Stress has always been rife in the legal industry.
The traits that make us good lawyers – if not understood or countered – feed our stress and impact our ability to be happy.
It’s a bit of a conundrum. We need to be careful about mistakes, but being overly perfectionist can lead to black and white thinking and procrastination. We need to be aware of risks and what can go wrong, but constantly thinking about the negatives can lead to a depressive outlook. Despite trying to liberate ourselves from the hourly rate, we still work in a “pay per hour” industry where unhealthy working practices are mistaken for success.
Being aware of the how the traits of lawyers can feed the stress cycle is important so we can take responsibility for managing this. We need to build in positive intention, activities and cultures to counter the negative tendencies and prioritise kindness, health and happiness. This will lead to greater motivation, productivity and innovation – so everyone’s a winner.
This has never been important than it is right now, after what we have collectively been through.
We have several default settings, universal realities that exacerbate our stress response. To that end, I want to award you 4As. The 4As can act as antidotes to the negative consequences of these defaults. Being the high achievers you are, I know that’s an exciting prospect!
We are each divided into body, mind and consciousness – or awareness.
Most of the time we are on autopilot, tied up in our thoughts and at the mercy of our emotions. Stress starts with our minds but manifests in our bodies physiologically, often leading to chronic conditions and impacting our mental health. A primary antidote to this is Awareness. If we can become aware of our thoughts, we can choose to not engage. We can manage and be free of them and their consequences. Build in the habit of regularly checking in with yourself, as you might do with your own team. Take a breath and ask yourself “how am I doing” and “what do I need”. You may become aware of an underlying mood that you hadn’t noticed. You may realise you haven’t taken a breath for a while due to the stress of your inbox (“email apnea” is actually a thing!). You may dislodge some rigid thinking to create space for innovation.
You can never get enough awareness. Building a practice to regularly inhabit that space will make a noticeable difference.
Another of our defaults is that our greatest motivator is fear. Fear of not being enough. Our amygdala is fully formed at the time of birth – primed for fear, looking for risks and ensuring that we are protected by our tribe. The need for acceptance by others means early life experiences will often lead us to believe that we are not good / clever / successful / appropriate enough. We become the narrative we tell ourselves in order to fit in and be accepted, whilst all the while feeling deficient. That fear then drives our behaviours and character. We may become perfectionists, people pleasers or over-achievers in our search for acceptance.
The first step is to understand what our fear is, how it crystallised and how it has impacted our lives. An immediate step to counter its impact is to develop adoration… for ourselves. You are wonderfully unique and don’t deserve anyone’s judgement, not least your own. Especially as you now recognise that your thoughts and fears are not actually you. Self-compassion is scientifically proven to improve long term health and happiness and equips you to help you serve others better. The concept of self-compassion is sometimes confused for conceit or self-pity, but it’s actually about being the very best friend you can be – to yourself.
As human beings, we have a dysfunctional relationship with time. The past hurts. We are worried about what might happen in the future. We are waiting for something to happen before we can be happy. We find it a challenge to be present. Yet this moment is the only reality there is, so it means we are in danger of missing most of our lives. Regretting the past or anxiety for the future is pointless, exhausting and unhealthy. The antidote here is Acceptance. You will have heard the phrase to ‘control the controllables’, but we must also understand and actively accept the uncontrollables. I don’t mean that we should give up all ambition, but that we strive consciously in the context of reality as opposed to flailing continually in a world of fantasy. It’s only by first fully accepting reality, can we fully be present and then go on to ‘be like water’ (à la Bruce Lee), which brings us to the next A.
We also have a dysfunctional relationship with circumstance. Often our circumstances are not good enough. We compare our circumstances with other people’s. We resist or reject our situation, and/or wait for something better to happen. We find ourselves in a constant state of resistance – swimming upstream, trying to control all aspects of our circumstances and outcomes. Pointless and exhausting. Autonomy is a basic human need. It’s our need and ability to ‘control the controllables’. Taking full responsibility for that which we can own allows us to enjoy the process and the outcome. That’s how we can enjoy the journey rather than waiting only for the destination.
Finally, a thought about the extent to which our unconscious pursuit of success may be contributing to our stress. What is the success that we’re striving for? Is it what our parents had wanted for us, what society deems to be success, what our friends would approve of or the success a much younger version of ourselves had wanted and which we are now trapped to pursue? Is the fear of not being good enough driving us towards an ‘empty’ success and is that leaving us unhappy? Is there a delta between what might really fulfil us and what we are chasing after? To what extent is this causing a ‘background stress’ in our lives? Not living in line with our inner (often unexplored) values can cause anxiety and give more fuel to our inner critic. Bringing awareness of this is the first step to bringing more order and congruity to our lives.
To end on a note of self-compassion again. For lawyers everywhere right now. The way we pursue success is important. After a year of exhausting challenges, we need to push ourselves gently, as a kind and encouraging friend or coach, not as an inner sergeant major.
I hope this framework gives you something useful to reflect upon when it comes to caring for yourselves as professionals and finding the support you need after a year of constant stress.
At LexSolutions, we work with law firms and in-house legal teams on programmes to help them develop wellbeing, culture and innovation – whether at an individual or organisational level. We would love to talk to you about how this could work for you or your team. Drop us a line at @ firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a chat on how we can work together.
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