Thursday, 12 March 2015

Thinking About Feeling

A million words have already been written about how the 21st century has killed privacy.  The rigid demarcation between public and private so instinctively understood and assumed by our forebears is as alien and bizarre to the Selfie generation as the typewriter or the pen as a means of communication.  However an irony inherent in this tsunami of self-publicity is that the masks that society enjoins us to wear are as oppressive as they ever were even if they are not so clearly understood or limited in number.  It is for good reason that Facebook has no dislike button. 

Other than acting the Bar is in many ways the ultimate mask wearing profession.  It is interesting that the number one question criminal barristers face is: How does it feel to defend someone you know is guilty?  Almost no barrister ever answers that question as phrased.  We reply that the Rule of Law entitles every accused person to a defence and our duty is to present that defence without fear or favour leaving our feelings about a case to one side.  As a result it is possible to progress through an entire professional lifetime leaving our feelings to one side.  We rarely wonder, let alone discuss, whether such studied detachment is a good thing for us as individuals.

Barristers, like soldiers, firefighters, police and doctors, see and hear some horrible things.  Emotional self-preservation and dispassionate professionalism demand that our feelings when confronted with such horrors are silenced or contained.  Humour rarely comes darker than in conversations that take place every day in robing rooms up and down the country in a bid to draw the sting from the grimness of the day’s work about to start or just concluded.

An unspoken assessment that occurs in interviews for criminal pupillage is whether the candidate is emotionally robust or detached enough for the work in the years to come.  A thick skin and a fine mind are the qualities sought: can this person suppress their feelings.  As a consequence many barristers appear exceptionally capable of mastering or masking their feelings.  So much so that when the Bar Council announced last year its backing for an investigation into Wellbeing at the Bar (  there was some, thankfully isolated, dissent to the effect that this was a wishy washy waste of money far removed from the proper remit of our professional body.

Something that I have learnt recently however is that attempting to master your feelings is a Sisyphean task.  It is not like learning to play the oboe or speak German because feelings are always there no matter how deaf one tries to be to them.  Of course one can choose to mask feelings but this is a certain road to inauthenticity and estrangement from oneself.  No career is worth this and no profession should demand it.

Of course the vast majority of barristers are emotionally grounded people more than capable of leaving their professional mask safely packed up with their wig in its tin at the end of the day and I know that I can only speak for myself but the truth is a time came when I felt in danger of becoming not the man I am.

Thankfully for me I discovered that it is possible to learn how to feel, absurd though that might sound, and I learnt that during an astonishing week long course called the Hoffman Process.  Others have written much more eloquently than I can as to the benefits it can bring and I don’t propose to describe its methods and means here.  However if you also think you can think but think you can’t feel you might just want to think about it. 

You can find out more here:
Or you can ask me about it directly: