Nobody’s Perfect

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfectionism is demoralizing — Harriet Braiker, Ph.D.

Nobody’s perfect – that’s why we have erasers.  Yet nowhere on this sweet blue orb are there more people driven to perfection than attorneys. 

It’s really not surprising, after all. We work with laws, rules and regulations: ancient tomes, incantations and idealizations about how our society expects folks to behave.  When one acts outside the proscribed rules, one’s in violation, negligent or culpable.  When this happens, people turn to a lawyer and expect him or her to get the job done – and flawlessly.

It’s easy to calm our fears with the wilted wisdom, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.”  But things can and do go terribly wrong when we make mistakes – and we can and do make them.  Things can go quickly awry despite our best efforts and work.

Lawyers are on edge because they feel if they’re not perfect, they’ll fall over the edge.  Besides the inner stress, there is the outer pressure to keep a calm and cool façade lest our clients and colleagues lose faith in us.

I’m a perfectionist to the core.  In a sense, it’s great because I take pride in my craft as a lawyer.  I love the look and feel of good work well done.  I can take it too far though – I can get so keyed up about churning out a masterpiece that I lose perspective; I lose sense of the possibly that the judge and his clerk might skip over seventy-five percent of my brilliant delineations of a statute’s historic origins, that the seventh draft of a motion isn’t always much better than the fourth and that there’s real value in not deliberating too much, but simply getting things done.

In a great piece in the A.B.A. Journal entitled, Three Deadly Ps: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis, Rebecca Nerison, Ph.D.  maps out why too many cracks at perfection can lead to procrastination and then paralysis, a veritable seizing up of our work motor:

Procrastination is an occupational hazard for lawyers. Procrastination robs lawyers of peace of mind.  It’s difficult to feel happy, healthy, and successful when you are forever putting off what needs to be done.  We procrastinate when we feel anxious about a task, when we’re bored with it, or when we’re tired.  In any event, procrastination is about avoidance.  Avoidance allows us to temporarily escape the fear, boredom, or fatigue we anticipate as we contemplate the task.  We are immediately relieved from the unpleasant feeling.  We get to feel good instead of bad.

A dilatory dodge of our work just leads to more problems down the road.  We need to take stock and see perfectionism for what it is: avoidance behaviors that rob us of energy and a sense of competency that comes from getting things done.  My psychologist, a wizard of the human psyche, once observed that it’s critically important to observe ourselves engaging in healthy behavior.  We build a sort of healthy resume of concrete things we do on a daily basis so that we can confidently say to ourselves, “I’m a person who get things done.”  Just as procrastination is a vicious circle, not procrastinating is a healthy one.

We really need to let perfection go and let our humanity seep into our daily work; a humanity that while imperfect, is full of good humor, irony and outright silliness.

When we ignore this essential truth, we press down too hard on the gas pedal and our – and our secretary’s lives – are made miserable.  Anne Lamott, author of the wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith wrote:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun. 

What would the opposite of perfect be?  Maybe just human – and that’s humbling.  When we try to be perfect, we are too locked into a view of ourselves as the center of the Universe. 

We’re not gods, but in reality vulnerable creatures. 

I wonder if God has a sense of humor. How could he not given this goofy planet.  Even Jesus knew how to party when he turned water into wine at a wedding. 

We lose perspective with depression – we forget to play.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., once observed:

Most of us have to learn to take better care of ourselves.  One way is by spending more time in play.  The perfectionist, the depressive, the person who thinks he doesn’t deserve to feel pleasure, believes that he’d better never let his guard down, always busy, always productive.  But it’s a joyless if all we care about is getting the work done.  Something as simple as playing catch with the dog for a few minutes after work connects us with a part of ourselves we can lose only too easily – the child who can laugh, who can enjoy silliness, mindless physical activity. Tomfoolery is just as much a part of life as our lamentable laments. It’s uncomplicated, mischievous good fun that puts us into contact with our ageless inner child who wants to come out and play.  He or she is there – if you just look inside. We need to open that door; we need to let some fresh air in.

William James once wrote “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.  A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” 

So kick off those Oxford and Manolo Blahnik shoes . . . and start to rumba.

 

It’s About Time

Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we’ve rushed through life trying to save – Will Rogers

Time is the enemy of our synapse challenged world.  This beast is always just a step behind us; we keep losing ground as it nips at our heels and bears its sharp fangs.  We tap on the brakes to try and slow down, but even the vacations and weekends aren’t always terribly relaxing.  We attempt to break apart our days into manageable segments or, as the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Measure out our lives with coffee spoons.” 

We often experience time as a force outside of ourselves; as if the clicking clock on the wall or Timex on our wrist had its own personhood that nags at us: “Do this not that, wait, what about that other that?” There is the visceral sensation that everything – everything – must be done NOW. We spin like a top trying to take it all in. We labor to manage our time while our nervous systems overload, toasted to a crisp in the microwave of our modern times.

