Lawyers have a lot of issues with boundaries. I see it in the deep misery that pervades the profession, in which very smart, capable people let others abuse them, manipulate them, and just plain act like bullies to them. Attorneys often tolerate the dysfunction because they think they need a paycheck more than respect and integrity. Or, they don’t know any better—they don’t know what self-respect and integrity feel like. Or a combination of the two, usually.
My armchair-psychologist theory is that by the time law school graduation rolls around, attorneys who end up hating law practice have had lots of experience denying who they are. They long ago started living from the outside in. Rather than claim what they actually were interested in and relentlessly pursuing it, they made parents and teachers happy with being good girls and boys, getting the grades and doing all the right things.
I can say all this because I’ve walked that walk and gotten the blisters and calluses from those Ill-fitting law loafers. I thought they had healed fairly well. I thought that I had done a pretty damn masterful job at reclaiming my integrity, living in alignment with my core values—in other words, living from the inside out.
But turns out I still have a bit of work to do to reclaim and own myself. I found this out during an acting lesson.
Apologizing for Existing
As I’ve mentioned before, I lead (I use that term very loosely) an Artist’s Way circle. This past spring, we have been working on process, i.e., working in various mediums that aren’t our favorite, familiar ones, just to see what happens. One Saturday morning, we dipped our toes into acting. For the 2/3 of us who had never acted, I’d say the pre-class emotions ranged from apprehension to abject terror. And then started over again the next minute.
Our ringleader for the day had spent a career teaching acting to gifted kids, plus acting herself in hundreds of productions. She warned the group before we started that what women, particularly, tend to do when they walk into a room is round their shoulders, hang their head, and generally use their body to apologize for existing. And they don’t speak up.
So we practiced sitting, standing and walking with an upright spine and head. Not ramrod straight, but strong and proud. So far, so good.
Then, we had to pick a card with a stage location on it, walk to that location, and claim our space. When you’re acting, like in real life, you have personal space that you enforce. In acting, you need to be pretty purposeful about it. You have to mean it.
Sounds simple, right? Walk to the place where your square is, stand there, and say “I am Jennifer, and left center stage is MY space.” And the externals were simple.
But the internal work to be able to walk there with presence, to stand before people I knew and say, without apology, that something belonged to me—that I owned it, and to mean it—holy mackerel. This was an exercise in front of friends, and I was petrified. The desire to hunch my shoulders, to say I just couldn’t do this exercise, to speak softly or gently, to back away from being loud, proud and assertive, they were nearly overwhelming. I did not want to show up and let myself go in this exercise. I fought my demon, but felt pretty tattered by the end of it.
Being Too Much
I thought I had done a good job in law school not falling into the self-sabotage trap that many women law students do: speaking in a high pitch, and ending sentences on an uplift, with a questioning tone. I worked hard in class at appearing calm and unflustered. I got compliments on my class composure from other students.
While I had some confidence problems before law school, I realized that the intervening years of law practice had magnified them about a hundred-fold. Like so many with creative abilities who get lost in law, I was told repeatedly that I was too much:
- Too sensitive
- Too emotional
- Too inconsistent
- Too loud
- Too caring
- Too interested in irrelevant details
- Too colorful
- “Just too creative” (direct quote from a review)
You get the picture. Any trait that was a creative strength was bad, very bad, in law.
So with one simple acting exercise I realized that far too often, I do still round my shoulders and apologize for existing as soon as I enter a room. Maybe less so with people I know, maybe more so with strangers who intimidate me, but regardless, I do it.
Hiding From Your Power
What I don’t do is tap into my unique strengths and release them into the world for all to see. I hide from my power. That’s the damage of being in the wrong career. Spend enough time in it, have all the best things about you derided, mocked and devalued, and you end up hiding from what is best about you.
I see a lot of clients and unhappy lawyers doing it—running away from what would really empower them and change their life and work for the better, if they would only claim their uniqueness.
So with one simple acting lesson, I’ve started looking at my behaviors, body language and words through the lens of “Am I claiming this, or am I apologizing for existing?”
Find an acting lesson or better yet, a class. See what you find out. It could be a great way to power your way into a happier future.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on reclaiming their power and strength. Find out what that feels like in a discounted sample coaching session. Schedule yours today by emailing Jennifer at email@example.com.