Three Skills for Overcoming Depression

 

“Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Author, Regina Brett

The legal profession and those who shape it devote plenty of time to the practical side of being a lawyer; the nuts-and-bolts of how to do, for example, a Will and Estate.  Precious little time, however, is spent on teaching lawyers how to maneuver skillfully through their lives not just as professionals, but as people. 

Three years ago, when I first went public with my depression, I suggested to a Bar Association director that we put on a half-day Continuing Legal Education Seminar on Depression.  She looked at me oddly — as if her face were about to crumble — and said “Who in the world is going to show up for that.” With some trepidation, I went forward expecting twenty people – over 125 showed up.  Lawyers are hungry for meaning in their lives and want direction from other people in the business. 

Ideally, every young lawyer should be paired with a mentor, a wise elder of the law.  Lacking that, few lawyers have examples of how to deal with the profession in a healthy and meaningful manner.  Is it any wonder then that lawyers suffer from depression at twice the rate of the average citizen? 

We live in a profession where people endure a real pain, trauma and meaninglessness in the hope that it will get better “someday” in the indeterminate future.  That someday may come sooner than later in the form of early retirement forced by burnout, unforeseen illness or some sort of divine intervention.  I don’t see this as pessimistic, but as realistic.  My goal is to wake lawyers up to the real costs of approaching their vocation with only nut-and-bolts in their tool chest.  We are not crude machines in need of tune-ups.  We are living beings in need of emotional and spiritual sustenance.

Depression is a type of half-living; we go to work, raise our children, sip lattes, do wheelies on our mountain bikes or grill steaks on the grill.  But there is something vital within us always yearning just below the surface, something that seeks expression in our lives. Perhaps the situation wouldn’t be so dire for the legal profession if our time as lawyers were just okay – a manageable amount of stress, decent interactions with people and fair wages.  But it isn’t okay; it’s completely out of balance: too much stress, combative interactions and wages, albeit much higher than the average American worker, that exacts a tremendous toll on our brains and bodies.

Is there any hope, any way out of this legal conundrum?  I think there is because I have seen it happen in my own life, and in the lives of scores of other lawyers.  For most – including me—the pain decibels have to be jacked up pretty high for us to conclude that change is better than living one’s life this way. 

Carl Jung, a former protégé of Sigmund Freud, offers us a great deal of wisdom for dealing with our modern day psyche.  He never preached a “top ten” ways to overcome depression, but some of his essential wisdom can be summarized for the modern reader.  In dealing with melancholy, he said that there were three essential steps that we need to take – and no one else can take them for us.

In his book “Why Good People Do Bad Things,” James Hollis, a student of Jung, writes:

“To gain the positive values arising from the “landfill” we call the Shadow [i.e. to learn the painful lessons that depression is trying to teach us], we have to wrestle with Jung’s suggestion that to be a full , we have to know what we want, and do it.  Knowing what we want, really, takes a lot of sorting.  And living what we find, really, takes a lot of courage and endurance.  In reflecting on the task of therapy, Jung once noted that it can only bring us insight.  Then, he said, come the moral qualities of our character – courage to face what must be faced, and then to take the leap, and the endurance to stick it out until we arrive at the place intended for us from the beginning. So much of our lives have been lived through reflexive adaptations [unexamined emotional habits grounded in our past], so knowing what we really want is difficult, and then scary, but it feels right when we live it, as were meant to do.”

Here’s a great presentation by Dr. Hollis about finding a meaningful path in life.

Insight

Most of us are, at best, barely aware of things we do and why we do them.  Many stuck in the muck of depression are doing things that actually encourage their distress without knowing they are doing so.  As Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., points out, “Depressives keep doing the things they’ve always done because they don’t know how to do anything else.”  They’ve become experts at “depressing.”

 Insight means that we begin to see the causes of our distress and our role in perpetuating it.  As Dr. O’Connor has said: “We aren’t to blame for depression, but we are responsible for getting better.”  To fulfill that responsibility, we need to develop ideas of what and how to do things differently in our lives and we can only do that when we have some insight into why things are going so wrong.  Absent this, we will continue to drift; to be a sort of unhappy ghost in the world.

We can become educated, in a dialogue with our therapist, about the origins of our depression and the old wounds that we will need to revisit in order to heal.  It’s in the safety of a therapist’s office where we learn to stop blaming others and – perhaps a bigger problem for depressives – ourselves.  Blaming ourselves is replaced by the recognition that bad things did happen to us as children that were not our fault.  In fact, much of our negative thinking and painful emotions were learned and endured here.  They don’t go away – we carry them into hood.  Numerous studies have concluded that one of the major indicators for onset depression is trauma, neglect or abuse during childhood.  Blaming others is replaced by the recognition that this just keeps us stuck and resentful.

We shouldn’t give ourselves license to remain stuck in our childhoods and abdicate our responsibility in the here and now to create a healthy life. Our responsibility is to find a way to empower ourselves so that we can get on with living a fulfilling –instead of futile—life.

