Our Relationship With Our Therapist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have ever suffered from clinical depression, chances are that you have undergone psychotherapy.  Today, my musings will focus on the mysterious, intimate relationship between therapists and their clients in dealing with depression.

I guess you could say that I’m a veteran of therapy.  I first started going during my last year of law school.  This fledging attempt at “getting better” didn’t go so well.  At the time, my therapist was focused on helping me to recover from being raised by an alcoholic father.  Depression wasn’t even part of the conversation.  I was high achieving, but broken in some fundamental sense.  I really didn’t know who I was or how to be myself in the real world.  So, I pretended a lot. 

I pretended by learning how to please others.  Certainly, getting good grades was part of this basic formula. My mother and professors were certainly pleased.  I loved learning, but getting good grades was more than that.  I began to envision myself as a “success” and needed high grades to build on that identity.  Good grades would take me places, I thought. They eventually took me to law school and my new identity, after passing the Bar Exam, as a member of the legal profession.  I wasn’t just Dan, I was a “LAWYER”; an Esq. par excellence.

After becoming an attorney, I saw a therapist off and on.  They helped, but not in any enduring way. Years went by and I still felt that same sense of brokenness that I had when I first began therapy over twenty years ago.  I would bash myself with these critical questions:  “Why can’t I get myself together after all these years of therapy?  Why can’t I figure all this out?”  These questions would haunt me for a long time. Little did I know that most people with depression struggled with the same misguided ruminations.

Psychologist James Hollis once said that the quality of our lives is driven by the quality of questions we ask ourselves.  Depression warps this questioning process.  The questions our melancholy ask of us are dead ends even though we don’t see them as such while we are engaged in such self-assessments.  A common lament: “What’s wrong with me?”  What good comes of this question for someone with depression?   Its focus is actually part of the illness and not a legitimate route out of it. It often compels us to make up a list of “Things to Do to Fix Myself” never realizing that we don’t need to fix ourselves so much as compassionately face ourselves.

I’ve had the same psychologist for the past three years.  His name is Jerry and he bears some resemblance to Freud with his grey beard, don’t you think? 

 He’s an Italian guy from the Bronx and a professor of psychology at one of our local universities.  I often waffle about how much can be accomplished from seeing a psychologist once every week or two.  But I am often surprised by the sustenance that I draw from Jerry, often in unexpected ways.

In my own depression, I found that I would often try to run away from the suffering of it all.  Alternatively, I would perpetuate it with negative thinking and unskillful behavior; I would literally step on the melancholy gas pedal. 

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote:  “The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help the client acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering.” We need to face our depression and perhaps learn that it won’t destroy us; we need to learn (yes, it is a skill you can learn) not to run from it or keep feeding it.  Jung’s wisdom was echoed by another renowned analyst, Helen Luke:  “The only valid cure for depression is the acceptance of real suffering.  To climb out of it any other way is simply laying the foundation for the next depression.”

Recently, I went through a painful episode in my life.  I was telling Jerry about my best friend, Steve, and said, “He told me that he will always be by my side 24-7.”  Jerry sat across from me with his wise eyes and paused.  He then said, with a sense of weighted authenticity, “Dan, I too will stand beside you and be with you at all times.”  The intimacy between us during that 10 second exchange was profound and stayed with me for a long time.  Can someone you see for 1 hour truly care about you in such an intimate way?  Yes. 

It can’t be faked, however. Maybe that’s part of the chemistry of having the right therapist and it’s a different equation for everyone.  I believe that it’s critical to have a therapist as our ally in our recovery from and management of depression on a consistent basis.  I believe consistency is important because people with depression often come from families where consistency was sorely lacking; they may not even have much it in their present lives.  Even if they do, it most likely needs shoring up.

In a loving way, let go of the questions that only lead you down depression’s dead ends.  Therapy is not only a questioning of negative habits that fuel depression, but a replacement with questions worthy of you.  In short, they are nothing short of the Great Questions:  “How can I bring more meaning in my life?  What are my greatest passions in life?”  It is only by facing and being present to the pain of our depression that we can learn to let it go and live out the great questions of our lives.

