What can lawyers do to manage and conquer anxiety? (podcast with transcript)
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Are lawyers prone to anxiety, or is the pace of the profession the culprit? The ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with Will Meyerhofer, a psychotherapist who has also been a practicing attorney, to learn more about anxiety and get tips on how lawyers can manage and overcome it.
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Stephanie Francis Ward: You might think that panic, feelings of restlessness and sleepless nights are just a part of practicing law, but they’re also symptoms of anxiety, which is a significant health problem in the profession. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s Asked and Answered, we’re talking about how lawyers can address their anxiety in a healthy way. Joining me is Will Meyerhofer, a New York therapist who is also a lawyer. Hi Will, welcome to the show.
Will Meyerhofer: It’s good to be here.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Wonderful. Can you tell me, what are some signs—I think everyone probably has some anxiety at some time or another, but what are some signs that you should maybe think about getting some help with anxiety?
Will Meyerhofer: Well, anxiety is such a primitive thing really, it’s so fundamental. It really—I think everybody recognizes it, really. Although, you do, it’s funny; you do get these cases where people go running to the emergency room thinking they’re having a heart attack. Sometimes it can be so severe and people can be so out of touch with it that sometimes you really don’t realize what it is. But I think fundamentally, when you’re feeling anxious, it’s one of those things that you just kind of recognize. I mean, the symptoms are so—I mean, they’re really sort of animal.
Anxiety really is something that’s rooted our evolutionary past. It’s a state of hyper-vigilance you go into when there’s the prediction of something fearsome about to occur. You go into a preparedness, like. It really is like a mouse will feel anxiety if there’s a snake around. And so the things that you would expect really, you know, your breathing rate will quicken, and you’ll break into a sweat. I mean, often I’ll realize I’m anxious when my underarms in my shirt are soaked or something like that. But the sort of things you’d expect, racing pulse and often sleeplessness and that sort of thing.
I mean, really acute anxiety can just be immensely unpleasant. You feel like your chest is clutching up and you can’t breathe. And really what it is, it’s this very primitive part of your brain, it’s actually in this sort of early center of your brain. The same thing that’s inside of the mouse, same thing that’s inside of a lizard, really saying: “There’s danger here, prepare yourself, don’t be taken by surprise. Be ready for this danger.” And that’s what we call anxiety.
Stephanie Francis Ward: So everyone had anxiety. And certainly it’s a natural thing. What about though—I do think for some people it kind of takes over their lives, maybe if you’re having panic attacks multiple times a week, then maybe it’s time to look for some ways to deal with it in a healthy way, would you agree?
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah. You know, I think anxiety is immensely unpleasant. It’s one of those things where probably more than anything it’s what leads people to my office really, because it’s just so unpleasant. I mean, people know how unpleasant it is, they’re experiencing it, they need to take care of it. If you’ve ever had a real—you know, a bad anxiety attack, or I guess what really would rise to the level of a panic attack, then absolutely. You’re going to have to do something about it. And I think you’ll realize that because it’s just so unpleasant.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, what are some starting points for thinking: I don’t like this, it’s unpleasant, I want to make some changes. What are some starting points to think about, about how you can make changes?
Will Meyerhofer: Well, you know, there really are sort of four approaches to dealing with anxiety, you know, if you really sort of boil it down. One of which is the Meyerhofer patented fourth one. The first one is this sort of wellness and exercise approach, to try to relieve the anxiety by going for a run and that kind of thing, hit the gym, do some yoga, maybe some just meditation and all this sort of wellness stuff. And it’s hard to argue with that because how do you argue with wellness? I mean, sure, absolutely, for heaven’s sake do it.
I think everyone should have a physical discipline of some sort of in their life, some sort of an exercise or meditation that they do. Myself, I lift weights and I go for runs, and I find it very helpful. It really gets me centered. It reduces anxiety. It releases endorphins. In a weird way it’s almost like medication, but it’s a sort of a natural medication for your body. And it also gets you out of your head. It takes you to a different place. Like, you go for a long run, or you meditate, or do yoga. That’s one solution. I think the danger there is first of all you can get lecturey, it can get a little bit like: you should get to the gym more, that kind of thing.
