Self-love for lawyers around the holidays
James Gray Robinson.
The holidays are upon us, and one of the first questions any stressed out, anxious or close to burnt-out lawyers should be asking themselves is “How do I feel about myself?”
Unfortunately, that is not a question most people ask themselves first thing in the morning. We are all familiar with the emotions of love and hate for others, but do we ever think about what motions we harbor about ourselves? Sometimes the symptoms of burnout are perilously close to the symptoms of self-loathing and self-hatred.
It is important to be aware of how we feel about ourselves for two reasons: First, we are heading into what is commonly recognized as an extremely stressful time. People who are unable to recognize or manage stress are at risk of exacerbating their condition. Second, for people who are already stressed and close to the edge, the added pressures of the holidays may send lawyers over the edge.
Lawyers work hard and sacrifice to be successful, which is already stressful. When we must work over the holidays (disappointing family), our monetary expectations aren’t met (creating financial woes) or find ourselves in the mad rush to conclude everything before year-end, it can become overwhelming.
Just as we maintain our cars or manage our businesses, so too must we monitor our emotional states. Stress and anxiety are simply warning signals (that engine light on the dashboard) that something is amiss.
As I have shared in other articles for the ABA Journal, some of the symptoms of burnout include the following:
• Physical and mental exhaustion: You feel you are in a fog or swimming upstream all the time. Everything is a struggle, and you feel emotionally numb.
• Insomnia: You toss and turn all night worrying about the past and the future. You feel like you didn’t get any rest at all.
• Overreacting: Little things make you lose your temper. You have a new nickname: drama king/queen. Many times, you don’t know why you got upset. You have no control over your emotions.
• Irrational emotions: Unexplained fear or anger, inappropriate guilt, shame or blame keep coming up.
• Irritation, frustration, resentment: The past constantly haunts you; cases or events that happened years ago are still front and center in your thoughts. You can’t focus on the matters at hand.
• Self-medication/substance use disorder: This is self-explanatory. Antidepressants are being prescribed at an increasing rate; alcohol and drug abuse in the legal profession have not dropped even with all the resources thrown at educating lawyers. We self-medicate to ease the pain, which only makes the mental and emotional pain worse.
• Problems with relationships: Sudden inability to get clients or loss of clients, divorce or strained personal relationships, difficulties arise between you and your staff. People start avoiding you.
• Client avoidance: Because we are unfocused and anxious, we have trouble meeting self-imposed deadlines or keeping all the “plates” spinning. We avoid talking to clients because we haven’t made any progress on their cases, and we don’t want to disappoint them.
• Moodiness: We are happy one minute and raging the next. We feel like we have multiple personalities; Pollyanna one minute and Debbie Downer the next.
• Inflated sense of importance and inability to delegate: In an effort to deal with the depression and anxiety, we overinflate our ego and keep everything close to our chest. We certainly don’t want to talk about the fact that we are stressed and unhappy, although that is the one thing we need to do.
• Health issues: The cortisol merry-go-round eventually will take its toll on our thyroid and adrenal glands. We are overweight and our immune system is shot. We constantly call in sick and avoid work.
You may see some similarities with the signs of self-loathing, which include the need for validation, low self-esteem, negative attitude, exhaustion, not feeling good enough, health issues, overthinking and constant self-criticism. How an attorney may feel about themself is something many of us try to avoid.
We soldier on, hoping one day everything will miraculously get better. We will get a big client, we will make partner, we will win a big verdict, and then we will be happy. Until then, we suffer and think that these feelings are normal. Curiously, lawyers often blame themselves for their struggles, which makes them hate themselves. Whether self-hatred precedes burnout or follows doesn’t matter. One thing is sure, if we don’t love ourselves, then the struggle and emotional pain get worse.
How do we give ourselves the gift of self-love for the holidays? First, give yourself a chance. You are a licensed attorney—proof positive that you are smart, educated and successful. When your inner critic is screaming at you, take a deep breath, thank that critic for trying to help and send it to a room in your mind. Recall your wins, and learn from your experiences.
Remember that we are better lawyers for all our experiences. You can even go as far as writing “a new chance” on a piece of paper, putting it in a box, wrapping it like a Christmas present and putting it under your tree—if you celebrate Christmas. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, just put the gift on your desk and let people wonder what it is. It can be like an inside joke with yourself—you know something that no one else does—and smile.
Focus on what is right, and be grateful. There are many benefits to feeling grateful, including managing stress. If you can’t be grateful for anything else, be grateful you are alive. The most important practical benefit is that gratitude helps your brain produce “feel-good chemicals” like endorphins, melatonin and serotonin.
When we are focused on everything wrong with our lives, I guarantee that there is no gratitude. In that case, our brains are constantly pumping adrenalin and cortisol into our bodies, which causes burnout. Truly happy people are grateful for their losses as well as their wins.
Quit worrying about what others think about you. We tell ourselves that our reputations and how people think about us are our biggest stocks-in-trade. How we think about ourselves is much more important. By appreciating oneself, our clients will too. If we think we are failures, our clients will too. Self-love is just as much about what we don’t do as what we do.
Change one thing about your life and career that will bring you peace, calm and gratitude. There may be many things that must be changed, but start with one thing that will help manage the stress. Just like George Bailey in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, take a minute to appreciate what you have, rather than focusing on what you don’t have. Perhaps that is all it takes.
The tips above are laser focused to help you enjoy the holidays THIS YEAR! Just remember that to change your life, you can begin by changing your thoughts, emotions and actions.
James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent 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 lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected].
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