Time to Talk, Depressed Lawyers. To Yourself.

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.

do not feed fears signYet 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.”

Well, maybe.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 8.50.06 AM

A brain on optimism. From the Wall St. Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB119454102049486710

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.

Pessimists:

  • 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:

beauty-and-the-beast1You 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.

jerk you will get used to memeThat 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 jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a sample coaching session.

Perfection, Depression and Lawyers

There’s been a lot written about depression and suicide in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. But nary a pixel of that coverage about depression and suicide has been devoted to lawyers’ struggles with these demons, with the notable exception of Lawyers With Depression.

What's your favorite mask to wear when you're feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

What’s your favorite mask to wear when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

The complete blind eye in the legal press about lawyers and depression mirrors the wholesale denial among most lawyers that we have a whopping problem, Houston:  (Skip ahead if you know these statistics by heart.)

  • 18% of lawyers exhibit signs of clinical depression, 3.6 times that of the average population;
  • 25% of lawyers exhibit symptoms of anxiety, the close cousin of depression;
  • 18% of lawyers who practice 2 to 20 years have substance abuse problems (nearly twice that of the average population); after 20 years of practice, the substance abuse jumps to 25% of lawyers; and
  • Lawyers are 4th on the list of professions whose members are most likely to commit suicide.

Indeed, a therapist I know once told me that between the elevated depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rates among lawyers, he estimates that 80% to 90% of the profession is suffering from Continue reading

Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

When people ask me why I left law, I usually tell them that my personality didn’t fit into law, that I found it excrutiatingly boring, and that I really wanted to do something I liked. Which is all true. I also sound less bitter than if I l tell them that frankly, I couldn’t deal with all the asshole lawyer behavior. That was the bottom line for me.

The most consistent complaints I hear from clients about law firms are the toxicity and dysfunctionality of firms, and billable hours. Those two things are actually related, but for now I’m going to focus on the asshole side of things. Fun!

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

For the 25 or so years I’ve been in and around law, the disdain the majority of law firm lawyers have for feelings and values has done nothing but grow. I recently read that as far back as the Stone Age, aka the 1950s,  this has been a problem for the legal profession. No less a luminary than Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1950s, said, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with the impersonal law.”

One of the big drivers of lawyers’ inability to appreciate and deal with emotions stems from a core skill of any competent lawyer: the ability to analyze problems in a detached, objective,  and logical manner. This is the Thinker default, in Myers-Briggs personality terminology. In other words, being dispassionate and logical is the default, the comfort zone for the vast majority of lawyers. (The opposing end of the Thinker axis is the Feeler, who are primarily concerned with values and what is best for the people involved.)

According to research of Dr. Larry Richard, a legal consultant, psychologist and former practicing attorney himself, about 70% of lawyers are Thinkers. Some place that number even higher, near 80%. I’d take a wild guess that for law firm leadership, it’s more like 90%. The high percentage of Thinkers controlling law firms, and the almost universally dysfunctional work environments of law firms, are not just an accident or coincidence.

Lawyers Are Emotional Idiots

Just because people default to Thinking as their preferred problem-solving tool doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, or that they cannot use a Feeler approach to solve problems. But what it does mean is that they often are not very adept at situations that require facility with managing feelings.

Another way of looking at the source of law firm dysfunction and toxicity is via the Calpers Personality Profile. I’m not any kind of expert on it, but Ronda Muir, author of The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers (an excellent read), is. She pegs something important about law firm dysfunction when she says:

[S]kepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end.  The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90.  This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.  However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into partnership meetings, team deliberations and committee work (as well as personal relationships) that may call for more trust and collaboration. (emphasis added)

Also, when it comes to emotional intelligence, Muir points out that lawyers often don’t perceive their own, let alone others’, emotions. So “the emotional data that they are analyzing day in and day out is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate Continue reading

50 Days of Joy—Yes, Even for Lawyers

A lot of you may remember that I sing in a church choir. It’s one of the most joyful things I do. But every year, during Lent, I’m gritting my teeth. To put it very, very mildly, I do not like Lent. It tends to turn into a lot of hairshirt-wearing, about seeing who can give up the hardest thing. And often, posting about it on Facebook. A spiritual competition, oxymoron that THAT is.

Yes, you can find joy even when you're holding a frog.

Yes, you can find joy even when you’re holding a frog.

From a coaching point of view, hairshirt-wearing is toxic because people spend a lot of time focusing on their shortcomings and beating themselves up about them. And I know from years of experience, both personally and with clients, that where your focus and energy goes, so goes your life.

People who feel awful about themselves rarely accomplish anything close to what they’re capable of, and (bonus!) they’re really unpleasant to be around. They drag everyone down with them, whether they mean to or not.

So when, during Easter Vigil, Mother Tracy said we should spend the 50 days of Eastertide before Pentecost being joyful, I was all ears.

The Kind of Joy That Counts

Lawyers, for lots of reasons, tend to overlook, dismiss, or minimize the little joys in life. For something to count as truly joyful, it has to be BIG. Overlooking the Grand Canyon, rather than Continue reading

Shedding Light on Lawyer Creativity

When I first read The Artist’s Way (still the best book on creative recovery out there), I kept searching and searching my memories for those Creative Monster moments. Those are the ones seared in your memory, where someone makes you feel about 2 inches small over some creative effort. The teacher who crumples up your precious doodle and throws it in the trashcan, and lectures you about not wasting time. The person who sniffs at your very first attempts at writing poetry as “not exactly Shakespeare, is it?”

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Except, I couldn’t really dredge up anything. I had no huge scarring experience to heal from. I felt so wimpy—why couldn’t I just get over my fear of doing something highly creative, of writing the novel I long to write?

