Dr. Beau A. Nelson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Chief Clinical Officer at FHEHealth in Florida. He specializes in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Integrated Behavioral Healthcare, maximizing medical, psychiatric, Neuroscience, and clinical interventions.
The philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” There’s some debate over the truth of that statement. Obviously, some life experiences are so traumatic they leave little room for silver linings. At the same time, emerging therapies like “Post-Traumatic Growth” look to capitalize on the process of healing from trauma or apply a strengths-based perspective that builds on successes and positive efforts to get better.
When we look at the dark times that most people will suffer in their lives—the end of a relationship, job loss, financial stress, a life-changing diagnosis, or the death of a loved one—we might do well to take the view that what we do with these events can, in fact, grow us as people. We might benefit from telling ourselves that we can take comfort in overcoming obstacles and maybe even develop confidence in challenging times in the future.
The Stressors Unique to Lawyers
In addition to these stressors that can affect anyone, lawyers face unique challenges in their profession that make them more susceptible to anxiety and depression in dark times. According to lawyer Dan Lukasik, their training and experience groom them to be pessimistic and perfectionistic. In an article that recounted his own journey through depression, he described lawyering as “an adversarial profession” characterized by “chronic and unremitting stress.”
In their line of work, lawyers often get a front seat to humanity at its worst. Many lawyers spend so much time forming and litigating arguments in high-stake situations that they live in a near-constant state of combative stress, tension, and uncertainty. The fears of failure and pressures to succeed can be enormous. Meanwhile, most firms expect lawyers to work long hours, with little to no acknowledgment of the cumulative mental health impact.
How Setbacks Can Build Future Success
When these stressors trigger anxiety and depression, it’s easy to lose sight of the silver linings and view the setback only in negative terms. Yet there is evidence that today’s setbacks can be the building blocks of tomorrow’s successes. An interesting study at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management looked at researchers who experienced early-career failures in the form of scientific experiments or published papers that did not go well. Strikingly, a correlation emerged between professional failure early on and professional success later. Whether because of lessons learned, the sheer force of will, or grit from having to overcome difficulty, those whose initial performance was lackluster but who persisted in trying went on to achieve more success later.
Consider this finding in the light of silver linings. Could a “failure” or dark moment in our lives actually teach a lesson that is useful later, give us the self-confidence to take on a daunting task, or reveal that “failures” are normal and life goes on?
It is never fun to go through a hard time, but these times are a fact of life. We all encounter them to some degree. What we do with them or the meaning we make from them can often be the choice to take care of ourselves, get the help or support we need, or approach life from a different angle to survive and, hopefully, thrive.
Protective Factors in the Face of Trauma
Psychological studies involving survivors of trauma talk about protective factors for dealing with dark times. Harvard University gave the example of children who faced significant adversity. When a supportive adult was available to them, children fared better in dealing with the issues, regardless of the actual event.
Protective factors for lawyers (and everyone really) could be many things, such as good health, supports, spirituality, or another factor that is in the “plus column,” so to speak. It goes without saying that if everything in someone’s life goes south simultaneously, they will be more at risk of buckling under the pressure. The more protective factors you can collect, the better. Examples might include a good therapist, close family and friends, a professional support group, a regular exercise routine, and an employer that has signed the Lawyer Well-Being Pledge.
Lessons from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
As a student of human nature and a practicing therapist for more than 22 years, I have seen the power of overcoming obstacles as a tool for personal growth. With the help of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, one of the most research-proven, effective therapies available, patients work to change their thinking to cope and deal with events in their life.
This change in thinking can then change how we feel and cope. I’ve seen this happen with people navigating life transitions, dealing with a death, or coping with a mental illness or other health condition. Perhaps the ability to see things in a new way and to accept and move on from an adverse event or dark time, as well as the confidence in getting over the hurdle, helps us to cope.
Unfortunately, there is no universal cure, nor does every patient or person have success with this approach. However, some do have success with it. In the same vein as the Harvard resource above, having supportive people in one’s life and a safe environment in which to process can make a real difference. It is probably the most important “first step” to get outside our heads and start seeing something different.
I will often instruct patients to look at an issue as if someone they loved or cared about brought them that issue. It is amazing what great advice givers we are to others—maybe lawyers especially—but we are completely different, often, with ourselves. We are helpful, compassionate, and supportive of others; however, this does not always come naturally when we’re the person who is struggling.
As the saying goes, “we are our own worst critics.” Being this way can stunt the process of seeing something from another side and prevent us from being supportive of ourselves in the same way we are to others (which is way more helpful).
Healthy Coping and Supports for Weathering Dark Times
In life, adversities happen. Maintaining protective supports can help us traverse through the obstacles we face. A more compassionate approach that seeks to learn lessons, celebrate accomplishments, and build on the fact that you survived something can also help.
The goal isn’t to be 100% positive when a dark time hits. In fact, that is not helpful. However, there may be a better way to cope than fixating on how bad something was or how bad it made us feel.
All of us are learning, and we do the best we can. Maybe taking a fresh look at something can reveal a new insight that wasn’t there before. This does not negate the event or the suffering but can provide some wiggle room to see these things in a new light. When that happens, our feelings toward the event and the suffering may start to feel lighter. The future may even look brighter, so silver linings, such as processing and learning to appreciate lessons learned and personal growth from adversity, can lead to different perspectives on the dark times.
By Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW.