Is the Pandemic Triggering Your Lawyer Perfectionism?

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Being plunged into a global pandemic crisis has a way of unsettling people, even logical thinkers like lawyers. In fact, it might be harder for lawyers, because figuring out the worst-case scenario is literally our job.

Add to that, most attorneys are poor at separating their job skills from their approach to their personal life. So I know a lot of you are vastly more anxious and depressed than usual, but maybe it doesn’t feel like a worse version of your usual depression and anxiety. Maybe it’s so much more that the feeling is very, very different.

Oh Hey, Depression, You’re Back. Did You Change Your Hair?

What I did not see coming was how my own depression, which has been infinitely better for years than it was during practice, would come roaring back. And how it would take me a while to even figure out that depression might just be the problem. 

Many of you may be in the midst of depression about surviving this highly uncertain crisis. And yes, it is damned scary, and we have plenty of solid reasons to think that covid-19 is going to sicken or kill people around us.

But survival isn’t where my mind is going. Instead, I’ve been locked in a battle against my inner critic, and it’s bizarre. I’m a monkey on my own back because I’m not writing enough, or putting on FB Live events, or pushing ahead with plans to offer a subscription service for additional coaching materials. Also, I’m not sewing, painting, or even reading much. I’m completely struggling to do nice things for myself, even though every expert on the planet tells you to. Including me!

What AM I doing? 

  • Coaching existing clients and responding to inquiries. Yay! Some minimum normal functioning.
  • Napping like it’s my side gig. Sleeping until 9am or 10 am some days.
  • I’ve done an exercise DVD twice. Go me!
  • Gardening. Sometimes that means pulling up weeds for a couple minutes. Sometimes I even plant a few lettuces or herbs. I got really crazy the other day and planted 6 whole summer bulbs!
  • Getting on Facebook and watching TV more than I care to admit.
  • Doing a few Zooms and more texting/messaging with friends. I’ve even—gasp!—called a few people, unscheduled.
  • Far too much searching online for things I would rather go out and browse for. But going out is a bad, bad idea now, so online it is.

I finally made a rule for myself starting this week that I had to change out of PJs within an hour of getting out of bed. Basically, I put on leggings and some kind of stretchy shirt. Goals, people! 

All of this not-doing-workish-stuff provides infinite fodder for my inner critic. That inner critic loves to point out the 3.27 million ways I am just not worthy or enough, and gleefully points to my current lack of productivity as proof.

His name, incidentally, is Guido. He’s a mobster thug amalgamation from people I’ve known throughout my life. He really, really doesn’t like it when I venture into new places or try creative things.

Guido’s favorite methods of attack are those cloaked in perfectionism. And that is what this current depression is mostly about: I’m not doing all those things I’ve said I would if I just had the time, the energy, or could get enough sleep. So on top of being lazy, I’m also a liar.

Guido is not good company at parties.

Objectively, I know that expecting ourselves to carry on as if nothing life-changing is happening is absurd. But part of me very much expects to have mental energy, motivation, and physical energy, too. That I will suddenly, despite all prior experience before the pandemic, be a dynamo of productivity.

Yeah, right.

How Is Your Perfection Monster Doing?

I’ll bet a wad of cash that you’re experiencing perfection expectations from either yourself, or your bosses. Likely both. Lawyers do love to pretend they can power through anything, and we have the depression, substance abuse, and suicide rates to prove it.

So instead, do your best to accept that you are living through a major, historic crisis, and that however it resolves, some things will never be the same. Accept that we are literally making this up as we go along, because we have no other choice.

You are going to feel uncomfortable and unpleasant things. You are not going to be perky and energetic often, if at all, even if that is the face you’ve decided to present to the world. 

IMG_1773

So nap if you need to nap. Be sweet and nice and protective of yourself, like you would be to a frightened 5 year-old right now.

If you are getting pressure from your law employer to perform at your peak, maybe you should send them this article. Or this one. (Unless you’re involved in deals and lawsuits that will literally save lives.) Even federal judges recognize that these are extraordinary times, and we should get a clue and perspective.

Is Your Past a Problem Again?

You may find that this current, stupendous lack of control triggers some old, old wounds that you thought were laid to rest. 

If you experienced childhood trauma (have you taken the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey to assess that?) or other serious trauma, you are probably having some kind of struggle right now. 

If you have ever grieved deaths or other losses, you could very well be re-experiencing that right now.