No doubt most folk dream of chucking it all; of hopping on a Jumbo 747 to Italy to sip Chianti in a verdant field near a Tuscan village – hence the popularity of the best-selling book and movie, “Eat, Pray, Love.”  But most of us will never go aerial; we soldier on and muddle our way through our lives as best we can.  This becomes all the more a sticky wicket when life’s engine seizes up in the throes of a murky anxiety and/or depression.  Trying to stop this pain moves to the top of our priority list; we hammer away at it, but sometimes it just won’t relent.

We feel that we must figure out our sorrow and mind-bending stress before time runs out and we find ourselves in a real pickle: “If only I didn’t feel stressed and depressed, I could get all this shit done!”

In his book, You Can Feel Better Again, Richard Carlson, Ph.D., writes:

When you feel down, depressed, or blue, there is a strong tendency to try to figure out why you are feeling the way you do and to try to do something about it.  The worse you feel, the stronger the urge.  Many times, particularly with regard to a ‘depressed’ person, this need to escape from the way you are feeling is ‘urgent’. One of the tricks to overcoming depression, or even extended low moods, is to learn to relax when you feel down – having faith that the low period will pass if you are able to leave it alone and do nothing.  The important point to remember is: The factor that keeps you feeling down is your reaction to the ‘urgency’ you feel.’

I love this psychological approach: I had never thought of my reaction to my depression as “urgent”, but so often it is.  Depression’s five alarm pain can burn down even our best laid plans. We think that the way to stop this unruly visitor is to squash it, when we might be better served by waiting it out. 

Today, walking up a leafy sidewalk thinking about past fall memories, I said to myself, “I accept where I am right now.”  And I really meant it.  It calmed me. I accepted all that lay in front of me today.  This gave me a sense of peace and rootedness.  I somehow felt a kinship with the blowing trees who so timelessly anchor themselves in the rich brown soil.

Take time for yourself today.  Take time to appreciate your daily bread – moment by moment – because it’s the only loaf of time you’ve got. There is much to be appreciated beyond depression’s grasp or the clatter of our anxiety. Depression, stress and anxiety do not last forever; there are gaps – some shorter or longer – between these turbulent emotional states.  Learn to see that this is so.

Sometimes, I catch myself.  I sense that I have let hours whizz by without having paid attention to neither my life nor a scintilla of the dear people and events that surround me.  I had lived too much in my head.  We all need to step out of the limitations of our own thoughts and through the portal of all the rich possibilities and blessings that lay both within and without in the time we’ve been given.

Grinding in the Wheels of Depression

Every time a person gets depressed, the connections in the brain between mood, thoughts, the body, and behavior get stronger, making it easier for depression to be triggered again.  At the earliest stages in which mood starts spiraling downward, it is not the mood that does the damage, but how we react to it.  –  The Mindful Way through Depression.

It has been estimated that the human brain kicks out about 50,000 thoughts per day.  A majority of them for lawyers with depression are negative and pessimistic; they spin in our minds like gears in a machine.  They lack an essential truth and vitality – – they’re almost parasitic – – and can suck the life right out of us.  Unmoored from the shore of everyday reality, depressive ruminations calcify and harden us to our own humanity, to the beauty of others and the joy of living one’s life. 

Your thoughts are rooted in your personal beliefs, morals, and principles. They are your opinions of your inner self and the outside world. Every thought you have is personal. Each one is reflective of your curiosity, experiences, and the random actions of your brain cells. Everybody has times when they get caught up in some negativity. But depression allows these thoughts and feelings to grow out of control. They can paralyze a person’s life, pulling them downward into despair.

The thoughts of a depressive mind are often boring and lethargic.  When in a depressive trough, such thoughts drone on about why other people, our job and our lives stink.  After years of repetition, such thoughts have worn neurochemical and structural grooves in our brains.  This is why many depressives suffer from a formless ennui; doldrums that numb them to the creative engagement with the world they yearn for.

Depressive thinking ignores evidence to the contrary (e.g. that people love and care about us – – and we about them — or that our work product isn’t that bad and often times pretty good), and snubs its nose at suggestions that life can be otherwise. Folks with depression are often closed minded: the world sucks and if you try to disagree with them, they may conclude that – -well – – you suck.

Lord knows, my observations aren’t meant to be depression downers, judgmental or condemnatory.  They’re meant to underscore the enormous role that habitual, unconscious ways of constructing the world with our negative thinking can lead to depression. Mind you, we don’t want Pollyannaish thoughts – happy go lucky gibberish to replace depressive thinking.  Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t jettison ourselves into such a Dairy Queen-like state full of vanilla, optimistic musings about the world we live in.  What we do seek to achieve is balance, a life that works and the normal rhythms of emotions that everyone deserves.

Lawyers lose sight of the fact that WE are the ones actually thinking these depressive thoughts.  To heal, we must take responsibility that we are – – on some level – – choosing to think and believe in such thoughts.  To get to the point where we can see this usually involves a great deal of effort and a fair amount of pain.  It is often the pain of depression, and a lawyer’s desperation to stop it, that make him or her, hopefully, seek out help and question their melancholic assumptions. 