And there are real concerns for some lawyers, I mean, they’re working these crazy hours, and if you’re doing back-to-back all-nighters, you know, it’s hard to get the gym. It’s hard to get to that yoga class. And it also might seem like a drop in the ocean. I mean, you have all this anxiety inducing stuff going on. Your whole life is making you nuts. And someone is like, “Well, why don’t you do yoga for half an hour?” And you’re thinking, “well, this may not really be all I need here. The second approach–we’re doing our four approaches here–would be to medicate, you know, to go for drugs.
And this certainly sensible, it sounds like a good answer, right? I mean, it’s “I’ll take a pill and I’ll feel better.” And you don’t have to bother putting on your running clothes and going out and running, you know, exercise and all that.
Stephanie Francis Ward: It’s hard to find the right medicine for anxiety, right? And a lot of them tend to be—you can be addicted to them fairly easily.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, it’s a little bit about like taking sleep medication. When you have that weird feeling this isn’t quite the right way to fall asleep, and it doesn’t really feel like sleep, it feels like somebody bonking you over the head with a brick. And if you’re taking it and it doesn’t really work that well, so there’s also—and there’s that creep sort of: “God, am I going to get depended on this feeling?” You have really all of that, I mean, with the medications typically, anxiolytics they’re called, or anti-anxiety medications are the benzodiazepine class of drugs.
Everybody knows what these drugs are. If I use a word like Valium or Xanax or Klonopin, everybody goes, “Oh, yeah, right sure.” Everybody’s either taken one or knows someone who has taken one, and probably also has some inkling about the dangers. They can be addictive. They might not be effective over time.
And then some of the other drugs like the antidepressants that are prescribed also for anxiety, like Lexapro, people have gone with that. You know, again side effects, not everybody wants to go on them. And there is that kind of sense of, you know, maybe there’s an underlying problem we have to address here. Maybe just taking a pill isn’t the way to deal with this.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right.
Will Meyerhofer: And then that gets us to approach number three, which is a psychotherapy approach. You know, pretty much with anxiety people tend to go towards cognitive behavioral therapy because it’s been show to be most effective. And the idea there really is to sort of address the thoughts. To take a more evolved human brain, the part that thinks–like the cerebral cortex, to be technical–and have it kind of get in touch with that primitive inner brain, where the emotions reside, the amygdala.
And basically what the smart brain is saying to the primitive brain is: “Hey, what are you so upset about it, is this real or not?” So what you’re doing is you’re identifying the thought, the prediction that triggers the anxiety. And then you are reality testing that prediction. So the question really is, “Gosh what am I so scared about? Is this real? I mean, is there really something—I mean, what’s the worst case scenario here?”
And I think people kind of do this instinctively. They ask, “What am I freaking out about? I can’t even breathe. I’m sweating. I’m panicked. What has got me so upset?”
And sometimes just kind of checking in and saying, “You know, OK, maybe I won’t have this thing done by deadline. Is it the end of the world?” You can calm yourself down, and they call that basically the soothing counter-thought. You basically come up with a thought like—if you’re having a panic attack on a plane because you think it’s going to crash, you can say, “Well, you know, is this rational? How often do planes crash? Not very often. It’s one in a million, calm down for heaven’s sake. Everything will be fine. You’ve been on a million planes, everyone flies on planes.”
It’s that kind of thing where you’re just going to address the thought with a counter-thought. And I guess it’s based on the sort of notion that if tonight you went and there were two movies playing at the cinema, and you decided to go see Death by the Slasher 3: Night of Blood, or any other one, there’s fuzzy panda smiley happy kid film, and you have a choice between showing yourself the movie that’s going to have you up all night terrified, or the fuzzy happy panda bouncy kid movie, which is going to have you smiling and feeling good.
And essentially in your own brain there’s a cinema and you can play different thoughts to yourself. And you scare yourself to death or you can calm yourself down. And so you do a lot of sort of training in cognitive behavioral, where you say: “Hey, you know, what’s making you so tense? What’s getting you so upset? Well, you know, come on, isn’t there another thought that you could run that would be a little more sensible, a little more rational that would maybe calm you down and let you get your work done.”
One thing about anxiety is that it effects your cognition in the sense that if—look, I mean, we all know this sort of intuitively, that if you’re anxious you’re going to do badly on the exam, or if you go in there all freaked out. I always tell people rather than getting all nervous because you’ve got a big test coming up, take a deep breath, calm down and kind of make no big deal. You know, try to sort of make more of an “OK, I got an exam, do some studying, we know how to do this no problem.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: I think it’s one thing to say that, how do you help people that actually do that?
