Much has been written about “the lawyer personality” and “the lawyer mind” – about how they’re more analytical, more introverted than the general population. Here’s one quality of many attorneys that’s a real double-edged sword. “Locus of control” (LOC) refers to our basic belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control) or on events outside our influence (external control).
At one of end of the spectrum, individuals with a strong external locus of control orientation believe that their experience is due to fate, luck, or other external circumstances, while individuals with a strong internal LOC orientation believe that their experience is a result of their personal efforts. High-achievers in any field, including high-achieving lawyers, almost always have a very strong internal LOC. But that often comes with a cost. While a strong internal LOC is a key factor in the success of high-achievers, it can lead to feelings of excessive inadequacy or guilt when things don’t turn out well – even when the outcome was not actually in the person’s power to control (or control completely).
It can be hard to recognize this internal dynamic because a high internal locus of control is one of the main sources of your confidence. It beckons you to take on challenges optimistically. It helps you handle high stress situations. But when you don’t succeed at something you’ve been striving for, there’s a tendency to feel deeply responsible for the “failure.” And I’m not talking about the sting (whether minor or severe) of losing a trial or losing a deal. I’m talking about the nagging self-criticism that robs you of equanimity for days or even weeks at time. Indeed, some attorneys live in a persistent state of self-disappointment because there are always things that “go wrong” and they feel they’re somehow at fault even if they intellectually understand they weren’t.
So what to do? The key is to recognize the fundamental dynamic: that your confidence, your eagerness to take on challenges – your high internal locus of control – can sucker-punch you when faced with a negative outcome. With that flash of recognition, you can pause and assess how the dynamic might be in play right in that exact moment. Consider – again, right in that exact moment – what you might say to your best friend if they were weighed down by a disproportionate burden of self-imposed responsibility for something they could not control. It takes practice to learn how to let go of self-disappointment. But it can be done. As always, awareness is the first step.