Law and the Human Condition

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Many people who went to law school didn’t have a burning passion to be a lawyer.  They did so because they didn’t know what else to do with their undergraduate degrees.  Some went on to find and embrace their calling as lawyers, some did not.  Some have left the profession.  Most have not. 

Those who haven’t left, but think of doing so – sometimes daily – are legion.  Forbes Magazine reported that a full 38 percent of attorneys say they somewhat regret their career choice.  Additionally, Harvard Law School counselors estimate that 20% to 30% of active attorneys are considering another career. 

I recently bumped into the Valedictorian of my law school class.  She told me she had chucked her law career awhile ago, went back to school and was now an elementary school teacher.  She had gone from power suit blues to L.L. Bean greens.  When I told other lawyer pals about this, they weren’t shocked – they envied her. 

Recently, I had lunch with a contract lawyer at the Oyster Bar in New York City.  He had come from a long line of lawyers and judges in his family who encouraged him to go to law school.  After graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked seven years at a large Manhattan firm.  As we slurped our Clam Chowder, he told me that he didn’t know one person that was happy being a lawyer.   That if they could get out, they would.  Now it may be that misery loves company, but let’s be honest:  there are a lot of unhappy folks out there.  Lawyers walk the halls of justice and corridors of power – or maybe just look out of a Starbucks window – and wonder why they just can’t turn things around and just feel happy.

I don’t think job dissatisfaction is unique to lawyers; it’s the daily fare for most Americans. A recent MSNBC article read:  “Americans hate their jobs more than ever in the past 20 years with fewer than half saying they are satisfied.”  People, deep down, feel broken and vulnerable, but just have to keep going in order to survive in this tough economic climate.

My friend and psychologist, Richard O’Connor, in his book, Undoing Perpetual Stress, captures the daily plight of the average American struggling to make to make it:

“Here is where I leave trying to explain physiology [how stress and depression affect the brain] and turn to something I know about – life as it’s lived in the USA.  I get to hear all about it from my patients, a wonderful cross-section – aging Yankees, rising Yuppies, farm and factory workers, teens and seniors.  Most people are living with, I think, a fear of fear.  There is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are living our lives, but a reluctance to look closely at that.  We know deeply that we’re in serious trouble, but we live our daily lives as if everything is fine, whistling past the graveyard.  We try to purchase inner peace, knowing perfectly well that’s impossible, but not seeing an alternative.  Or we tell ourselves that someone will figure out what’s wrong someday, and until then we’ll just have to wait.  Or we’ll simply live our lives later.  Or we may believe for a while in the latest fad – a political leader, a spiritual leader, a self-help guru.  We try to follow what the fad tells us, but it usually doesn’t do much for our troubles, so we give up and try to forget again.”

I give a lot of speeches across the country to groups of lawyers about stress, anxiety and depression.  It’s always interesting how many contact me later and say that while they aren’t depressed per se, life isn’t going very well.  There have been plenty of times I’ve considered – or it’s been suggested to me – that I consider changing the name of my website from https://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/ to something like www.lawyersdealingwithalotofshit.com.  No, it’s not a real website so don’t click on it.  The point is that lawyers are stuck not only dealing with the high decibel life as a lawyer, but also the everyday crap that all Americans must try to handle everyday.

Dr. O’Connor helps us to understand the breadth of the problem for the average American:

“Then there are those without a diagnosis:  I can’t estimate the number who feel their lives are out of control because they can’t lose weight, they can’t stop procrastinating, they can’t get out of debt, they can’t speak up for themselves – “soft addictions,” bad habits that make them feel miserable and ashamed.  They are still others who are like the living dead – numb to their own existence, busy working, buying, doing – feeling vaguely empty but compelled to continue, too busy even to sit and look at their lives.  Their depression has grown on them so insidiously that it feels normal; they believe life stinks, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  And finally there are the rest of us, who still have to find confidence, connection, love, who have to raise children without guidance in a crazy world, often watch our parents lose their minds if they live long enough, and wonder about the meaning and importance of our lives.  Even those of us supposedly without emotional problems, there is still the nagging fear that we’re faking it, just making it up as we go along, and praying we don’t stumble.”