Will Meyerhofer: See this is why we get to approach number four, the patent Meyerhofer what to do with-
Stephanie Francis Ward: I have been waiting for approach number four, yes.
Will Meyerhofer: You know what, you say there’s an approach to number four that’s the patented one and everybody wants to get to it. Here’s the problem with—you know, I’m sort of presenting these approaches and then knocking them over.
The problem with this one is that what if there’s a real problem here? And this is why approach number three here, the psychotherapy with the cognitive behavioral approach doesn’t always work. The point is that you’re sort of convincing yourself that there’s really nothing to be afraid of and calming down and saying, “OK, calm down, reality test,” right?
But some things are scary, and some things are to be afraid of, you know. And then you need to take sort of a stronger approach. And I think in short what the fourth Meyerhofer patented approach is realizing that this primitive anxiety impulse really relates to the fight-or-flight impulse. So what I’m saying is instead of flight, you go to fight. And essentially what you do is you fight back. You take the fear and you turn it into anger and you say: “You know what; I’m not going to live like this.”
And I can’t tell you how many lawyers have said to me finally, “I’m not going to live like this. Nothing is worth this; nothing is worth living with constant pounding terrifying anxiety, no way.”
And I agree with them, and I say, “OK, great, so we’re going to fight back. What are we going to do? And they say, “Well, you know, I’m going to get the hell out of here. I’m going to get out of this firm that’s making me nuts, or get out of this job.”
And it may be that it’s just the wrong job, it may be it’s the wrong firm, it may be it’s the wrong partner you’re working for and you have to put your foot down and say, “Darn it, I can’t do this.”
And maybe you want to get out of law. You know, I have had a lot of people who just say, “Nope, I’m getting out entirely, this was a mistake. I’m going to do something where I don’t have to live with this anxiety.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m thinking as you say that, if you have a job that really causes you anxiety, that people is a sign you need to go do something else, if you have that choice. And I guess that’s-
Will Meyerhofer: That’s just it. A lot of lawyers feel like “I’m $200,000 in debt. I’m lucky I got this job. I don’t really have the choice.”
And I guess at some point they come to the conclusion, “you know what, I have to have the choice” because they can’t do it.
Anxiety is your body telling you that you’re really scared of something. And sometimes it makes sense to listen to it. It’s there for a reason, right? I mean, it evolved to keep us away from things that are dangerous for us.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think that there’s a lot of anxiety in the profession because it draws people who are prone to anxiety, or it’s the nature of the profession that causes the anxiety?
Will Meyerhofer: Well, they seem to go hand in hand. People go into law because they’re a certain kind of person. I usually label them a “pleaser.” They’re the kids who got good grades. They’re good kids, they’re easy to raise. When you have a little lawyer, you’re probably a happy parent, you know. Parents have it in their mind that what they want is an obedient kid who does well in school, right? I mean, that’s sort of almost a no-brainer, it just a truism. Is that a good kid? Yes, it’s a good kid. He does well in school, he listen to me, he obeys.
So what we’ve done really is posited that a “good kid,” you know, in quotes here, is a compliant child, who wants to please us, who wants to make us happy, and probably will do that in the most obvious way by simply succeeding in the classroom, because that’s what kids do. You get a grade and you go running to mom and dad and say, “Hey, look I got an A.” Anyway, how do you get into law? Well, you have good grades for starters, right? Most lawyers are people who did well in school and they figure, you know, “Hey, I can turn that into fame and fortune. I can turn it into prestige, and I can turn it into money by going to law school.”
And competing, competing, competing to be the best, and maybe succeed as a lawyer. So you have this type of person going in, and then they get into an environment where—and some of this is just the times we live in. There are just too many lawyers for one thing, and that has sort of created a distortion. The schools were making a lot of money teaching lawyers and that created a sort of bubble of lawyers. I was at NYU as a law student. And I think NYU Law was the single most profitable part of the university. It was bringing in immense amounts of money. And that’s because it doesn’t cost very much to teach law.
You don’t need a classroom. You don’t need—it’s not like medical school where you need cadavers, or dentistry school where you need laboratories and chairs and all of this. I mean, law is just taught in a big lecture for the most part, with somebody standing there giving a lecture to about 100 kids, and that’s law. And for that lecture you’re paying maybe $200.00 an hour.