Courage

Once we get insight, we need to then act on it. Jung suggests that this isn’t something a therapist can give you. It’s your job to leave that one hour session and go out into the world and experiment with your newly found knowledge. In short, you will need courage.

Too often, people achieve hard-fought insight, but then their recovery doesn’t go very far because they don’t put their wisdom into action.  In my experience, action can be stressful because it involves stepping out of depression’s cave (a dark cave, yes, but also cozy in its own destructive sort of way) and risking new behaviors or feeling emotions long suppressed.   We can even feel great shame – a sense of cowardice—if we don’t change because in some sense, we feel we now “know better.”  

Pilot Amelia Earhart once wrote: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.”  We are never at peace until we act in congruity with our inner truth.

I’ve have talked to hundreds of lawyers across the country who say that they “have to” stay a lawyer, as if it is a form of servitude that was somehow imposed on them.  This seems to me a variation of depression’s theme that they are helpless.  This is not to suggest and I’m unsympathetic or unrealistic about the very real impediments to change.  What I am saying is that such impediments are given way too much power over our lives.  They become heinous bogeymen that we’re afraid to confront.   We give them so much power, that we remain stuck and depressed in our relationship to them.  We think of our fears as “reality” and our dreams for a different life as flat-out .

The fact is it may not be your law job that is depressing; you may be bringing your depressive way of being into the job.  It might be true that you’d be just as depressed if you were a librarian or sang in a country western band.  

I am not suggesting any answers on this score.  I am suggesting the living of questions to untangle this Gordian knot:  Why am I choosing to remain in the job I am in?  What behaviors support my depression while at work?  Am I willing to take some chances, even small ones, to move my life in a different direction? 

You will need courage, my friend, to act on the insights you’ve gained and not let these precious seeds die in the ground.

Sometimes music can get themes across when words aren’t enough.  The other day, my ear inclined towards this powerful piece of bluesy jazz music by artist Lizz Wright.  Watch this video of her belting out her song “You Can Fly”. 

Endurance

Once we have got it together, it has to stay together.  Episodic starts and stops just won’t do in the long run.  We need to be determined for our recovery and personal growth to continue.  We can get lazy or reckless about this.  We just don’t want to put in the time to exercise, or think that it really doesn’t matter if we don’t go to therapy.  It does my friend.  I’ve learned the hard way.  Everything counts. 

We will all have peaks in valleys in this journey.  The important part is not to stop.  It took us a while to fall into depression, and it will take us a while to get out of it.  By pressing on, we grow in stature because it is a courageous journey.  Novelist William Faulkner once wrote: I believe that men and women will not merely endure.  They will prevail.  They are immortal, not because they alone among creatures have an inexhaustible voice, but because they have a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

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5 thoughts on “Three Skills for Overcoming Depression

  1. All this is great stuff, but how do you apply it when sinking into despair?

    I have three trials coming up this summer, and I hate, hate, hate doing trials. I’m two weeks away from one now, and I’m really depressed. I hate the arguing and fighting, and yet this is my life. But for my wife and kids I’d quit today and never look back.

    And this is the first of three. I already hear complaints about my attitude, which means there will be no sympathy and no help.

  2. I feel the EXACT same way. I went to law school because I was a good writer and loved constitutional issues. What I am really good at is researching and brief-writing. However, that is not good enough where I work. It doesn’t pay the bills. We all must be tough-as-nails paper warriors during the day and used-car salesmen at night. I get physically ill everytime I have a trial; I throw up, don’t eat, lose a ton of weight, and have daily painic attacks. I am tired of arguing over what side of the street a deposition will occur, having cancel vacations and work weekends because a partner was too busy golfing during the week to review a contract or brief. I hate trials, I hate kiss-a$$ social events, the snobbery, the sucking up, the pissing contests.

    I do feel helpless. This article provides useful abstract insight…but it does not suggest concrete steps of what to do to overcome this.

  3. I’m just glad that it isn’t just me – I really, really, really hate practicting law and generally feel sick in the office. I can actually feel my soul dying. Needless to say, I’m trying to get out.

    And I have absolutely no idea of what I’d want to do or who I am – I fell into law when I gave up something I really wanted in life, and have been pretty much deadened ever since. I have no idea how I’m going to make it through the next decades of my life – I can’t see what there is to look forward to.

  4. I’ve read this post many times and have shared Dr. Hollis’s wisdom on the “three skills” with various friends as recently as yesterday. This guidance makes immediate sense, but it also requires consistent effort and commitment. As Dan notes, therapy can help with the first skill, but it takes courage and endurance to get on and stay on the path to long term change and healing. I wish I had the benefit of this analysis when I was first diagnosed and began medication and talk therapy for depression. I thought the “insight” I gained would be the answer, as if there was a switch to flip and change would automatically occur. Not so much. It’s a process, one I’m glad I’m now better able to negotiate.

    1. Bill, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I have also found in my experience that “insight” is not enough. While an important step in the right direction, unless we act the insights we’ve won are squandered. All my best to you, Dan

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