If you already suffered from depression or anxiety, or both, you’re probably experiencing more of it.

Speaking of anxiety—Lawyers, in particular, often experience their anxiety through increased perfection pressure. That happens at work, mostly. Yet even if work has dried up (a whole other source of anxiety!), there’s always:

  • being the perfect homeschool parent, 
  • being extremely prepared by stockpiling or taking monumental measures to clean and sanitize, or 
  • being completely, utterly informed about current developments with the pandemic.  

Those are just the tip of the iceberg.

What Gives You Calm?

I suspect that I’m struggling from the re-awakened trauma from growing up in an alcoholic household. I don’t know what is coming next, just like I didn’t know then. Plus, my reaction to being enormously scared isn’t fight or flight, but freeze. So I resemble a refrigerated sloth more often than I care to. Yippee.

Fortunately, my grown-up, gone-to-therapy self has discovered some really good coping strategies over the years. For me, the priority is to spend time outside, preferably in my garden, possibly taking walks along very deserted paths in the woods. Or even going for a drive in the country by myself.

Grown-up me also knows that I need to stay off Facebook and away from most news updates, let alone hourly ones. I am instead watching Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear at 5pm EDT a few days a week. 

andy beshear headshot next to Kentucky flag

I’m a born-and-bred Kentuckian, yes, but more importantly, Gov. Andy has a wonderfully down-to-earth, “we are all in this together” message, and frequently reassures us that we are going to be OK. There are also exhortations about being patriotic, and that this is the defining challenge for our generation. He also talks a lot about doing what we need to do to protect our people, along with chiding those who try to evade restrictions, and reminding us, “You can’t be doing that. Do what you know you should be doing. We need to protect each other.”

I find some calm and hope listening to Gov. Andy. 

I share my own current struggles not to get any sympathy, because I’m really doing better than I was (or you wouldn’t be reading this post).

Mostly, I want to let y’all know that despite all the productivity porn (love that phrase!) you may be seeing on social media, everyone is struggling right now. That struggle may look like abject denial of the existence of a crisis, to all kinds of decluttering, cleaning, and stockpiling, all the way to self-harm. 

Some Gentle Goals

There are some excellent resources (here and here, for starters) about how to take care of yourself during this time. If you feel able to adopt a few of these behaviors, that’s outstanding.

If you are utterly overwhelmed at the idea of most of them, THAT’S OK. 

 

The most important thing is figuring out what makes your inner 5-year-old feel safe and calm. Then do that!

Some ideas that your inner 5-year-old might like:

Consider singing and dancing as ways to deal with anxiety and depression. It does not matter in the slightest if you are the worst ever at these. Humans have been singing and dancing in their tribes since before recorded history. These activities are human birthrights, because they let us express a huge range of emotions. It’s hard finding words right now for what we are feeling. Let it out in other ways.

group of adults on brown grass field, dancing in disorganized group

Read and take bubble baths. Get under a weighted fuzzy blanket and go on a streaming binge! 

Meditation and yoga, or any kind of movement, are wonderful for most of us, no matter how old.

Have a little forbidden food. Unless it’s forbidden due to allergies or very serious health reasons. Hint: I’ll gain weight/it’s not paleo/vegan/low-fat are not the kind of serious health reasons I’m talking about. 

Do something for someone else. Putting a smile on another person’s face is a powerful, amazing drug. Just be sure to keep up your own self-care, OK? No martyrdom!

Make some really bad arts and crafts. Let your inner 5-year-old have fun making a glorious mess. Do not insist on pretty or Pinterest-level. Unless it’s Pinterest-fail.

Be careful with alcohol and other similar substances. A glass or two of wine nightly is probably OK right now, unless you’re a substance abuser. I’m personally up to a whopping two drinks a week lately, which is about 3 times as much as I usually drink.

Most of all, remember you are important, loved, and needed in this world.

The world has the best medicine and doctors in history, along with the best communications and technology ever known. People are working together to find solutions. To quote Gov. Andy, “We’re gonna get through this,” even though the way may not be crystal clear right now.

Be well, everyone. Take care of each other.

If you’re struggling, connect with someone and get the help you need. If you want to drop me a line about work, career, or deep questions, I’m jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes I have a few decent ideas about how to reframe what’s happening. I’ve also leveled up to Snarky Queen of Coffee & Memes™, so we can always discuss that.

 

 

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