So anyway this created what we all sort of, I don’t know if you can call it the legal industrial complex or whatever, but it created too many lawyers at the end of the day. And so it became an incredibly competitive profession.
And also money is the problem here. The billable hours become kind of a nightmare. And even beyond the billable hour, there’s this profit per partner business, where the firms pride themselves. I mean, the prestige of the firm, let’s face it, is usually established by this list of, you know, the profits per partner, starting with the top most profitable firm. But how do you create profits per partner? Well, you don’t hire that many lawyers and you work the ones you have twice as hard, so that you have higher profits for each human body in the firm. And that’s led to—I mean, one of the problems here is nobody gets any sleep.
Another problem is everyone is incredibly competitive. They all want to make partner. In what other business can you go into, what other field or profession, where you start your first job with the knowledge that first of all you’re lucky if you even get the job, maybe half the kids in your class aren’t going to get a job, but then you arrive at a place where after five years, I think it’s something like 80 percent of your class will have failed and dropped out or gone somewhere else. That’s pretty damming, right?
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m thinking about what you’re saying and I’m curious, going back to you saying that a lot of people who go to law school are pleasers looking for approval.
I also think about the alpha types in law. And there’s probably less of those, but they’re definitely out there, you know, they’re trying cases, they’re the lead rainmakers. Have you noticed for the alpha types, they seem to have a lot of success at the firm they find that fits for them.
Do they have anxieties too, do you think, like the pleasers, or have they just kind of—they have the confidence, they’ve kind of busted past that, maybe they’re not as worried?
Will Meyerhofer: You know, I think there are those people, the sort of odd ducks who flourish in law. I’ve worked with partners at some of the big firms and I hate to say it, but if you’re really that troubled by anxiety, it probably means you’re in the wrong environment. The lawyers—I mean, there are around—you know, law is kind of for odd ducks. And these areas of law are also for odd ducks, like particularly odd ducks.
Like, it takes a very special kind of person, I think, to be a prosecutor. Now, it’s very prestigious to be a prosecutor and some people fight for the job, simply because it’s there and because it looks great on your resume. But in real life not everybody is a prosecutor. I don’t think everybody can be a plaintiff side lawyer. I don’t think everybody can be a legal defense attorney.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Some people can’t even try cases.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah. I mean, a courtroom lawyer-
Stephanie Francis Ward: Talk about anxiety.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, really. If you’re the kind of person who isn’t cool and can’t perform in public or something. I mean, it’s kind of like, “Don’t get on stage and be a rock star, if that isn’t where you feel comfortable.”
You look at someone like Michael Jackson, he looks perfectly at ease on stage, or he did, probably because he was cut out for that. I think you or I would get up there and we’d—I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t flourish the way Michael Jackson did. So some of this is just: For heaven’s sake don’t go into a job where you probably aren’t really at your best, or don’t feel comfortable.
Stephanie Francis Ward: For the younger lawyers or even people in law school, what are some things to think about in terms of maybe crafting a career for yourself within what you were offered, with something that doesn’t cause you a lot of anxiety? We talked about how panicked some people get about going to trial.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, the absolute starting place is just to make sure you really want to do this. I just literally talked to a lawyer an hour ago in my office right here, and he was saying, “You know, gosh, I went into law because I was studying history, but I thought law was more practical. It seemed like it would make me money. And it seemed like my uncle did it and he was really rich, and so the family was kind of thinking, ‘Yeah, go to law school.’ “
But in retrospect, I mean, now he’s in BigLaw in New York and wants to get out. He’s been there two years and he’s having panic attacks. He was sort of self-medicating with alcohol.
These are kind of stories that I hear all the time. I think the answer to him was clear, which is, “I should have thought about this more. Going into it I should have asked myself: why am I becoming a lawyer?”
I mean, he said that it felt—and again this is something I hear all the time—that it would just kind of take care of itself. That he had this idea that you go to law school and they say—I mean, I literally was told this by the dean of my law school—“We’ll teach you think like a lawyer.” Which sounds a little bit like they’ll remove my brain and put a lawyer’s brain back into my head, screw my skull back on, and I’ll be a lawyer.
