With less exercise, the dimming light, and the breath of holidays hot on our necks, many prone to depression start feeling those tendrils wrapping themselves around our moods.
Yet depression for lawyers is not solely due to external influences or chemical imbalances. A notable chunk of it also stems from our self-talk.
Lawyers, as I’ve written about before, tend to be a pessimistic lot. Law is one of the very few professions in which pessimism actually helps job performance. Lovely, right? It makes sense if you consider the basic DNA of law: Spot the downside risk—the worst-case scenario—and protect against it.
Living on the Dark Side of Life
Let your worst-case scenario work filter become your life filter, and you’ve got an inner life that leads straight to a lot of hopelessness. Living the “always look on the dark side” kind of life means that you won’t see possibilities.
Even if you can discern some theoretical possibilities in the distance, if you lack optimism, you are nearly incapable of evaluating the real possibilities of situations right in front of you. So you quickly become stuck in a deep, craggy rut that feels impossible to escape.
“But,” you say, “I’m not pessimistic!” (I can hear these things; it’s part of the Coaching Magic Kit.™) “I’m just realistic. Everyone else just believes in fairy tales because they don’t want to face the hard, cold facts.”
But what lawyers call realism, most others classify as profoundly pessimistic. Not everyone agrees that pessimists have the lock on truth. Some even think that optimists may have a better grip on reality, in important ways. In fact, some wild, hippy-dippy economists believe that, “[f]ar from deforming our view of the future, this penchant for life’s silver lining shapes our decisions about family, health, work and finances in surprisingly prudent ways.” So concluded economists at Duke University in a 2007 study published in the Journal of Financial Economics.
Some of those prudent things included working harder, being more likely to remarry if divorced, and saving more money. Those don’t sound like things that might land you in a tight spot under a bridge, do they?
Not to fret, though: Those of you who are hardened pessimists will be glad to know that extreme optimists displayed more dysfunctional financial and life behaviors; the prudent optimists were the moderate ones.
The head of the neuroscience lab at NYU, Dr. Elizabeth Phelps, has pointed out, “If you are pessimistic, you are unlikely to even try” to do things that will help you improve or guard your health. Wow. This may, just possibly, sound like a familiar dynamic to lawyers.
Is Pessimism Wrecking Your Life?
The good news is, pessimism is not completely hard-wired. It is, to a significant extent, learned behavior. That means, naturally, that it can be unlearned, and replaced with more useful ways of viewing problems.
Dr. Martin Seligman, in fact, wrote his first provocative book, Learned Optimism, based on this idea and his research. Although it was written in 1990, this work remains a fantastic read, and I have been recommending a lot to clients lately.
Before dismissing out of hand the idea that a book about optimism would help you tackle real life, ask yourself:
- How is my health?
- How are my relationships with colleagues?
- How are my relationships with family and friends?
- Does my life always feel difficult?
- How often do I feel hopeless about my life and my future?
If you aren’t pleased with your answers to those questions, consider taking a survey on the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website, https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu (Go to the Questionnaires tab, and select the Optimism Test. For kicks, you might also take the CES-D survey, which helps you assess depression.) You might be surprised at the results.
- Are more prone to depression
- Are more likely to be sick
- Are less likely to persevere in the face of difficulty
This sounds like the recipe for an unhappy life, to me. Maybe it’s time to re-think your pessimism, and aim for realism.
The Beast Can Be Trained
How do you do that? There are many paths. One that I have found useful is to listen to your own self-talk, and identify the point at which observation shifts into judgment. For example:
You are working late one night to get a draft done by a tight deadline. Upon review the next day, you find a sentence partially repeated next to the full sentence.
What’s your self-talk?
#1. Is it, “Oops, I made a mistake when I was tired last night. I need to fix it somehow ASAP!”
#2. Or might it, just possibly, be “I screwed up. Holy shit, why do I always screw up details like this? I am not cut out for lawyering. I suck at detail work. Smith is going to have a cow. She’ll fire the firm if she sees this. I have to get this fixed before she finds out.”
If you live on the pessimist side of life, I’m willing to bet that your self-talk sounds a lot more like door #2.
That path is a well-greased skid in your brain. But you can create a new neural pathway. It takes time and patience, but as a recovering pessimist, I promise it can be done. The first step is to catch yourself ranting. And say to yourself, “STOP!” before you get any further than, “I screwed up.” If necessary, say this out loud. I mean it. Refuse to go down the rest of that self-flagellating road.
Instead, focus on what you can do to remedy the mistake. A lot of the time, a simple email with a new attachment, and an explanation of, “I reviewed this again, and discovered a small error. It’s been fixed in the attached draft. Sorry for the inconvenience,” will smooth over a lot of mistakes, with minimal, if any, blow-back.
But What About the Jerks I Work With?
Are there people who will use any error, no matter how small, against you? Of course. You probably work with half a dozen of them. But you can’t control their reactions.
That may be the single hardest statement for any lawyer to accept. It might not seem fair. But it’s true. At best, you might be able to influence a perception. But if it’s not your perception, you can never, ever control it.
The only thing you can do is fix the situation and move the heck on. Take whatever action you can, and let the situation go, even if people say unkind things. As Ron White is fond of saying, “You can’t fix stupid.”
And you can’t fix other pessimists. You can only fix yourself. That’s plenty to work on, my friends.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering pessimist. She still uses gratitude lists to help her get back on track when the pessimism tide rolls in. If you want to work on your pessimism, and imagine a better career and life, contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a sample coaching session.