As a society, and especially as lawyers, we have trained ourselves to panic and fight when “the worst” happens. If you’re reading this blog, that worst may be that law job you have right now, the law job that is killing your soul hour by hour. You’re desperate and hyperventilating that you may never get out. I get that, seeing as I was there a dozen years ago.
We don’t think that fighting a nasty job situation is panicking, but at base that’s what declaring an event or situation “bad” is about. It’s a kind of black-and-white thinking that limits our resiliency, and hampers our creativity in responding to life’s ups and downs.
I’ve been reflecting on how we react when “the worst” happens in our lives. There are lots of “worsts” in modern life: identity theft, bankruptcy, divorce, death, having to clean up someone’s poop, losing your job, illness, abandonment. Sometimes, it’s even stuff like coming home at 11 p.m. from a day of being chewed out, and having to clean up really mucky, nasty trash that your neighbor’s dog strewed across your yard.
A lot of times, our first instinct is to throw ourselves a huge, whopping pity party: Why can’t anything ever go right? Could this happen at a worse time? Why me?
Yes, it does absolutely, totally suck to get kicked in the teeth. It hurts. It makes you vulnerable. I’m not suggesting you should pretend otherwise.
But those Why Me? questions–They’re a form of hanging on to those hurts, and that hanging on is what gets all of us in trouble. When you get stuck in the story of just how bad life is treating you, it doesn’t help you move on, heal, and live joyfully. If you use the bad event to wallow in your story of how your life sucks, your life will continue to suck. Trust me on this. I practiced this kind of story wallowing for years and years. It didn’t help.
Tapping Into Strength
What did help, ultimately, was getting in touch with my strengths, most of which were not valued in law. One of those strengths is creativity, and I started with writing. Now, I dabble in all kinds of things, and it brings me a peace and wholeness that helps me walk through those worsts, rather than getting sucked down into despair.
In the last couple years, I’ve kept on track and in touch with my strengths with a creativity group. Finally, we are meeting again after our holiday hiatus, and oh, how I love that group! I always gets inspired, and see things in a new way. They’re my tribe. (If you don’t have a tribe, work on joining or assembling one. It’s one of the best things you can do for your alternative legal career search. A few thoughts on how, here.)
At my creativity group yesterday, we did some totally cool journaling exercises. (Thanks, P!) I’ll share some others later, but one really jumped out at me as a kind of gratitude list on steroids, and a really useful tool for pulling through tough times in better shape than when you went it.
Surviving and Thriving Through the “Worst Thing”
Here’s what you do: Think of one of those “worst things” in your life. It can be something going on now, or something that haunts you. It doesn’t have to be huge, it just has to bother you a lot. Some examples:
- paying taxes,
- getting repeatedly cut off in traffic,
- sucky job,
- constant interruptions from your control freak boss,
- dirty laundry,
- long lines,
- red lights,
- things in your house that break,
Now, get out a sheet of paper/open a new document, and write “I am grateful for [that thing] because . . .” Then contemplate your worst thing, and look for its silver lining. Yes, it will require some shifts in your thinking. You’ll have to change your story. That’s the point.
Let’s take a really mundane example: a knocked-over trash can with nasty, mucky contents. This happened to one woman, who, as she picked up the mushy banana, reminded herself she was grateful for having food; as she bent over to pick up more trash, was grateful that her body worked well enough that she could bend over; as she placed the cleaned-up trash can back on the curb, that she lived in a city and country where there was reliable trash pickup and clean streets. You get the idea.
I’m in the midst of one of those worsts, myself, so this ain’t no airy-fairy theory: my 99 year-old father-in-law is dying. The amazing thing is that until about 6 months ago, he was totally rocking it. He had his faculties, was able to walk to the mailbox, and only started saying he felt old just before he turned 99 in the fall. Would that we all were so fortunate.
For myself, I’ve been incredibly grateful as we have been scrambling with some logistics of getting my husband to his dad’s bedside, 1,000 miles away. I’ve realized what an incredible support network I have now as I face days or weeks of single parenthood. It warms me from the inside. It’s making this whole situation so much better, just knowing that people are a phone call or text away if I need help.
Being grateful in the midst of awfulness is a skill that gets better with practice, and infuses your whole life. You might want to start small, with “worst things” that aren’t some of the universal biggies, like death, divorce or depression. Just start somewhere. After a few weeks of practicing gratitude in the midst of trial, you’ll start to notice a shift. You bounce back more quickly from whatever life hands you. Your step becomes lighter. You’ll really get hooked, because life will feel easier.
And if you can’t find anything to be grateful about, drop me a line. I’d love to help you develop your gratitude skills, so you can change your life.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys find tools to change their lives and work. Try a discounted, sample coaching session to find out what that’s like. Email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org today to schedule yours.