Hell, I coach people all the time about vulnerability, and I practice it in many ways. I am pretty darn good, I must say, at detaching from a lot of society’s judgments and not feeling “less than.” I often go without makeup (at 47, this is getting more and more daring!), I don’t value myself by how much stuff I have or whether or not I go on exotic, glamorous-sounding vacations.

But yet, the fear ran deep. And I kind of despised myself for being unable to just get over it. (Yep, we all have our issues, life coaches included.)

Peering into the Past

A few months ago, I got together with both of my sisters and their kids. It was the first time in a couple years we had all gathered at one of our houses. We embarked on a game of Quelf. (If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Lots of wacky yet intelligent fun, great for a wide age range.)

In Quelf, one of the possibilities is drawing a card that requires everyone to come up with synonyms to a word. The word on one particular turn was “night.” There was the predictable “dark,” and a few other equally predictable synonyms. Then it was my turn.

“Inky,” I said.

“WHAT????” exclaimed both sisters. “How is that about night?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“No, how is ‘inky’ about night?” they demanded.

My inner dialogue went like this: “Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a big stretch. Maybe I am just weird. No, wait Continue reading

Saddest Lawyers: “I Don’t Even Know What I Like Doing”

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there's iPads for distraction, right?

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there’s iPads for distraction, right?

A lot of you know you hate law. But a lot of you also do not know what you would do if you had free time, except maybe sleep. I’m not talking about taking any steps toward making a career change, mind you; I’m talking about the basic concept of doing something purely for fun.

People who have no idea of how to have fun have been marching along to society’s, parents’, and teachers’ idea of what they should do for a very, heartbreakingly long time. They have become numb to their own desires and their own voice.

Far too many lawyers fall into this category. One-third to one-half of my clients usually fall into this category when they initially contact me. It’s often the result of being a smart kid who does well in school. Those around you think all those A’s should be encouraged; after all, those grades will be terrific on your college application.

And that may be just fine with you, because great grades sure look like the start of the path to a good life, and you like school anyway. In fact, you internalize all this and don’t explore non-academic things that won’t help that college application, like art, dancing, writing poetry, ultimate frisbee, or making goofy videos. Because unless you have some unbelievable gift in a non-academic area, these things aren’t likely to win you awards and praise. They are, sadly, usually viewed as time-wasters.

Except, they’re not. Exploring stuff simply because you’re interested in it is how you get to know yourself and honor Continue reading

Compassion for the Asshole Lawyers in Your Life

I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.

boy with angry sneer on face

A mean little kid, or a kid who just got told by his step-dad that he wasn’t included in the lavish vacation plans to Disney?

But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?

The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.

In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson

For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.

But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.

I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.

Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Continue reading

What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands

Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating; Continue reading

What It Takes For Miserable Lawyers To Blossom

The hardest part of a life change for lawyers, whether it’s your career or other important parts of your life, usually is the waiting. In our go-go, get-it-done-NOW culture, waiting is seen as weak, passive, and therefore completely unacceptable.

Punga tree fern frond

Your inner wisdom may be curled up in a ball and rocking inside, but give it a little attention and love, and it will unfurl in ways that will astound you.

Unfortunately, it’s also very necessary for any big change to occur. Miserable lawyers, especially, hate this fact. They fight, they rail, they apply to any job that looks like it will propel them out of their current misery into something new and at least different.

Adjusting to the new is at least something to do. It serves as a fine distraction indeed from facing the harder questions of any real job or life change: What do I really, truly, want?

Note that the question is not, “What do I want that allows me to maintain my career status and income and doesn’t make me miserable?” I get that question a lot; it’s usually from folks who want a menu of 5 things they can do with their law degree that aren’t practicing law. People who can answer that question for you abound, and if you’re not willing to put your heart and your true self into career change, I suggest you contact one of them. Everyone will be happier, at least in the short run.

But if you’re at the point where you’ve tried changing law firms, or even given up law firms for safe alternatives like government or in-house, and still you can barely get yourself into the office, Continue reading

Thawing the Frozen Souls of Unhappy Lawyers

At this point in winter, even people who aren’t miserable lawyers are growing desperate. The eternal cold (except on the odd day when it’s 50 degrees), the oppression of snow, and the stingy daylight are, obviously, going to go on forever. Your life feels frigid, meaningless, and depressing. And that’s if you’re a fairly happy, life-ain’t-bad person.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, plunging, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, radically warming up, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

For unhappy attorneys, the situation feels yet more dire. Your soul was already stuck in permanent winter before the actual cold and dark encroached. Now, getting out of bed and getting to work are sheer acts of will and heroism. More than a few of you may have sneaked a look at your insurance policy’s coverage for being a mental health in-patient, and wondered if you could convince someone you are a danger to yourself or others. Three days away from billable hours and all your other worries sounds like a sweet deal.

If you are at this point, don’t despair just yet. I have some tricks you can use to summon back a few flickers of light. Soon enough, actual sunshine will start to appear, the Heat Miser will again triumph over the Cold Miser, and life will feel a bit better.

1. Consider Hibernation.

Winter is a time of quiet and stillness, and of dreams. If we insist on keeping the same frenetic pace year-round, we miss out on the renewal time that is crucial to long-term, sustainable functioning. If you feel like you need to sleep more, then turn off the TV early, and GO TO BED.

2. Consider a Polar Plunge.

OK, I’m not really suggesting you do one of those crazy jump-into-a-34-degree-lake things. Unless that’s your thing. I am suggesting a plunge into something that makes you stretch and sweat and generally reach a bit, physically.

This can be as simple as Continue reading