Therapy can be a great tool to help you see the reasons why you keep making the same mistakes, taking the same kind of crappy jobs (hint, hint, unhappy lawyers), or to help you deal with past abuse.
But after you’ve had those insights and worked out the raw hurt, anger or grief, therapy keeps trying to fix you, to bring you to a norm of some sort. To do that, often you end up repeating the same unhappy stories for weeks, months, or years.
There are LOTS of lawyers in therapy. Many of them are there because they hate their career and don’t know why. Therapy can help many lawyers see the patterns in their lives that were invisible before, and that’s good.
Yet as Dr. Martha Beck points out in Steering by Starlight (p. 90), there’s a danger that by focusing your attention on all those negative, painful events, your response to all the problems life throws at you is to fondle that story. The depressed, dysfunctional parent, the alcoholic parent, the constant pressure to perform and deny your true inclinations—whatever therapy reveals, it can become your narrative, and the reason you can’t move forward. You’re putting so much into seeing how your current life fits into the plot of the story—I’m always broke, I always work hard but never get ahead, people I trust always betray me, no one understands me—that any energy you do have to make changes can get sucked into supporting the plotline. It’s not necessarily a conscious choice, but it can and does happen.
The tendency in therapy to dwell on the negative is one of the reasons Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and former president of the American Psychological Association, decided to shake things up a bit in the world of psychology. He’s founded a whole new branch, positive psychology. I’m fascinated by this, since coaching is based on some of the positive psychology principles.
Positive psychology focuses on six “virtues,” each with underlying character strengths, that research has shown are valued worldwide, from the poorest to the richest countries (quoting from Dr. Seligman’s article):
1. Wisdom and knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
- Creativity–Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
- Curiosity–Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
- Open-mindedness–Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
- Love of learning–Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
- Perspective–Being able to provide wise counsel to others
2. Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal
- Authenticity–Speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
- Bravery–Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
- Persistence–Finishing what one starts
- Zest–Approaching life with excitement and energy
3. Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others
- Kindness–Doing favors and good deeds for others
- Love–Valuing close relations with others
- Social intelligence–Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
4. Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
- Fairness–Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
- Leadership–Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
- Teamwork–Working well as member of a group or team
5. Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess
- Forgiveness–Forgiving those who have done wrong
- Modesty–Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
- Prudence–Being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
- Self-regulation–Regulating what one feels and does
6. Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence–Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life
- Gratitude–Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
- Hope–Expecting the best and working to achieve it
- Humor–Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
- Religiousness–Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life
Kind of sobering that almost none of these virtues and character strengths are valued at the average law firm, BigLaw or otherwise. Which certainly explains a lot.
On the website of the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman teaches, you can take a slew of evaluative tests about your happiness level. There are tests on work-life satisfaction, optimism, and grit, among many others.
To take the tests, you need to create a free account. Since these test results are used for academic research, they do ask for some personal data from you—occupation, age, address, education level. They anonymize the data. In return, you can access your test results at any time, and the software tracks which of the tests you have taken, and lets you re-take and compare results. Might be interesting to take one on a Friday afternoon and a Sunday evening and see if there’s a different result.
Getting back to whether therapy is keeping you stuck—what do you think? If you’ve been in therapy for a while, do you feel you’re making progress, reflected by better decisions, an increased happiness level, a decreased depression level?
If you’ve been feeling stalled for a while, maybe it’s time to give the story fondling a rest, and try story inventing instead. Focus on the warmth of the sun on your back, even as a cold breeze buffets you. Using positive psychology techniques, you can write a better story for yourself.
And if you don’t feel you can do it by yourself, you could, say, give coaching a try.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who loves coaching lawyers to write their own fairy-tale endings–and she offers discounted sample coaching sessions, too. What would your story ending be? Drop her a line at email@example.com.