And you think, “Oh, great, this is terrific, you know, some magic will happen.” I still remember being sworn in to the bar in New York State and the judge saying, “Stand up candidates.” And then giving us this—I guess we had to take a pledge or something like that. And then he said, “Sit down attorneys.” And I thought, “I’m an attorney now. The magic fairy dust has happened.”
The problem is it doesn’t really work that way. You have to really look at who you are because that’s where your success at law is going to come from, if in fact this is really for you. Are you really into this? And this is the problem, how do you find out?
And some lawyers are like, “Well, should I paralegal or shouldn’t I?” And I think of the old days when Abraham Lincoln was learning to be a lawyer. And in those days you rode around the circuit with an attorney, some older guy. And he let you prepare some documents and he let you do some simple things in court. And then at some point in time they decided you were a lawyer and that was it, you passed the bar. You were allowed to go up in front of the judge and do what he’s been doing in front of you and showing you how to do. Nowadays, we just go off to school.
And there’s a loss there. There’s a loss of kind of an experiential testing time to figure out, you know, am I really cut out for this? So I guess right off the top of my head, a lot of law students or people considering law school, I’d say you probably shouldn’t go because I think there are probably too many lawyers in this country, and too many law schools. Unless you’re absolutely dedicated, this is absolutely what you must do in life. “I must be a lawyer.”
You know, think long and hard about it because according to the figures, half the lawyers getting out of school aren’t finding jobs.
And then if you do really love law, I mean, let’s talk about why. Why is this going to make you happy? Do you love arguing? Do you love writing?
I mean, one of my clients was saying the other day, you know, lawyers are odd balls, at least the litigator she works with. She’s like, “You know, we spend most of the day locked in our office writing really complicated hard stuff. Writing these very kind of complex arguments with a lot of details.” She loves it. She’s kind of introverted and she’s got the head for it, and I think she’s going to be a partner. She’s really terrifically successful and really a natural lawyer.
But an awful lot of people, you know, that’s a pretty—that might sound a little bit kooky and it might not sound like that much fun to you. And then of course some people have a very crazy idea of what being a lawyer is going to be like. They really do think it’s going to be Perry Mason. They really have this idea that—it seems naive to a lawyer, but as a kid going to law school, you might think you’re going to be in court every day saving the world.
And I guess just a reality check about the job, even if you just went and job-shadowed a lawyer. Ask somebody if you can follow them to work, or talk to them about what they do, it might be a great way of making sure this is really for you.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s go back a bit, you mentioned—and I think this ties in with what you just said—the young man whose uncle is a lawyer who made a lot of money, so he decide to do it, too. I’m curious about, how much in terms of anxiety in lawyers, what kind of role do their families play?
Because, you know, we talk a lot about the job causing you stress, but if your parents’ dream was for you to be a lawyer, and you’re coming home for Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks, and you’re hating your job, and all they can do is tell their friends how their son’s a lawyer and they’re so proud of him.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, it’s really tough. You really hit the nail on the head. There’s a few things I see. One is—I have a young person I work with, and he’s now almost two years out of school and can’t find a job. And his debt is something like—it’s usually—I mean, literally I—lawyers will understand that this isn’t anything out of the norm; it’s about maybe $240,000. And he’s all of 25 or 26.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And this goes back to that people-pleasing thing, too. You know, if you’ve always been the best and the brightest and you can’t find a job, that’s hard to deal with when you’re 28.
Will Meyerhofer: It’s pretty rough.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Or at any time.
Will Meyerhofer: I think in his case, and I hear this all the time, the family paid for it. The idea was “We’ll help you out, don’t worry about it and you can pay us back, or we’ll split it. We’re just so proud of you for going to law school. And with a law degree you’ll always be set, you’ll always find work, you’ll always be OK,” all this kind of thing. All you have to do is be a good kid, they’re helping you out, you’re going to go to law school, and you’re going to get out and get a job and show the world.
He can’t even get a foot in the door and it’s causing him immense anxiety.
Stephanie Francis Ward: So what can you do there? Can you just have a real honest chat with whomever in the family that’s saying this? Say, “You know, I love you. I appreciate your support. The truth is this isn’t working out for me and we need to let it go.”
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah. Sometimes the parents are like—I mean, you run—I mean, it’s hard. You really want to make them happy. And a lot of these kids are maybe immigrants, or maybe they’re the first in their family to get a law degree, or the opposite, maybe there all these lawyers in the family from a generation earlier, where it was a different market, it was a different time.
