There’s a shit ton of empty-feeling souls in law firms and in law generally. Much of that is, as I talked about last time, because lawyers don’t actually feel like their daily work is meaningful. Those feelings of emptiness can be soul-crushing and paralyzing to those who want an alternative to a legal career.
That’s a big reason lawyers get a rap—mostly deserved—for being soulless. When you’re not doing your meaningful work regularly, your connection with the Universe, the Divine (however you conceive of that) suffers enormously. As Dr. Bréne Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Sharing our gifts and talents with the world is the most powerful source of connection with [the Universe].”
“Yeah, but,” you say. “I don’t have any talents or gifts. Or if I do, they certainly can’t pay the bills.”
Just in case you’re new here and don’t know, let me make it clear: That voice that tells you you’re not enough, that you have no talents? That’s a gremlin, aka your inner lizard.
Remember the Inner Lizard?
A brief recap on inner lizards: That’s shorthand for the amygdala, one of the most ancient physical structures in the brain. (Hence the “lizard” name: A lizard’s brain, which evolved well before human brains, has this structure as well.)
The job of the lizard brain is to broadcast fear messages, or what Martha Beck calls “lack and attack” thoughts. Lack thoughts sound like “I don’t have enough food/money/control so I need to get some to survive.” Attack thoughts sound like “The world is out to get me! I better be tough so I can defeat all those people after my stuff.”
So when you doubt you have any talent or gift, and therefore must keep doing something you hate to pay those bills, that’s lizard brain. When you think your talent is fairly worthless, or unimportant, that’s lizard brain, too.
Any time you tell yourself (or someone else tells you) you should do something, feel something, be something, it’s a klaxon alarm that there’s a self-doubt attack in progress. All those messages that you should bill more hours? Partly law firm greed, yes, but also doubt that you’re worth anything if you’re not a billing machine. The messages that work is supposed to be dreary, a grind, and that you have to choose between paying the bills and having fulfilling work? As Brown points out, those are self-doubt messages that allow fear to undermine your faith that you are someone important. And yes, you are important, just because you exist on this planet.
To get out of the self-doubt, should loop, you have to confront the real questions behind the messages. What is making you afraid? What are you doing solely because it’s on a supposed-to list in your head? Why are you choosing fear over faith?
Those are hard, hard questions, my friends, I won’t lie. They don’t have magic silver bullet answers, either. The answers are unique to each of us.
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
Ignoring your inner lizard’s messages doesn’t work as a strategy, unfortunately. Brown says “Gremlins are like toddlers. If you ignore them, they get louder.”
So here’s something to try: Acknowledge those messages. Spend a few mornings, when you first get up and before your inner lizard has had its second cup of coffee and is fully functional, and write down what those fearful messages are. Maybe they look like:
- I don’t have enough writing talent to make it as a paid writer.
- I’m not disciplined enough to be an entrepreneur.
- I don’t have an MBA and have trouble balancing my checkbook, so I can’t start a business.
- My obsessive interest in fonts and junktiqueing won’t earn me a living.
While you might worry that writing down the messages will give them yet more power, what actually happens is the opposite: they lose power. You see what you’re afraid of. It’s kind of like horror movies: The imagined monster hiding in the dark corner is often far worse than the one seen in the cold light of day.
Or, you can turn this exercise on its head, and write affirmations that feel real for you. “I can write well.” “When I’m interested in what I’m doing, I have incredible focus.” And so on. Then let the inner lizard blurt out its worst in response. Write that down, too. And then say to your lizard, “Thank you for sharing.” And keep writing that affirmation until the lizard gets bored and shuts up. It won’t take nearly as long as you fear. I promise.
Want to talk more about faith, inner lizards, and escaping your own personal work hell? Join the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on July 6, 2011 at 1:30 – 2:00 pm ET as we discuss The Gifts of Imperfection, and how you can use its lessons to transform your life and work. The book club is free! Just call (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). You don’t even need to read The Gifts of Imperfection beforehand, though after the call I promise you’ll want to. (And yes, it’s available for immediate download, for you last-minute folks.)
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who took several years to figure out one of her gifts was writing. Go figure. She helps unhappy attorneys unearth their long-ignored gifts and talents. If you would like help digging up your talents and gifts from their burial ground, schedule a discounted sample coaching session by emailing email@example.com.