This quote isn’t meant to bum anyone out – okay maybe it’s a tad bit melancholic.  However, I would argue, not morose.  I think it’s a true picture of the dilemma that most people deal with everyday as they cross at the traffic light pounding out on their Blackberry’s, yell into the old cell phone above the din of traffic noise or wonder ten times a day where they’re going to find the energy to deal with it all.

What makes lawyers different from the average Joe (and Jane)? 

I would argue that there are a couple of things.  First, the adversarial nature of the profession:  unless you are into slugging it out everyday (unfortunately, I’ve had opponents who thrive on this), the law will wear you down physically and emotionally.  Second, it is a career that is made up – maybe to a degree that few others are – of the mentality that you’re either a “winner” or a “loser.”  Third, much of the public has a murmuring resentment or outright disdain for lawyers.

What to do about all of this?  On this score let it be clear that I am not speaking to you from the mountain top, but from the valley.  I struggle with these problems – and the potential antidotes – every day.  But, I will give it a whirl.

First, recognize that many people are in the same boat as you.  If you recognize that you are not alone in feeling the way you do, it can ease your burden.  Some of this stuff is just the human predicament.  Most people have a difficult time navigating through life.  Chalk it up as a part of the deal we all signed on for when we were born into this troubled world.

Second, change your thinking.  I call this the “stressed-out-lawyer” myth.  This doesn’t contradict what I’ve said earlier; the point is that lawyers compound their pain by telling themselves — at virtually every moment of the day —  how out of control they are.  These thoughts, which a mental commentary on reality, – just plain out don’t help.  We need to be more constructive in our thoughts.  You’ll have to make the effort on this one.

Third – and I will never tire of tooting this horn – exercise.  We can’t ever forget that we are essentially animals with high powered brains.  The law jacks up our bodies with all sorts of high voltage situations we must confront.  We must find a way to discharge this energy or it will wear our batteries out.  Your poor body is literally screaming out to you to get rid of the stress before it eats away at your health.  As the Nike commercials say, “Just Do It!”

Where does the Rat Race Lead Us To?

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Lawyers are very busy people.  They multi-task like a short order cook flipping pancakes in a busy diner.  First or second gear is simply not an option.

Speed becomes a large problem for the depressed lawyer.  The murky bog of depression short circuits a lawyer’s capacity to move, think and act quickly; everything takes longer and is incredibly more difficult to accomplish. We see our work getting away from us, but are pinned down in a foxhole.  Depression is spraying bullets at us as we feel them whizzing by our heads.  So we stay stuck in this foxhole, unable to gain traction to meet our daily demands.

I think there’s a couple different ways to look at the lack of productivity in our work; whether it’s due to depression or not.  Since you’re reading this blog, your difficulty in pumping out the paperwork is likely due, at least in part, to depression.  It may also be that you just don’t like your job, the type of law you practice or are even dream of quitting the profession.  What the precise cause or causes are need to be sorted out with a good therapist and wise friends. 

For example, is the work slow down due to a neurochemical mix-up in your brain affecting your ability to concentrate?  Or, is it a general malaise which suggests that you’re just burnt out and tired of all the bullshit?  They’re really different animals.

Depression treatment, because it involves a real impairment in our ability to function as lawyers, must involve care which tries to return us to some normal or pre-depression levels of functioning.  I like to imagine it as the ascent of a diving bell to the ocean’s surface. 

Burnout, on the other hand, has been defined by experts as situational exhaustion and helplessness that’s usually specific to our job or burdensome task.  We’re asked to do work that’s beyond our capacity to get it done.  It’s not defined as a psychiatric “illness” per se like depression and usually demands a different kind of healing approach.

But what if we aren’t “technically” depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, or burned out?  What if the real spur in our saddle is that we’re just unhappy in our lives as lawyers?  We may find ourselves yearning for a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness in our daily lives, but it all seems so illusive.  As a result, we keep doing what we already know how to do:  put the old nose to the grindstone, try to just survive the blowtorch-like stress and drama and, hopefully, find some semblance of happiness. 

Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a Harvard professor and author of the book “Happier,” says that how we go about searching for happiness is an important part of finding it.  He identifies four archetypes – or patterns of behaviors and attitudes – with which we pursue happiness.  One of the patterns he identifies is the “Rat Race Archetype.”  This pattern of behaviors and attitudes “. . .sacrifices present enjoyment in order to be happy in the future.”  