And so it’s really hard when you’re a pleaser and you’re just finding yourself unable to please. So that’s really hard. And I see that, I see the kids who when they do get a job it’s a poorly paying job, or a job that’s just so unpleasant frankly.
You know, some of these–not even just the doc review gigs, some of like the insurance defense gigs, where you have these 2,200 hour billable requirements, but it’s very hard to do that because you can only bill standard amounts for each task. And you’re flooded with work. And you feel like a hamster on a wheel just trying to keep up.
So those kids are very anxious. I’ve got a bunch of people in that situation. And then the people who go—I could give you example after example of people with a whole lot of this bearing down on them, trying to figure out what they’re going to do.
Stephanie Francis Ward: But I would imagine you probably find repeatedly for people who have this real tough anxiety, and they start being honest with themselves, and honest with others about it, do they often times feel, you know, it’s a hard conversation, but they’d probably feel a lot better once they finally had it?
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, I actually have a group now with a bunch of lawyers in there and it’s such a relief to just talk to other lawyers and have—I mean, I always urge lawyers to take that risk of opening up. You know, in a law firm it’s very competitive. When I was in BigLaw, we were busy trying to make partner and hoping all the other ones would fall by the wayside. But in reality these are your allies really, these are your peers.
And there’s nothing better—and even I found myself a few times going into somebody’s office and closing the door and just talking and just saying, “Wow, this is hard, huh? I don’t know how I’m doing here? I’m really anxious and boy what a relief to just find someone else and share about it.” It’s funny though, I get a lot of fan mail.
Stephanie Francis Ward: OK.
Will Meyerhofer: I don’t want it to sound like puffery, you know what I mean? Because my fan mail is different from most people’s fan mail. You know, fan mail is nice, you’re getting a letter saying, “Hey, Mr. Meyerhofer, I read your book and it was great.”
But it’s different when I get fan mail because my fan letters are more like “I was so miserable I was crying in my office. I didn’t know what to do. I got your book, thank you, you understand.”
And I think this is the kind of fan mail I talked to my partner about this, my husband, and he laughs. It’s like “Yeah, it’s one of your fan letters.” It’s a sobering fan letter. It’s basically saying, “Thanks for being there and admitting that you had a tough time.”
I wrote one piece called “I Suck at Law,” which is pretty silly title for an article, but it was me basically saying, “Look, I was near the top of my class at NYU, I went to a top firm, but at some level this wasn’t right for me and it was causing me a lot of stress and upset and anxiety.” And that article has had, I don’t know, 20,000 reads or something, probably 100,000 reads, I don’t know, I haven’t checked lately. People clicked with that, somebody just admitting that they’re human and that they’re unhappy, it helps a lot.
Maybe it’s just me being here and saying, “Hey, I went through this. I know what it’s like.” I’ve had people in my office say, “It’s just good to hear you say you went through it, too.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: And let’s talk about—let’s say you do have a conversation with yourself. And you kind of get your anxiety in check, and you have a flare-up, something else comes up, maybe a couple of months or a couple of years down the road, do you have advice for anxiety flare-ups of lawyers?
Will Meyerhofer: Well, the real question here is if this is continuing high-level anxiety, probably you need to get angry and you need to change the environment you’re in. You need to make a real big change.
If it’s sort of more of a situational thing, where say you have stage fright in a courtroom or something like that, now, that’s a different thing. That’s kind of a situational kind of thing that some people work with hypnotherapists, some people will just honestly take a Xanax before they go into court.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Seriously?
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, sure, why not? I mean, some people take a Xanax before a law school exam, some people get exam anxiety, right?
Stephanie Francis Ward: OK.
Will Meyerhofer: The real question here is, is this something where you need to really change fundamentally the environment, because it’s creating anxiety and there’s nothing we can really do about that? Or is this something where maybe going for a run will calm you down and you’re just fine, or maybe doing some psychotherapy and just learning to isolate the thought and all that is enough? I guess it’s the severity of the anxiety that’s really the factor.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’ve talked about the things you can do to help, like with exercise, getting sleep, changing your situation if it just doesn’t work for you. I would imagine being kind to yourself would figure in a lot with dealing with anxiety in a healthy way. Would you agree with that?
