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Top tips for lawyers who struggle with self-compassion to develop inner strength

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James Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson.

There are three levels of positive responses to suffering. The first, sympathy, is merely the mental recognition that suffering is present. The second, empathy, includes an emotional component, with the effect that we feel for the person who is suffering. The third, compassion, includes the desire or motivation to do something about that person’s suffering.

The legal profession is defined by compassion. Lawyers are motivated to help others. I believe that most have witnessed or experienced injustice in their lives, and it is compassion that motivates us to right wrongs, rescue people victimized in some way and change the way society and culture operate for the better.

Many people have sympathy and empathy for the victims of the world, but lawyers are among those who want to do something about it and take the necessary action steps to get problems sorted out. It gets complicated when we are confined to the rules of an imperfect adversarial system, which has been cobbled together over the centuries to resolve disputes. It is said that to understand the law, a page of history is worth a volume of logic.

A significant percentage of lawyers face emotional and mental challenges because they are not trained to channel that compassion correctly. Lawyers are particularly susceptible to stress, anxiety, depression and burnout. In my work helping lawyers deal with these forces, I notice that the ones who suffer the most, ironically, lack the most fundamental compassion of all: compassion for themselves.

There are some common themes among lawyers who struggle with self-compassion:

1. Abusive inner critic. Our inner critics serve a necessary survival role by recognizing behavior that does not serve us. However, without self-compassion, that inner critic can sound like a belligerent drill sergeant whose job is to make us witless, unthinking and uncaring weapons of mass destruction. Thoughts like “I am stupid,” “I am a failure” and “I don’t deserve success” are all abusive forms of inner criticism.

2. Secondary trauma fatigue. Also known as compassion fatigue, secondary trauma fatigue is the stress and depression that results from witnessing pain and suffering in others over a long period of time. Like first responders, attorneys who constantly seek to mitigate the tragedies of the world inevitably will crash and burn. It is the effect of giving all of your compassion away and saving none for yourself.

3. Perfectionism. We seek value through results and believe that working long hours will bring us success and happiness. Instead, it can bring exhaustion and stress. And when something unexpected happens (as it often does in the practice of law), or we don’t get what we want, we can feel like failures. We allow our inner critic to overwhelm us.

4. Inability to ask for or receive help. Feeling like we must be independent is oftentimes caused by a trust issue based on feelings of rejection or betrayal. We take on projects that we think will result in accolades or rewards, but we end up overextending ourselves and working inhumane hours. When we are offered help, we refuse it because we don’t want to share the credit, or we irrationally don’t trust the team.

5. Imposter syndrome. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, we believe that we have to fool everyone into thinking we know what are doing because we are imposters. We assume everyone else knows exactly what to do every minute of every day. The fact that we are smart enough to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam is irrelevant in the face of these feelings of inadequacy.

Relieving the pain

Compassion is the awareness of suffering coupled with a desire to do something about it, not only for others but especially for ourselves. Instead of repressing it, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to relieve it. There are strategies that can help you successfully deal with the pain and develop your inner strength and resilience.

1. Focus, focus, focus. When we focus our perception in a positive way, our brain changes, and we experience a more positive life. Do one thing at a time. Turn off the phone if you are dealing with a task that must be completed. Plan time to look at emails and texts. Too much multitasking can cause stress and anxiety. Basic time management tells us to compartmentalize our tasks so we can focus totally on them one at a time.

2. Rise above the fray. Sometimes, we are so focused on dealing with the demands of others that we totally forget what we are doing. There are three basic human emotional needs: security, satisfaction and connection. We have to plan to satisfy these needs, or we will get stressed, anxious and burned out. If we are feeling threatened, we have to separate the illusion from the reality. We must do the things that make us feel safe. If we are bored or disappointed, we have to find ways to be grateful. If we are feeling unloved or isolated, we must remember to allow others to love us and love ourselves.

3. Focus on the positive. Our brains are hardwired to look for threats. This is called negative bias. When we focus on the positive aspects of our life, we stay in our rational mind and can overcome negative bias. We must practice self-compassion in order to stay in the positive, rational mindset. Life is like a rose, and we can focus on the blossom or the thorns.

4. Be the hero of your own story. Probably the most important aspect of self-compassion is being your own best friend. Tell your inner critic to take some personal time, and focus on being a cheerleader for yourself. Sports psychologists train their athletes to imagine how it will feel to win and then to focus on that feeling as much as possible. When we struggle, we have to remember we are heroes and that there will be a positive result.

5. Treat yourself with compassion. We must focus on our physical bodies as a part of self-compassion. How would we behave if we found someone who had been abused and victimized? Hopefully, we would want to nurse them back to health and happiness. We need to treat ourselves the same. Be a good Samaritan.

6. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system serves us by reacting to perceived threats. Conversely, our parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax and feel content. We must balance the two to avoid burnout. We activate our parasympathetic nervous system by deep breathing, vagas nerve exercises, focused relaxation and feelings of wellness and accomplishment. If all we do is imagine danger everywhere, we don’t engage our parasympathetic nervous system, and we will suffer. Self-compassion reminds us to relax and enjoy life.

Having compassion for others is commendable, but it doesn’t do us any good if we fail to practice compassion for ourselves. As life becomes more and more complicated and stressful, we must focus on doing things that will save our sanity and well-being. The law is a noble and challenging endeavor, but no one needs to suffer.

James Gray Robinson is a third-generation trial attorney who specialized in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent by practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at or email him at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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