival than with fulfillment in the practice of law.) And perhaps there was something about this case that, for you, captured the aspects of your current work life that elicit frustration, anger, or anxiety.
Of course, we could be completely off the mark on reasons why this case may have been significant to you – it could, for example, involve feelings toward the client or another attorney involved in the case – but for the purpose of this column we are highlighting the fact that sometimes our actions express feelings that we would rather not acknowledge consciously, and quite often those actions are counterproductive. Even though you are functioning well, we would still be inclined (if you came for evaluation at LCL) to refer you for a bit of talk therapy, where one of the key goals would be increasing your awareness of your true feelings, wishes, etc. and providing a place where (probably unlike work) it is appropriate to express them. The more that you are aware of the thoughts and emotions that you, like most people, have “running in the background” unnoticed, the better equipped you will be to make good choices for yourself and to avoid ensnaring yourself in traps of your own making.

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