As applied to law students, lawyers and judges, we do well in law school to get that well paying job that requires an eighty-hour work week.  We’re supposed to be happy because that’s why we sacrificed so much of our time and energy to get to where we are or want to be.  But more often, we find that “the sense of fulfillment disappears, though the drudgery remains,” says Ben-Shehar.

Paradoxically, outsiders may regard the rat-racer as a paragon of success.  “Others may even see him/her as a role model for younger children, suggests Ben-Shehar:

“’See, if you work hard, you can be successful like [Bob] too.’” But Bob actually pities these children, but cannot imagine what alternatives there are to the rat race.  He does not even know what to tell his children:  Not to work hard in school?  Not to get good grades?  Not to get a good job?  Is being successful synonymous with being miserable?  Being a hard worker is not the same as being a rat racer; there are supremely happy people who work long hours and dedicate themselves to their schoolwork or to their profession.  What differentiates rat racers is their inability to enjoy what they are doing – and their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination, they will be happy.”

There’s no easy remedy to counter the rat race archetype in the legal profession. Yet, I feel that offering some insight into the problem can lead us to think differently about our predicament.  After all, insight is one of the major goals of all psychotherapy.  Such insight may even result in our making small or large changes in how we structure our daily law practice.  We need to reassess the motivation that is running our lives; the “why” of what we do and not so much the “what.”  Lawyers complain about what they have to put up with:  the demanding clients, impatient judges, opposing counsel who (we swear!) has it in for us or the Himalayan-like stack of papers on our desk.  Yet, we don’t often ask ourselves where this “putting up with” approach is leading to.

Our society rewards doers, especially in the legal profession. 

“We learn to focus on the next goal,” say Ben-Shahar, “rather than our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives.  We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of a journey.  Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys. Once we have arrived at our destination, once we attain our goal, we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness.  The weightier the burden we carried on our journey, the more powerful and pleasant is our experience of relief.  When we mistake these moments of relief for happiness, we reinforce the illusion that simply reaching goals will make us happy.  While there is value in relief – it is a pleasant experience and it is real – it should not be mistaken for happiness.”

If our legal life is a series of moments of relief, we will not experience much happiness.  I had to learn this one the hard way.  I needed to reassess: why was I doing what I was doing?  When I was honest with myself, I found that I saw completing my work as, primarily, a source of relief.  I had become a very good lawyer, but much of my motivation was spurred on by this motivation; of flopping onto the sofa at the end of the day and thinking, “Thank God that’s over.”

Happiness, in some sense, seemed unrealistic to me before. I now believe that thinking of happiness as unrealistic is a small box view in a big box world of possibilities.  We can change our motivation from one of chasing cheese to one of seeing that life happens in the present moment and not some future success.  Our life is really a series of moments, isn’t it?  And if we bet the house on the American anthem of “no pain, no gain” to obtain some future level of success, we may find that we end up not where we really, truly want to be.

Is There Any Room For Kindness in the Law?

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.”  Kindness is an element that’s often missing in the practice of law.  Perhaps the absence of this most human of qualities is why lawyers are so unhappy and unfulfilled.  Likewise, kindness is often lacking during a depression.  During such times, others may not be kind to us.  Whether it’s out of ignorance or simply not caring, it hurts.  Moreover, there’s the lack of kindness towards our selves during a depression. During such times, we use most of our energy grappling with the darkness just trying to find our way home.  Kindness towards our selves seems unobtainable if not inconceivable.

When we get our bearings and depression lifts, it might be helpful to turn our ship towards kindness as an important quality to nurture in our work lives.  Some of my more cynical brethren think I’m smoking weed when I talk like this.  They opine:  “You’d get crushed if you acted kindly.  Don’t be a fool.”  But, I’m not some idealistic dreamer, I’m actually a realist.  Having been in the litigation trenches for over 20 years, I know all too well the brutality, hand-to-hand combat, scheming and grenades that are lobbed back and forth into our bunkers.  I think I’m a realist because I’m well acquainted with and see the tremendous cost of it all.  These experiences were, most certainly, a cause of my depression as it is for many lawyers.

