Many firms are brimming with hatred and all its manifestations: rage, gossip, sabotage, contempt, yelling and abuse of power. But understanding the origins of hatred can free lawyers from its toxic power.
A story from my own experience may help. Within months of graduating from college with my bright and shiny bachelor’s degree in psychology, I accepted my first job in my chosen field: a therapist technician on the adolescent ward at a state psychiatric hospital. I saw myself as surrounded by giants who knew more than I did, and I saw how poorly my years of education had prepared me for the task at hand.
I had no way of knowing that, as a fresh-faced young college grad, I posed a threat to the older staff who possessed no formal credentials but were highly experienced at working with the troublesome, often dangerous patients. If I’d had even a small amount of common sense and humility, I would have sought to learn from them. That would have eased my entrance into the professional world and neutralized the threat they felt to their livelihoods.
Instead, I turned a blind ear and eye to my immediate supervisor. Worse, he had heard through the grapevine that I was being groomed to take over his job. I had no desire to do that, as I viewed the position as a dead-end job. I had my eyes on graduate school and a professional life beyond it. But I did nothing to allay his fears, so immersed was I in my own.
Thus, over a period of two short years, he and I came to hate one another. I hated him with a blind, white passion. He represented all that I, a baby boomer in my early 20s, had been rebelling against with righteous, condescending passion since my early teenage years. He was country; I was city. He had no formal education; I had put myself through a private, liberal arts college. I was young; he was late middle aged. He was heavy; I was lean. He was everything I hoped never to be. To him, I was young, over-educated, clueless and dangerous.
Still struggling with my own adolescent issues, it was no wonder I wound up working with youth in a psychiatric hospital. Those issues gave me a precarious tool: I could understand the teens’ struggles, but I also ran the risk of identifying with and amplifying them, as well as falling prey to the teens’ manipulations and seductions. My supervisor tried to educate me about these dangers, but he gave up after I spurned him once too often. We each fell into our well of hatred. Instead of learning from our interactions with one another and becoming better at our respective jobs, we nursed ill feeling toward each other, wasting energy and losing out on growth.
"I Hate Him"
Most lawyers have experienced hating someone and being hated. Firms can be, and often are, full of hate, because lawyers are often ego-driven, competitive people trained in a culture of masked egotism and fear of others’ success. But what is hate, exactly?
One view is that hate results when the ego regards a negative image of itself. The ego works hard to aggrandize itself, presenting an exaggerated version of the best self to the world. It also strives to conceal the flawed, damaged picture of the self that it secretly carries and fears.
Part of this concealment involves projecting these flawed pictures of the self onto the world, particularly in the form of people the ego doesn’t like or perhaps even hates. Human beings hate what psychology calls "the Other" — anyone held in actual or imagined psychological/emotional relationship — because of what it forces us to contact within ourselves. If there is enough shame attached to that forgotten or suppressed element, our hatred will be violent.
Hatred is the process by which one person strips another of humanity, so the object of hatred merits no understanding or compassion. The person generating the hatred reduces the object of her emotion to a two-dimensional symbol of all that lies within her that she cannot accept. When this process is complete, it is safe to destroy the object of her hatred, since she is destroying a thing, not a person.
Young people are especially prone to this; they define themselves by defining what they are not. Parents may recall conversations with their teenage daughters that center on who and what she hates, rarely about what she likes.
So now I ask the reader: Who do you hate? How does your hatred function in your workplace and professional relationships? Are you willing to consider whether the source is not the target of your hatred but something about yourself you do not want to face?
Another way to unearth clues is to think about when you have rejoiced at another’s misfortune, illness or death. (If you have done so, you have admitted to nothing more than being human.)
But hatred is costly. It robs people of the ability to live their own lives and drains their energies. It hinders their development as professionals and impedes their maturity as leaders. It poisons their relationships with people they love.
Each lawyer inevitably will come across others in the firm that she can’t abide and those who seem to have it in for her. But to counter hate with hate is to enter an unwinnable battle and fall prey to one’s own unacknowledged insecurity. If I join the battle against someone I hate, I only instill more fear and escalate the conflict, whether my chosen weapons include rumor, gossip and passive aggression or open, flaming conflict. It’s far more profitable to use one’s own feelings of hatred as clues to unresolved inner turmoil, most likely having to do with fear.
When confronted by someone else’s hateful behavior, understand that it is about that person’s struggle. That insight frees you to stop taking others’ words and actions personally. It helps you focus on managing the relationship in a way that minimizes conflict, making your own life easier. That is the goal — not showing the other person that he’s wrong, engaging in one-upmanship or securing victory — because this battle is not winnable.
Rather than spending energy engaging in a futile struggle, consider remaining calm and centered. Is there anything to learn from the relationship? Another strategy might be to work at enhancing other relationships that offer greater possibility for growth.
Last remark: My previous column dealt with the Jungian concept of the shadow. When Carl Jung was lecturing on the shadow self, a prosperous, upstanding woman from a small town asked him, "How does one come to know the Shadow self if you have none?"
Jung was said to have replied something like this: ‘Go and speak to that woman in town whom you dislike the most, and if you do, you will find yourself in conversation with the Shadow."