Abraham Lincoln, who many forget was a trial lawyer for decades before becoming president, struggled with depression his whole life.   His battles with depression, which included two suicide watches, is powerfully told in Lincoln’s Melancholy:  How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled Him to Greatress. Once, when he felt the searing pain of depression, he wrote: “I’ve been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.  My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day.”

Mood and Thoughts

Depression begins with a low mood – for many when they first get out of bed in the morning. Like animals that sense bad weather approaching, we can sense the fog of depression beginning to descend on us as the barometric pressure in our minds begins to fall.  

In The Mindful Way through Depression, author, Mark Williams, writes:                            

“Negative thoughts can trigger or feed depression once a low mood is upon us. We might sink into a glum mood by thinking nothing ever goes right for me. That mood may then trigger self-criticism like why am I such a loser? As we try to unravel the cause of our unhappy state, our mood plunges.  As we investigate questions about our worthlessness, we form a whole scheme of other negative thoughts, ready to be recruited at a moment’s notice in the future”.

There is, in a sense, a senselessness about depression. Or, alternatively, there may be a real reason to be upset (e.g. “I have a big trial next week and I’ve not prepared enough”), but we’ve catastrophized our circumstances to such an extent (e.g. “they’ll fire me if I lose this case) that our predicament bears little resemblance to the facts before us. 

A friend of mine, who is now a judge, screwed up on a big case while working for a large corporate firm some years ago. He went home, wrote a suicide note and drove himself to a rural motel.  There he downed a number of sleeping pills, drank some whiskey and lay down in bed to die.  He was found, unconscious, by colleagues of his who had been searching for him all night.  He didn’t lose his job – and he didn’t lose his life.  But he had let his thinking take him from the fact that he had made a mistake a work to the conclusion that HE was the mistake and that such a life was not deserving of life.

Here are some examples of depressive thoughts.  Reflect on how often you have thought them in the course of a day:

I feel like I’m up against the world — I’m no good –Why can’t I ever succeed? — No one understands me — I’ve let people down — I don’t think I can go on — I wish I were a better person — I’m so weak — My life’s not going the way I want it to — I’m so disappointed in myself — Nothing feels good anymore — I can’t stand this anymore – I can’t get started — I wish I were somewhere else — I can’t get things together — I hate myself — I’m worthless — I wish I could just disappear.

With this flotilla of thoughts, we filter our experiences in a consistently negative way.  We cull from the raw material of daily life proof that things are as bad as we think them to be.  Such cynicism corrodes a person’s soul as surely as Coke rots away the enamel on our teeth.

There has been much commentary and studies which suggest that lawyers are pessimistic thinkers and that such pessimism helps us to become better, more successful lawyers, but not very happy human beings.  Read the article “Why Lawyers Are So Unhappy?” by happiness researcher Martin Seligman.  We examine all of the possible dangers, pitfalls and troubles that may befall us and our clients in a case.  Such thinking becomes problematic – which it does for many, many lawyers – when we turn this mode of thinking on ourselves.  We can from judging facts to judging ourselves. The habit of judging ourselves severely disguises itself as an attempt to help us to live better lives and to be better people, but in actuality the habit of judging ourselves winds us functioning as an irrational tyrant that can never be satisfied.

Trying to Think our Way out of Depression

With our negative thoughts, we get perpetually stuck in a tar pit of our own making.  We struggle to extricate ourselves from this gooey mess and just keep falling backwards. 

“When depression starts to pull us down, we often react, for understandable reasons, by trying to get rid of our feelings by suppressing them or by trying to think our way out of them.  In the process we dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries.  In our heads, we try out this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling.  We get lost in comparisons of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads.” – The Mindful Way through Depression

We get caught up in thinking about life, rather than living life.  We become obsessed with doing rather than being.  The problem is our overcritical mind’s determination to solve the problem of our depression with its analytic arsenal.  When we do this, our depressive mind tries to hunt down what’s wrong with us – as if we were defective people for God sake! 

This way of problem-solving our depression doesn’t help us out of our distress – – it just perpetuates our downward spiral.  

Be Patient with Yourself

How will I ever be able to confront all the slings and arrows of so many thoughts?  It seems unachievable and impossible, we may say.   We can become despondent and hopeless. Here is where patience comes in, a big deal for lawyers with depression who have a lot of trouble being patient in a loving way with themselves.  They likely never learned it in childhood and our results-now driven society doesn’t teach or promote it.  Without patience, we drop out of therapy, stop taking medication or generally flop around on our office’s carpet like some sort of fleshy carp.  

It took awhile for us to fall into the pickle barrel of depression and it will take effort, time and patience to crawl out of it. 

For once, just once,  try being kind and patient with yourself today  as you struggle to heal from your depression.  We need to move from being hopeless to being . . . just human.

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.”

Getting Things Done While Depressed

In my last blog, I wrote an article about the importance of goal setting for those in the legal profession with depression.  I went looking for some nifty quotes on the topic; true nuggets of insightful wisdom. Instead, I found a lot of boorish material which just rehashed what we already know – it’s important to get your act together.

That being said, I hope to humbly offer up my own take on goal setting for those hampered by the drag of depression.

Depression is full of waffling and meandering through the wastelands of our somber thoughts.  We are, of course, seduced into all of this by such thoughts — as if this were a productive way to live one’s life.  The thoughts gather strength and become ingrained cognitive habits as we repeat them millions of times with several variations on the same theme:  “I’m no good”, “nobody cares about me,” “I can’t do anything right” or what’s wrong with me?”  Listen, thinking these thoughts occasionally are normal for anyone who has been smacked around by life’s trials and tribulations.  After all, we are all jerks at different points of our lives . . . . . speak for yourself Dan, you may retort!

The problem comes in when such thoughts aren’t a sometime-sort-of-thing, but an all-the-time-sort-of-thing.  They take up residence in our minds and make a mess of the kitchen.

Depressive thoughts become one of the reasons we avoid, forget and/or just can’t seem to set healthy goals.  It’s as if in the midst of a depression, we simply don’t care because we can’t see anything good happening in the near or far future to us whatever we do.  This self-talk is a script right out of the movie, “How Depression Took over My Life.” (Not a real movie)

There are two ways to approach this issue of goal setting for the depressed professional. Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s helpful to pull them apart.

Goal Setting with Depression

There will be different things you’ll be able to realistically get done depending where you fall on the depression continuum.  However, some ideas which should help everybody:

Structure Your Day – Please.

People with depression can feel scattered and overwhelmed.  The strain of being so exacerbates their depression because of the stress chemicals released in their bodies.  As such, go through your day first thing in the morning and decide how it might play out in your mind.  Try to be constructive about it.  Watch the language you use in your self-talk.  Instead of your stated goal being, “Not to feel like crap today,” try something like, “Today, I’m going to do my best to take care of myself.”  The shift in perspective can and does make a big difference.

Keep it simple. 

I keep a stack of 3 x 5 index cards in my laptop case and use one per day.  On it, I write 3-5 things on the left that are priorities and 3-5 things on the right that I’d like to get done.  I used to have a variety of notes scattered across piles of legal pads.  You can still do that if you, like me, are a “To do” list junky.  But, try the index card approach.  It’s cheap and simple to do. Keep it in your shirt pocket with a pen so you don’t have to search for it.  Psychologists tell us it takes 21 days for a habit to stick so give it three weeks.

Goal Setting at Work

Managing and Delegating

You must corral your work.  If you don’t, it’ll sink you when you’re dealing with depression.  If you have a secretary, lean on her heavily to organize your day and your desk.  Sit with her every morning and go over the day.  Many lawyers are control freaks and aren’t good at delegating.  You have to break that habit and let go of this compulsion.

Regrouping

Many lawyers bring their all-or-nothing cognitive approach to the workday.  Either they have to get everything done (“Yikes!”) or nothing done (e.g. they blow the whole day because they don’t feel well at the beginning of the day).  A good cognitive tool to use is regrouping.  I would sometimes have a crappy morning and think that the day was then ruined.  I’ve since learned to regroup at different intervals of the day, take stock and tell myself that just because the morning was crummy (or even the past hour) that doesn’t mean that I can’t zoom in the afternoon.

Watch Your Depression Patterns

Learn the patterns of your depression as they relate to your work day.  If you pay attention, depression takes on a certain pattern.  For me, I felt my worst in the morning.  This was often related to trouble sleeping.  I would begin zooming around 10 in the morning.  As such, I planned my day around this.  Other lawyers find that their depression hits around 2 p.m.  Keep a journal for about a week and pay attention to when this happens to you.  A good idea is to wear a sport watch with a timer.  Then set it to beep at one or two hour intervals.  Write down your mood at that time and rate it between 1 and 10.  I think you’ll be surprised to see how your mood changes during the course of the day.

It is not impossible to set goals while depressed.  It’s important to watch yourself getting things done.  Zoom.

Goals, Depression & Work

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving — Oliver Wendell Holmes.

There are different concerns at different stages of one’s depression journey.  Lawyers who are in the throes of it, perhaps for the first time, need education about what depression is, understanding, medication, support and psychotherapy.  After they’ve started to feel better, they’ll need to turn their focus to their livelihood and how they’ll work at it in a way, hopefully, which takes into account their mental health so as prevent and/or mitigate any future depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book, Undoing Depression, has this interesting insight about depressives in the workplace:

“Sometimes when I have spoken to business organizations, I have surprised them by advocating for hiring the depressed; but aside from taking more sick days than others, depressed people can be the best employees.  We’re [Dr. O’Connor has long struggled with depression] good at being responsible.  We are good soldiers, honest and industrious.  We have high standards and want to do any job well.  We have too much guilt to pad our hours or take home office supplies.  Treat us decently, and we’ll be grateful and loyal.  Unfortunately for the depressed individual, however, we discount these virtues and have a difficult time enjoying the world of work.”

I think that’s a great insight because overcompensating, even if it makes us miserable, can make us great workers.  God knows lawyers have high standards.  In essence, many of these people don’t fundamentally value themselves. They may fervently chase other measures of success – money, power and status.  Yet, inside, they often feel broken, sad, stressed or depressed.  Here’s what Dr. O’Connor said in an interview I had with in New York City about a depressive’s need to value him/herself:

We tend to think of lawyers as colossal egos bent on being Masters of the Universe; and there probably a good chunk of those people out there — who I never could stand anyway.  But, in my experience, there are many accomplished lawyers who suffer from depression who are of different ilk; “good soldiers” who bust their asses and don’t give themselves much, if any, credit.

I was doing a walk-a-talk with a friend of mine [a real non-lawyer type] recently in Central Park in New York City.  I stopped to munch on some peanuts that were a real disappointment. He was baffled when I told him I didn’t feel that I’d accomplished much in my professional life.  “You were just named to that that publication, ‘The Best Lawyers in America’. For Christ’s sake, count your blessings!” 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take credit.  It was because I couldn’t — I just didn’t know how to.   And, as Dr. O’Connor said, not taking credit doesn’t often have much to do with our professional success, but it has a lot to do with our satisfaction with our jobs.

There are emotional bridges that connect us to various aspects of ourselves and our environment. For depressives, there often isn’t an east-bound bridge connecting their good work to their emotional selves. Others may slap them on the back and plaques may parade across their office wall.  No matter, there’s still a disconnection; a sense that their accomplishments were an accident or a recent run of Lady Luck.  They often have a sense that they’ll be found out; that all of their success is a put-on.  They think they’re imposters who truly don’t deserve such accolades – especially from any genuine place inside of them. No matter how distorted this vision is, they’ll insist that it’s true till the cows come home.  I know because I’ve banged these drums a few times over the years. 

Then there’s the other bridge pointing west-bound.  It connects their goof-ups, mistakes and bad decisions to themselves. You see, lawyers have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for bad things and an underdeveloped sense of ownership for the good stuff they do. This take on life isn’t about taking responsibility for our mistakes.  Rather, it’s the toxic self-impugning; the inner critic run amok spraying bullets from an AK-47 at our self-esteem.

I’ve come to learn that feeling a sense of satisfaction and pride in my work because of my efforts is a skill that I have to work at – and I’ve come a long way.  One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is by setting goals. For many years, like all lawyers, I swam upstream into the time currents of my day.  I didn’t have to set goals about when to get things done because the Court, my firm and other various incendiary devices did that for me. Finishing a set of interrogatories or successfully arguing a Summary Judgment motion, wasn’t a goal that I set for myself – it was simply another deadline in a litany of other deadlines.

Setting goals for ourselves that we’ve personally reflected upon is important step for those who wish to recover from depression.  It counters the sense of hopelessness and the confusing lack of direction characteristic of a depressive’s attempts to navigate through life.  Goals give us a Garmin for our game.

Even though setting goals would be a healthy thing for someone with depression to work at, they often don’t.  Again, Dr. O’Connor:

“Depressed people, pessimistic [a hallmark of lawyers thinking style] and lacking confidence, tend to avoid setting goals as a way to protect themselves from disappointment.  They don’t realize that the absence of goals leads to a completely different and frequently worse set of problems.  Even if you miss your target, you grow and benefit from the practice of productive activity.  But depressed people, who don’t trust their ability to adapt to bad news and hence avoid setting conscious goals, find lives that lack direction.  Your goal becomes just getting through another day.  In the depths of depression, that may be all you can manage, but it doesn’t take you anywhere.” 

Or, as the great Indian Chief Seneca once wrote: “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim.  When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

Setting simple, realistic and concrete goals improve both our performance of the activity and our actual experience of it.  My Catholic take on it from Mother Teresa helps me put this in the context of my part-time faith:  “We can’t do great things; only small things with great love.” 

Work isn’t just about what is thrown at us by our jobs.  It’s also about the passion we bring to it. In this vein, it’s not just the immediate task before us that hooks us, but how we’ve set it up in our own minds.  Again, Dr. O’Connor:

“Making a commitment [to a goal] focuses our attention on where we want to go and helps us focus our thinking on getting there.  People feel happier as they progress toward their goals; they have a sense of involvement, they feel productive and useful, and they give themselves ego strokes for being good and industrious.  Because we’re so adaptable, however, those good feelings don’t necessarily last once we’ve got to where we are going.  We have to make a deliberate effort to savor and appreciate our achievements.”

The key words are deliberate effort.  The word “deliberate” comes from the Latin word “deliberates” which means to weigh carefully.  It requires us to reflect on our course of action and think about what actually works and what doesn’t for us on the job.