Since I don’t want to return to my former melancholic state, I have thought about the cost of not incorporating kindness into my day – yes, even during my workday.  It can be done in small ways, such as becoming aware of our tone of voice when we speak to our secretary, seeing our client’s phone inquires not as annoyances to endure but as opportunities to be of service or bringing a cup of coffee to the receptionist.

Kindness is intricately connected to the heart, more than the mind.  We can’t crunch the numbers or do a cost-benefit analysis about this sort of thing.  We have to simply take chances.  In my own experience, the following Zen adage holds true:  “Just leap and the net will suddenly appear.” 

I believe that the fatigue most lawyers complain of is often connected to the lack of kindness.  Kindness has an enlivening and authentic dimension to it.  Harold Whitman once wrote, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that.  Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

Poet, David Whyte, who I’ve written about before, speaks to such corporate titans as IBM, Mobil Oil and Citibank about meaning and beauty.  In one moving passage of his book, “Crossing the Unknown Sea, he talks about his friendship with a pretty hip monk named Brother David Steindl Rast who happens to be a psychiatrist.  Here is an excerpt of their dialogue:

“’Brother David?’”  I uttered it in such an old, petitionary, Catholic way that I almost thought he was going to say, “Yes, my son?”  But, he did not; he turned his face toward me, following the spontaneous note of desperate sincerity, and simply waited.

‘Tell me about exhaustion,’ I said.  He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me.  He said, in the form both of a question and an assertion:

‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’  ‘The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,’ I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence.  ‘What is it, then?’

‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’  He looked at me for a wholehearted moment, as if I should fill in the blanks.  But I was blank to be filled at the moment, and though I knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the wherewithal to say anything in reply.  So he carried on:

‘You are tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers’.”

Perhaps it’s tough to bring kindness, or wholeheartedness if you will, into our lives until we listen to our deeper human needs, both our own and others.  That deep need which tells us that we are more than our jobs that we convinced ourselves we can’t change or leave.  We must discover our “true powers” and part of that journey is reconnecting with this most fundamental of human yearnings – the desire for simple kindness.

Words of Wisdom

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For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you know how much I love quotes.  I look for them everywhere.  To me, they’re like finding a little jewel on the sidewalk.  I put it in my pocket, walk away and delight in it later.  The best of quotes seem to capture something about their author that you don’t get from reading one of their books.  Not necessarily better, but qualitatively different.  Sort of like the difference between a movie and a photograph.  They draw different things out of us.

Here are some good ones I’ve recently come across for your enrichment:

Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears.

-Rudyard Kipling

Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can read. 

-Mark Twain

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. 

-C.S. Lewis

The time is always right to do what is right. 

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

To laugh often and much; to know the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden path or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived.  This is to have succeeded.  

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

All that is gold does not glitter; not all those that wander are lost

-J.R.R. Tolkien

Now I’m off to a barbecue!  Enjoy the beautiful summer weather.

A Place Called Hope

bigstockphoto_First_Light_Ray_Of_Hope__143636We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope – Martin Luther King

As renowned pessimists, lawyers struggle to be hopeful.  One veteran litigator told me yesterday his definition of hope: getting up the next morning and, “hopefully,” having the energy to survive the day.  But this type of hope is more about avoidance; the draining sense of dread people feel when they are working at maximum capacity and just barely staying on top of all of it.  As lawyers, we need a more expansive sense of hope; of what hope is and how it can positively affect our lives as lawyers.

Hope, in its best sense, is a positive motivator in our lives.  Psychologist, C.S. Snyder, in his 1990’s book “The Psychology of Hope:  You Can Get There from Here,’ defined hope as a “motivational construct that let one believe in positive outcomes, conceive goals, develop strategies, and muster the motivation to implement them”.  He actually invented a measuring tool and test called the “Hope Scale.”  He discovered that “low hope” people have ambiguous goals and work towards them one at a time while “high hope” people often worked on five or six clear goals simultaneously.  Hopeful people had definite routes to their goals and alternate pathways in case of obstacles.  Low scorers did not.

More recently, psychologist Anthony Scioli expanded Snyder’s definition of hope and created his own “Hope Index.”  According to Scioli, hope has a powerful spiritual (and transpersonal) dimension.  From this perspective, hope includes patience, gratitude, charity, and faith.  In a previous article from Martin Seligman, Ph.D. posted on the Lawyers with Depression website, the issue of lawyer optimism/pessimism was discussed.  Scioli makes an interesting distinction between hope and optimism.  In an article from the magazine Spirituality & Health, he put it this way:

“Faith is the building block of hope.  Above all, it is based on relationships, on a collaborative connection with people as well as their higher power, as distinct form optimism, which is connected to self-confidence.  True hope also differs from denial, which is really false hope, an avoidance of reality.”

Scioli’s newest book, “Hope in the Age of Anxiety,” coming out in September of 2009, takes square aim at how hope helps us deal with anxiety on both a psychological and physiological level:

“Hope represents an adaptive ‘middle ground’ between the over-activated ‘stress response’ [also implicated in depression] and the disengaged ‘giving-up complex’.  At a physiological level, hopefulness can help to impart a balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity while assuring appropriate levels of neurotransmitters, hormones, lymphocytes, and other critical health-related substances.  Equally important, a hopeful attitude may permit an individual to sustain this healthy internal environment in the presence of enormous adversity.”

While Scioli’s research and writing is focused on the broader themes and benefits of hope, other psychologists have addressed how “hope therapy” can help those who suffer with depression.  In an article from MSN, psychologist, Jenniefer Cheavens said:

“We’re finding that hope is consistently associated with fewer symptoms of depression.  And the good news is that hope is something that can be taught, and can be developed in many of the people who need it.”  Hope has two components according to Cheaven – a map or pathway to get what you want, and the motivation and strength to follow that path.

In another article  fromWebMD, Cheaver notes how hope therapy is different from other more traditional forms of therapy: “. . . hope therapy seeks to build on strengths people have, or teach them how to develop those strengths.  We focus not on what is wrong, but on ways to help people live up to their potential.”  According to other researchers associated with the hope studies, people with high hope possess these “components of hope”: 

  • Goals:  They have long-and short-term meaningful goals.
  • Ways to reach those goals:  A plan or pathway to get there and the ability to seek alternative routes, if needed.
  • Positive self-talk, similar to the little red engine from the children’s book, telling themselves things like “I think I can.”

I have often thought of hope as something that just happens.  But this research suggests otherwise.  As lawyers who deal with adversity, stress and, all too often suffer from depression, it’s wise to ponder the role that hope plays in our days.  Consider where you fall on the “hope index.”  Learn more about how you can develop the skills of being a hopeful person.  For further reading, check out this great article by lawyer, Dave Shearon called, “Hope about Lawyer Happiness” and another article by Leland Beaumont called, “Hope: This Can All Turn Out for the Best.”

My next blog will look at the spiritual dimension of hope.

The Ladder of Success

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Many lawyers are consumed with the goal of becoming successful.  Often, traditional success means money, status and power.  According to veteran lawyer George W. Kaufman, author of the book, The Lawyers’ Guide to Balancing Life and Work, “For too many lawyers, the goal of success becomes the primary driver.  But surveys of working lawyers tell us that a great many of them are unhappy even when their planned goals are realized . . .”  This view was echoed by therapist, Alden Cass in an article on burnout in New York Magazine titled, Can’t Get No Satisfaction.  Cass, who treats Wall Street lawyers in New York City, says, “I can’t tell you how many people come into my office and ask, “How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?”

Most lawyers are never taught about the problems and pitfalls of pursuing success without also combining it with the pursuit of meaning and purpose.  My parent’s only imperatives were that I go to college, get a good job and “be happy.”  I worked long hours, endured constant stress and moved up my old firm’s pecking order.  But somewhere along the way, I realized that something was terribly wrong with my life.  I wasn’t just unhappy; I was full of sorrow.  The great mythologist, professor and author, Joseph Campbell captured the irony of our common struggle for success: “You climb the ladder of success and when you get to the top you find it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” 

I fell off that ladder and into a well of depression.

I was never taught how to navigate the waters of difficult emotions.  When I looked around at my fellow lawyers, they all seemed so together — like a show room car that never got dented and was always polished.

