Workaholic Lawyers, Avoiding Life

So did you actually take any time off during Memorial Day weekend? Maybe even the whole (gasp) 3 days? I hope so. Too many lawyers have no boundaries about holidays any more. Well, actually they don’t have any boundaries when it comes to work, period. Never mind that constant work makes the work that you do suck big hairy donkey, um, parts.

man sick in bed with laptop
If you've ever worked in your sickbed, you might be a workaholic.

But did you know that overwork, aka workaholism, is a way of numbing out? I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so rampant among lawyers: Lawyers are so often depressed (3 times more so than the general population, remember?) or perfectionists, or both. One way to avoid feeling or dealing with pain is to work. Because then you have something to focus on besides those horrible, painful feelings.

Trust me, I’ve used that tactic. It works—for a little while. Eventually, though, the work novocaine wears off and you either have to re-numb, or feel something.

Even if you’re not depressed, chances are if you’re reading this blog, you’re not happy in some major way. Your work doesn’t fulfill you in any way that has meaning for you. Your relationships are fraught with difficulty, conflict, or something not great. You work in an environment that should have OSHA warnings, it’s so toxic. You are avoiding something big, perhaps, like taking the risk to do what you’re called to do—something that probably doesn’t have a steady, high paycheck and/or societal approval attached to it.

Numbing out is our way of avoiding pain, but it has the unfortunate downside of numbing us to joy as well. When we numb out, we embrace less than our full humanity. We become less, sometimes far less, than our full selves.

Wow, doesn’t that sound appealing.

Ways To Numb Out (Don’t Try These at Home)

Dr. Brene Brown writes about numbing out and lots of other interesting things in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. She’s a recovering perfectionist, along with a researcher into those messy areas of the human heart like shame. (Her TED video is some of the best 20 minutes you’ll spend this year, promise.) She shares a fascinating list of the things she has used to numb out:

  • Email
  • Work
  • Staying busy
  • Incessant worry
  • Planning
  • Perfectionism
  • Banana bread
  • Chips and queso
  • Alcohol

Shopping, drugs, overeating, TV and web surfing/FaceBook are some other common favorites for numbing out. As is certainty, that emotion we’re addicted to in American politics these days. They all stave off vulnerability. As Brown writes, while vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, it’s the emotion that is the key to leading a life of authenticity, connection and joy.

I’ve been really wowed with Brown and her insights into perfectionism, that consistent demon of most lawyers. So I’ve decided to try something a little different: a summer book club for unhappy lawyers. (Happy lawyers are welcome, too!) We’ll start with The Gifts of Imperfection.

How the Book Club Will Work

On July 6, 2011 I’ll host a half-hour conference call at 1:30pm ET. The call-in number is (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). Or like my FaceBook page and get more frequent updates about the book club, like questions I’m pondering as I read, or insights that may not make it into a blog post.

Between now and then, I’ll write a few posts about The Gifts of Imperfection, which will include my take on points in the book that can be particularly helpful (or vexing) for lawyers who want to change careers or find a better place for themselves in law.

If there are specific questions you would like me to address, email them to me and I will make sure to talk about them on July 6.

This isn’t going to be only me talking. (OK, I hope it’s not going to be.) While you’re free to listen only, I’d really like to have a discussion. This is about giving folks a space for a community that’s hard to find in real life. I hope to start building more community here in the coming months. I’d love for you all to be part of that.

You can start reading The Gifts of Imperfection any time you like, even after the book club discussion. But you’ll get more out of if it if you read beforehand.

Oh, and tell your friends. Because we’re all in this together, folks.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist. Which may be roughly the same thing. She coaches unhappy attorneys on feeling their feelings, ugly or pretty, embracing their full selves and leaving perfectionism in the dirt. Which usually translates into finding a new job or direction in life. Find out what that’s like with a discounted sample coaching session. Schedule yours today by emailing


  1. Thanks for this tip – will find a copy of the book and start reading. The numbing out idea is interesting.

  2. Sometimes I find myself involved in the rat race of my legal profession and I have to force myself to take time off. I mean force myself the way one forces oneself to go to the dentist or do something else they don’t want to do. And like “self-motivating” it becomes a habit. For some people taking time off is a muscle that has to be exercised and built up. Develop the good habit of taking some time for yourself and not thinking about work. It’s worth it.

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