In my experience, depressives are often lacking the goal-setting skills they need to be happy and content in their work lives.  What’s the consequence of not setting goals is a sense of meaninglessness; ennui that won’t go away.  Depressed lawyers have an inner dialogue that goes something like this: “I have all this paperwork to get to today, but I have to be in court all morning.  And . . . oh shit!!  I forgot to call the judge back on that motion.” And so it goes as these worrisome thoughts pour out of our noggins.  We’re just jumping around putting out fires and surviving our days.  Is it really any wonder that we draw little or no satisfaction from our work with this approach? 

When I talk to depressed lawyers about this and suggest that they think about their goals and what they really want to achieve, you would have thought that I asked them to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge: “Are you kidding?  You want me to spend time thinking about my goals?  When the hell do I have time to do that?  I have no time during work and then when I get home I either want to (a) forget about my day and enjoy my family, (b) pass out on the couch and forget about everything in front of the T.V. or (c) do anything that doesn’t involve thinking about my job.

There’s no problem in using these ways to decompress after a day’s warfare at the office.  But if these activities, albeit pleasurable, avoid the important questions raised by work, and our connection to it, we may to rebalance the tires.

In my next blog, I will address some practical ways lawyers can set goals and draw pleasure from accomplishing them in their everyday work lives.

Mindful On The Job

 

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying – Studs Turkel, author

Sunday night rolls around all too quickly.  The weekend, if we actually give ourselves a break from our jobs, can’t often prepare us for the frenzy of the week’s activity at the office that awaits us.  If we like our jobs as lawyers – and granted there are alot of us who do – we still may feel it’s half-baked- “it still could be better” we think to ourselves.

Michael Carroll, author of the book, Awake at Work, was employed at such places as Shearson Lehman, American Express and The Walt Disney Company.  More recently, he has been a consultant and coach to such companies as Starbucks and Proctor and Gamble.  His comments, into what workers really want out of their jobs, is insightful to the lives of lawyers on the job:

“In my role as a business consultant, I regularly ask my clients to complete the following sentence with the first word that comes to mind:

At work, I want to be. . .

While my survey is not scientifically reliable, I can report there are some patterns to the responses.  Here are the four most frequent answers:

  • Successful
  • Happy
  • Rewarded
  • Stress-free

Such responses come as no surprise.  Given the demands, risks and relentless pace of our modern-day workplace, it is little wonder that most of us would like a little stress-free happiness on occasion.  Rewards and success-isn’t that what we are all looking for at work?”

Who can’t relate to that take on the legal profession?  Whether we are happy in our jobs or not, we all think about how we can embrace more of these intangibles while at the office.

Carroll, in addition to being in the business world for the past forty-four years, is a long-time meditator and proponent of mindfulness meditation.  Here’s a great introduction to what Mindfulness is about:

You don’t have to be a Buddha sitting in a lotus garden to appreciate this fundamental and simple way of approaching your day.  It’s not so much a different way of doing and accomplishing stuff; lawyers are great at that.  Rather, it’s a different way of seeing at work.  Moreover, seeing via a discipline of mindfulness meditation, seeks to plant our feet directly on the carpet. It’s not so much about being alert and wired to the swirling stimuli peppering us from every angle.  It’s taking a time-out and leaning against the wall; it’s about letting the other half of our brain complement our eagerness to get things done.

Coming back to Michael Carroll’s survey about what people want out of their work, he opines that it’s not really success, happiness, being reward and a stress-free work-life: 

“My survey indicates that most of us think we want to happy, successful, and to be stress-free at work, but we also know that such aspirations are wishful thinking.  We all know work offers both success and failure; happiness and angst.  We know that work, indeed all of life, unavoidably presents both rewards and penalties; joys and disappoints. So, while most of us wish to be happy and successful at work, what we really want, from my vantage point, is to be confident: confident that no matter what work offers up, we remain self-assured and at our ease.”

In my experience, truer words were never spoken. As lawyers, there is a wonderful sense we get about our craft when we achieve a certain level of competence and feel that we can handle whatever down the pike.  We can acheive this sense of competence not just through the nuts and bolts of accomplishments in the courtroom, but through practice as sense of presence in our daily lives.

Explore how mindfulness meditation can help you at the office.  Also, for those so inclined, check out the wonderful book, which I’ve previously raved about, The Mindfulway Through Depression.  It’s not only for those with depression, but suitable for anyone who struggles with a sense of dissatisfaction and/or unhappiness at work.

Walking in Bigger Shoes

Lawyers are an earnest, disciplined bunch.  They love evidence – the “show me the money” approach to life.  They’re hard-bitten pessimist, yet love the latest self-improvement projects pitched to them by the legal establishment.  You know — graphs, charts and the Oprah-like cattle call to “Change Your Life in Five Easy Steps!”  The goal of all these books and slogans is Happiness, as if it were a commodity for sale.  There was a snappy piece yesterday in the New York Times Review of Books entitled, “The Rap on Happiness.”  It’s a great take on this country’s obsession with finding the veritable Oz of bliss.

“The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; its happiness itself.  Happiness is like beauty:  part of its glory lies in transience.  It is deep but often brief (as the poet Robert Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this.  Frank Kermode wrote, ‘It seems there is sort of a calamity built into the texture of life.’  To hold happiness is to hold understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies.  No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.”

Lawyers walk in shoes that are too small for them, living lives that are too confining, unimaginative and which fail to challenge them to be their best.  They need to switch from pinching wing-tips to cushy loafers.  This switch gives a vital bounce to their steps rather than a lugubrious gait. The opposite of depression isn’t happiness; it’s vitality. It’s like a Swordfish bounding out of the ocean’s waves in defiance of gravity or B.B. King playing a blues riff on his guitar.  They have a vibrancy that can’t be contained; they express themselves in a space where great stuff happens.

Part of the equation involves not so much pills or therapy, as the lifting up of our individual imaginations.  Putting aside what’s possible in a concrete sense ( you know, the mortgage or student loans), have you ever looked out your office window and imagined the life you’d like to have?  This is not the same as rumination; a constant churning of negative thoughts in our cranium which a depressive is prone to.

Rather, it’s an exercise in lively engagement with our Self. To engage in this effort, we have to pop our life’s stick shift out of “Neutral”, the frozen state that depression and/or anxiety can keep us stuck again.  Locate the “Drive” on your shift and engage.

In this exercise, it might be helpful to think about the choices we make in a different way.  Not in a self-recriminating way, but in a fashion that moves us in a constructive direction. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives; to decide what reduces or enlarges our spirits.  Quality questions can help in regard.  Not the common lament of depressives, “What the hell is wrong with me?”  That’s a dreary question that goes nowhere because the answer we give ourselves is – – “Everything!”  James Hollis, Ph.D., in his wonderful book, “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life” offers us a keen approach ourselves to view ourselves:

“Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit, ‘Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?’  Do not ask this question if you are afraid of the answer.  You might be afraid of what your soul will require of you, but at least you then know your marching orders.”

Incline your inner ear.  Listen to your response to this challenging question.  Enlargement of one’s self isn’t so much about happiness, as meaning. Deep down, we all want a life of purpose; where we feel our lives have a point, or many points of light for that matter.  You don’t have to look far.  It’s right beneath your bouncing feet.

Turning Your Life Around

 

Lawyers often sense that their lives have gone off track; they just don’t know how to fix them.  They’re hit by daily demands that make it difficult to find their true north.

There are the demands that hurtle at them from the lives they occupy – the boss that’s yammering for more billable hours, families that feel upset by all the hours they spend at work or you-name-it-crap from this frenzied world.

Then there are the demands that emanate from somewhere inside of them; the part of themselves – their true selves – that wants a life with less stress, more meaning and a sense of connectedness to other people.  While they pine for such a life while looking outside their law office windows, such reverie gives them a brief respite from the grind.  But after the moment has passed, there’s an abiding sorrow.  A sense that something has been lost that can’t be found.

Perpetual stress can keep lawyers from ever dealing – in a constructive and persistent way – with what they really want in life. They check their Blackberry’s more than check in with themselves. They don’t really know what they want most of the time; they just know that it’s not this.  Emotional pain may be leaking out of them; for some lawyers, this has been going on for years.  The pain might be mitigated in healthy (e.g. exercise) or unhealthy (e.g. drinking, drugs) ways.  But, it will not go away – until they turn around and face themselves.

Lawyers need to become conscious of the choices they’re making during their waking hours.  Of course, there’re exceptions, but the majority of lawyers have choices.  They aren’t victims that are being forced to stay at their jobs.  They’re choosing to stay at their jobs and do the work they’re paid to do. 

Most lawyers, however, just don’t see it this way.  They feel stuck in their jobs and lives with few viable alternatives.  As odd as it may sound, they feel like victims.  Friends of mine who aren’t lawyers scoff at my observation:  “Lawyers victims?  Give me a break.”  Nonetheless, it’s true on an emotional level for many lawyers.

Lawyers can feel this way because (a) the “golden handcuffs” in which they’re just making too much money to quit; (b) they’re in too much debt; (c) they’d rather complain than face the abject fear that comes with making tough changes; or (d) they’re simply paralyzed by stress, anxiety or depression.

However, by turning from a stuck-victim status to a choice-maker posture they can begin to awaken to their true potential. They might have to make small changes in their lives or maybe a closet full of whoppers.  Perhaps they’ll have to go back to the drawing board of their lives and sift through and separate what’s really important versus what’s trivial. This will take time; let nobody fool you on this one.  People in our country are basically impatient; we want relief from our distress NOW.  But, meaningful and realistic changes never seem to unfold this way. That’s just the facts-o-life. 

Turning your life around may come down to this:  What are you willing to do to change your life?  Lots of people — not just lawyers — know that their lives aren’t working.  The same group approaches their lives with all the right intentions of changing it for better.  Most, however, will not change despite the chorus of voices from within telling them to do so.

I had a friend who would call me once a month and lament how unhappy he was.  I’d listen for thirty minutes and then he, having discharged his discomfort, would say goodbye only to repeat this weather pattern about thirty days later.