Through my depression, I learned a lot about the darkness.  That it isn’t exactly an illness, but part of the human journey for all of us.  Educator and author, Parker Palmer, who went through and struggled with depression, wrote:

“Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.  When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known.  As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure.  I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race”.  Listen to a great podcast where Parker is interviewed for a show called, The Soul of Depression.

So much of the literature out there about success focuses on “work-life” balance.  The formula in many of these tomes is the same:  set limits, exercise and make time for family.  All of these are well and good, but seem to so often fail us.  There’s simply not enough gravity in them to keep us in orbit.  What’s lacking is a basic  truth:  Life is made up of struggles and losses and how we deal with them.  Such struggles can reach a crisis pitch in which we enter a sort of darkness.

In his book, Dark Night of the Soul:  A Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals, psychologist, Thomas Moore says: 

“A dark night may not feel like depression.  In a long illness or a troubled marriage you may be anxious, but not depressed.  On the other hand, a clinical depression might well qualify as a dark night.  Whatever you call it, the experience involves you as a person, someone with a history, a temperament, memories, emotions, and ideas.  Depression is a label and a syndrome, while the dark night is a meaningful event.  Depression is a psychological sickness; a dark night is a spiritual trial.

Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy.  But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of the problems.  Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life.  That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life.  They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having.  A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to the living.  It pares life down to its essentials and helps you to get a new start”.

And maybe that’s what we all need – a new start.  To wake up to a new vision about what success really means to us and how we need to act in our lives as lawyers to meet that meaning.

I remember the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success.  It’s worth mentioning that a book published in 2007, Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,  says that Mother Teresa felt deep sorrow, despair and one could argue “depression” for the last fifty years of her life.  Yet, in the most profound sense –whether you are religious or not — wasn’t she a success?  She once said, “We are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful.”   In other words, we can’t control the outcomes.  But, we can live a life that is directed by our spirits.  And THAT is a life of success.

Managing Your Depressive Symptoms Is Not Enough

If you have been living with depression long enough, you will inevitably face the question of whether managing your depression is enough. Many lawyers dealing with depression (and there are 200,000 in America) are struggling to get rid of their symptoms of depression. I understand the value and necessity of this all too well. But once the symptoms seem manageable, what next?

In his book, What Happy People Know, psychologist, Dan Baker, offers his criticisms of much of modern day psychology: “Clinical psychology – the treatment in a clinical setting of people with mental disorders – was begun with great fanfare as an adjunct to modern medicine in the late 1800s. It was patterned after the conventional medical model of fighting pathology. Clinical psychology was based on the assumption that most people are mentally healthy – and happy- but some people contract mental pathologies that conform to neat diagnostic compartments, and require standardized treatments. The only problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It fails approximately two-thirds of the time.” As I write, let it be known that I attend therapy twice per month!

There is a great debate worldwide about the causes of depression. Most agree that it is a complex condition related to a combination of factors both genetic and environmental. While there is value in thinking about depression as a disease of sorts – say on par with diabetes or heart disease – there is a real danger to as well. That’s because it isn’t just a “disease;” it’s also a psychological and spiritual malady. If those aspects aren’t addressed, those who suffer from it may never taste the wonder and joy of life. They are left with the discontent of a life where they are only managing their depressive symptoms. Don’t we have the right to expect more?

Dr. Baker central point is that the approach of clinical psychology was not designed to help people find happiness. “It assumed that if mental illness were cured, happiness would naturally follow, as the normal human condition. But that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of people.” He continues, “I believe that even when people do not have diagnosable psychological illness, they still cannot be considered psychologically healthy unless they are happy. The absence of disease is not the same as health, just as the absence of poverty is not the same as wealth.” For a further exploration of the issue of happiness, see the interesting article in The Atlantic Magazine, “What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Interesting, Mr. Shenk is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

I believe Dr. Baker’s point is well taken. Yes, it is critically important to treat the symptoms of clinical depression. But we must stop and pause: is that enough? If it is, I can’t help but feel as though we have allowed ourselves to be victims on some level. Depression then has the danger of defining our identities as people. We are more than that. We must aspire to live a fuller life with times of joy, happiness and a sense of being alive. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let us endeavor to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

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