Will Meyerhofer: Oh, absolutely. It’s so important to—you know, the thing about being a pleaser, is it’s very sort of outwardly directed.
I mean, pleasing really starts when you’re a little kid. Little baby animals need to please the parent because otherwise they won’t survive. Babies are designed to please us. They smile at us and they coo and they dada and we love them and we take care of them. If they weren’t cute maybe we wouldn’t and they’d be in trouble.
But at some point in adulthood you realize that there’s something infantile about that, that we really at some point, we have to place ourselves, right? We have to be OK with who we are.
A lot of lawyers tell me they feel like they’re leading someone else’s life. They feel like an imposter. They feel like a fake. I had somebody this morning, one of my clients said, “I felt like a fake. I felt like—you know, I had the law degree and I was here, but it wasn’t really who I was. It’s like I’m pretending to be a tax lawyer, but I’m really not. I’m really this person wondering what I want to be when I grow up because this doesn’t feel right.”
So at some point you have to accept yourself as who you really are, and allow yourself to live authentically, to not be an imposter, but to really say, “Hey, this is who I really am, now I’m going to change the life around me to suit me, instead of the opposite.”
I think when I was a lawyer a lot of lawyers told me this, you’re changing yourself to suit them. You’re wearing a suit, and you’re going in the morning, and you’re working all night, and you’re trying to be—so many lawyers tell me this that you become this very serious person. I was a very serious, very kind of—one guy said to me, “They turned me into a son-of-a-bitch, but I’m not a son-of-a-bitch.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, that’s what happens, though. And I think it spills over to your home life, too, if you’re married or have a significant other. It’s like you act like a jerk at work and then it comes home and you just take yourself really seriously.
Will Meyerhofer: Yeah, you really—I had this one attorney, boy, she was something. She scared me, I think. She was with one of the big firms. She came in in a gray suit and was very very serious. And now we just laugh about it.
I said to her at one point, “When you first walked in here I was scared of you.” And she’s like, “Yeah, I think I was a little scared of myself.”
Now she’s actually out on the west coast. She moved back where she wanted to live. And she’s training to be a teacher. She’s going to be a school teacher. I think she’s going to be a science teacher.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, wow.
Will Meyerhofer: She’s really a neat lady. It’s been a long journey, we worked together for two or three years, and she’s flourishing. She sort of gave herself permission to be what she really was, which is—I don’t know, she wants to coach soccer and teach science, and she’s real happy.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Wow.
Will Meyerhofer: That was a long journey for her. I could tell you ten of those stories, people I’ve worked with who—and boy she was an anxious wreck, and now she’s as my grandmother used to say: happy as a clam.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And on that note, that’s everything I had to ask you today, Will. Did you want to add anything else?
Will Meyerhofer: I often say to people that come in—people are funny, they don’t come to a therapist until they really need it. Like, “I’m a wreck, so now I can justify this self indulgence of going to a therapist’s office.”
And I tend to say to them, “Look, this is going to be a journey. It’s going to be a process, but it’s going to be OK. There’s nothing coming that you can’t handle, and this story has a happy ending. I’ve been in this business a long time, I’ve worked with hundreds of lawyers, and I’ve seen people go and flourish.”
You know, some of them stay in law, but go into—I have one guy who just became an editor at a legal publication, and he is so excited because he likes law. He likes the puzzle of it, but he doesn’t he like the hours and all that stuff. So he’s going to take a pay cut, but he’s going to be great for it.
I have another person who went off and moved to a smaller city and sort of followed her passion. She’s a running person and she got into the sports industry. Not in a legal position, but in something that she really loves.
So, you know, there are answers, there are ways out. It can seem—I think one of the things that really heightens anxiety is that feeling of being trapped, that we just don’t have a way out.
I guess I want just sort of be that soothing therapist voice that says, “It’s going to be OK. I’m old and I’m gray and I’m wise, and I’ve worked with a lot of people and you’re going to be OK too, because this story has a happy ending.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you for listening to us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and you’ve been listening to ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.
[End of transcript]
Updated on Nov. 5 to add the transcript.
In This Podcast:
Will Meyerhofer, a New York psychotherapist in private practice, is a former associate with Sullivan & Cromwell. He’s the author of various books, including Way Worse than Being a Dentist: the Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning and Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy. Meyerhofer also has expertise in work with HIV-positive gay men.