Finally, six month in this telephonic waltz, I said “Tom, what are you willing to do to change your about life?”  The question must have stunned him like a taser because there was silence —  a dead silence — on the other end of the line.  He evaded the question, said we would have to get together soon for lunch and hung up.  Tom never called again.

Tom didn’t really want to change – – he wanted to bitch, a common past-time for many lawyers.  He wanted my sympathetic ear to appreciate just how much he’d been screwed over by opposing counsel, an irate judge or his cranky wife.  I had sympathy for Tom, but also a good deal of frustration because I realized that I wasn’t really helping him.

I would ask you the reader:  “What are you willing to do to change your life” Are you willing to the feel the free floating anxiety that’s inevitable if you are to start changing your life?  The longer the discontent goes on, the bigger the changes will have to be.  The longer we delay, the bigger the kick in the pants from Life to wake us up.

Yes, work is only a part of life and many lawyers no doubt find outlets of meaning and joy along other avenues.  However, as Gregg Levoy, author of Callings:  Finding and Following an Authentic Life, such sizing up of our days miscalculates the energy and time we must invest in our daily jobs:

“Work is merely one of the arenas in which you play the game – the one the Gods are watching from the press-box atop Mount Olympus while sipping mint juleps.  It is only one of the arenas in which you express your humanity, search for meaning, play out your destiny and dreams, contribute your energies and gifts to the world and spend your precious nick of time.  It is also an arena in which you spend two-thirds of your waking lifetime and it is legitimate to love your work!  Life is a thousand times too short to bore yourself.  If someday your life does flash in front of your eyes, the very least you want it to do is hold your interest.”

Rear-ended by Depression

The abject pain of clinical depression is magnified expontentially when one considers that sufferers usually blame themselves for their plight. “What’s wrong with me?” is a common refrain.  Most people with depression feel “bad” to their core.  They can’t always articulate why this is so, but they know that they can’t shake their own self-condemnation.  There is no place to hide from it, no true rest for the weariness it brings.  We lay awake at night and hope that tomorrow it will be better.

I had a conversation last week with a mental health professional who asked me, “What in the world do lawyers have to be depressed about?  They’re rich and powerful.  Lawyers should stop complaining and realize how good they have it.”  Yet a lack of gratefulness has little to do with depression.  I used to recite a list of things I had to be grateful about – and there were many – but it all fell on depression’s deaf ears.

When others tell us to “snap out of it,” we may buy it hook, line and sinker and even believe that they know what they’re talking about.  Well-meaning friends may try to reign in our sorrow by suggesting that they can identify with our suffering.

In her book about her own depression, An Unquiet Mind:  A Memoir of Mood and Madness, psychiatrist, Kay Redfield Jamison writes:

“Others imply that they know what is it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone.  But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable.”

Such attempts by others, even when well intentioned, always brought about a deep sense of loneliness in me.  I had, like most people, gone through my fair share of difficult experiences in life like losing a job.  But this experience – this blast furnace of melancholy – was not that.  We get over losses in our lives, we adapt.  We can’t just “get over” depression.

There is a sense that we have been rear-ended by depression; out of seemingly nowhere, our lives are crashed into and changed forever.  In a very real sense, we will never be the same.  Some will recover from their depression, many will not.  That’s not a very popular thing to say, but it’s been my experience from talking with hundreds of lawyers from around the country who I’ve been privileged to share with.  For many, recovery will be an on-again off-again sort of affair.  They will have to work hard to recover and make lots of effort to stay healthy.

Part of the reason why too many lawyers don’t get better is simple:  most don’t get any form of treatment for their depression.  A study by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that as many as 80% of people in this country get no form of help whatsoever.  Looking out a window, I wonder how high the rate is for lawyers.  It’s most likely a mixed bag.  While it’s true that people from a higher socio-economic class tend to get treatment – mostly because of their access to good medical care – most attorneys still don’t because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

Such shame – dumped on people from others and the self-inflicted variety – is particularly deep for lawyers.  This is so because of the myths surrounding their internal world.  Lawyers feel like they’re supposed to be veritable Supermen able to bend steal and solve all manner of a clients’ problems without wrinkling their power blue suit. If they’re in pain, they’re told to “suck it up.”  We live in a nation of winners where, deep down, many feel like losers.

This sort of mentality, in part, explains the epidemic rates of depression in the law.  Studies have concluded that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate of twice the national average or about 20%.  This means that 200,000 out of the one million lawyers in this country suffer from depression.

What’s a depressed lawyer to do?  First, one must stop blaming oneself.  This is tough because most people with depression have been living with this cognitive distortion for a long time – maybe their whole lives – and this corrosive self-talk promotes the viscous cycle that is clinical depression.  If one can’t stop blaming oneself for having depression, it’s tough to get better.  Little by little, we need to learn to let that bullshit go and start walking a healthier path.

The poem, The Journey, by Mary Oliver, captures some sense of this path for me.  I hope it will for you.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice – –

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do – –

determined to save

the only life you could save.

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