Lawyers don’t have problems, they have catastrophes. Many lawyers feel that the problems that afflict the average person are manageable in comparison to the big decisions with big consequences they must shoulder every day. “My friends just don’t understand the burdens I carry in my job”, one lawyer told me. “I worry constantly and can’t turn it off.”
Another seasoned attorney related:
I always thought I was a worrier. I’d feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I’d have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I’d wake up wired in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I’d feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more.
According to psychologist Jim Taylor, not all worry is bad:
Worrying is obviously not a pleasant emotion, but it is actually an essential, normal, and instinctive emotion that has been hard-wired into humans to help us survive since we rose out of the primordial muck. We worry about something because we perceive it as a threat to our existence and worry causes us to focus on it and protect ourselves from that threat. Back in the prehistoric days, carefree cave people, though probably a very fun bunch, were killed by hostile tribes or eaten by wild animals because they didn’t worry about or focus on the potential threats. Cave people who worried, though probably not the life of the party, survived these threats and passed their genes on to future generations. So, worry has been keeping us alive as a species since the dawn of humankind.
Worry is as much a part of lawyers’ lives as bagels and briefcases. I think most lawyers think of worrying as an occupational hazard of the professon, as much as an electrical lineman does about working at great heights around high voltage cable lines.
But worry can go on for too long and go to far. If it grinds on too long, it can became a type of disfunctional anxiety; a condition that is incapacitating.
What’s the difference between worry and anxiety? Psychologist Tara Bennett Goleman offers up this useful distinction:
A right-size dose of worry can mobilize us to meet a challenge well. But the tipping point from apt concern to the anxious mode is reached when added anxiety does not lead to constructive action. From that point on, we just stew in our worries. People caught in the anxious mode can feel overwhelmed, needy, fragile, and emotionally helpless, or have deep self-doubt.
Needy? Fragile? Deep Self-doubt? Lawyers? To many, that wouldn’t describe most lawyers they know. Lawyers need clients and their firms to think that they are strong and confident and, sometimes, even cocky and arrogant. Clients and firms pay them to stand up and be tough when inside, a lawyer riddled with anxiety, feels like falling apart.
Over the long haul, this way of life, this “cost of doing business”, is draining. But many lawyers feel like they have no choice. But when it comes down to it, they really do. And most lawyers know, deep down, that it is a bad one.
As author Corrie Ten Boom wrote, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows. It empties today of its strength.” Can lawyers get to the point in their lives where they see their anxiousness as a choice?
What are your experiences with worry and anxiety in your law practice?