From the Wisconsin Lawyer magazine, check out this list of how to live a better life as a lawyer. Read the Blog
Former lawyer turned coach, Paula Davis-Laack gives readers her best pointers for how to prevent burnout. Read the Blog
Helen Keller once wrote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” As we navigate through challenging times toward a better future, it’s useful to visit some tried and true ideas regarding life hardiness and resiliency. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a reminder of some existential ideas we sometimes set aside as we tend to the hectic details of daily life. If you find this article helpful, share it with those whom you care about who are in need. There’s power in good will reverberated.
1. The power of perspective
Life is not always easy. We all know that. How we choose the way we think, feel, and act in relation to life’s challenges can often make the difference between hope versus despair, optimism versus frustration, and victory versus defeat. With every challenging situation we encounter, ask questions such as “What is the lesson here?”, “How can I learn from this experience?”, “What is most important now?”, and “If I think outside the box, what are some better answers?” The higher the quality of questions we ask, the better the quality of answers we will receive. Ask constructive questions based on learning and priorities, and we can gain the proper perspective to help us tackle the situation at hand.
“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
– Thomas A. Edison
2. Don’t focus on the mud
We should learn from the past, but not be stuck in it. Sometimes life circumstances and personal setbacks can haunt and prevent us from seeing our true potential and recognizing new opportunities. What has already happened we cannot change, but what is yet to happen we can shape and influence. At times the first step is simply to break from the past and declare that it is you, not your history, who’s in charge. Ask empowering questions such as “What matters to me now?”, “How can I make a difference in this situation?”, and “What’s the next step for my best interest and well-being?” Every moment we’re alive we can make new choices that help us move on and step toward a better future. If we pay attention to only mud on the ground after a storm, we won’t notice that the sky above us has already cleared. Goethe reminds us: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” Don’t focus on the mud. Make better choices today and move on.
3. All you have to do is ask…the right individuals
In life we sometimes may feel like we’re walking alone, but we don’t have to be as long as we’re honest with ourselves, and ask for help when needed. You can find strength and support through a “board of advisors” you create. These are your “go-to” people when you’re in need of sound advice, a new perspective, a certain expertise, or simply an empathetic ear. Members of the board can include individuals you know whose opinions you respect and character you trust. Your personal B.O.A. can also include your role models from past and present, historical or fictional. Ask, for example: “What would (role model A) say about my situation?”, or “What would (role model B) do if she were in my shoes?” Asking for help is not the same as complaining. Habitual complainers dwell on what’s wrong. Successful people assume responsibility for finding the support they need to solve the problem.
“Normal people have problems. The smart ones get help.”
– Daniel Amen
4. Thrive on your strengths while exploring new potential
We each have certain dispositions in which we naturally excel. Some of us are great with people, others are handy with tools, yet others thrive on information. A mismatch between what you’re naturally good at and your work in life is wasted potential. There are a myriad of assessment tools available that can help you determine your natural strengths, as well as your areas of greatest potential.
“When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.”
– Joseph Campbell
5. Keep the fun and enjoyment
Van Wilder from the movie of the same name said: “You shouldn’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.” No matter how difficult the circumstances, resolve to keep the fun and enjoyment in your life. Make a point to take a “mini-vacation” everyday; be it walking in the park, exercising, hugging a loved one, or taking a nice, hot bath. The more challenging and stressful life is, the more important it is to take good care of yourself so you can relax your body, ease your mind, and rejuvenate your spirit. After recharging your batteries, you may see the same situation in a different, more positive light.
6. Keep your options open
There are many paths to opportunity, success, and happiness. We can begin by asking ourselves what true success and happiness means and looks like to us, and let our answers show the way. When one path seems to be at a dead end, look another way and see what new openings may be waiting just around the corner. Options can come from consulting the aforementioned board of advisors, thinking outside the box, daring to dream, doing something different, or simply letting go of a habit or condition that has clearly outlived its usefulness. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.
“We must dare to think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world.”
– James W. Fulbright
7. Keep the faith
There are many ways to keep your faith alive: Faith in yourself, faith in your place in this world, and faith in answers the Universe has in store for you. Go to places and engage in activities that give you the greatest feeling of inner peace. When you give yourself this gift on a regular basis, what psychologists call the Higher Self emerges, as insights, inspiration, and a sense of deep knowing spring forth from the depth of your soul.
The following quote by Anne Frank is just one example: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
As you immerse yourself in peace, ask: “What if what I’m going through is a blessing in disguise? What greater meaning exists for me now?” Put forth these and any other constructive questions that come straight from your heart. Don’t try to figure out the answers during these moments, but rather “empty your mind” and let the solutions come to you. The answers may come at that moment or later: sometimes when the time is right; sometimes when you least expect them. All you have to do is hold the questions and pay attention.
Keep the faith. Find your peace within, and the answers will come!
8. Resolve to never, ever give up
I once heard a courageous person say that there are no losers in life, except for those who give up on themselves. If you’re still alive and breathing, your purpose in this life time is not yet fulfilled. The great adventure is in discovering what that purpose is, and to live it until your last breath. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably being pulled by an inner calling to do more. That calling is your adventure waiting to happen. What are you waiting for? And what are you willing to do now?
“Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown before he became the president of the United States.”
– Wall Street Journal
“If you don’t have the capacity to change yourself and your own attitudes, then nothing around you can be changed.”
– Anwar Sadat
“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”
– Helen Keller
By Preston Ni, M.S.B.A.
Here’s a great piece from my good friend, Buddy Stockwell, the Lawyers Assistance Program director down in Louisiana. Read the Story
A new research study suggests the way we manage our emotions on a daily basis can influence our overall mental health years later. Read the Story
New research shows there is a correlation between burnout and the buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries that lead to angina or heart attacks. Read the Story
Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen
Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face. Before he even said a word, before I asked him how his practice was going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down.
As we spoke over coffee at Starbucks, he asked if I thought he was suffering from clinical depression. I didn’t think so, I told him. I thought he was burnt out.
According to an article on burnout in the ABA Journal, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.
This was certainly true in Tom’s case. There was no end, no limits to the demands put on him to be better, to be cheaper to run faster. As if he were a machine. He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.
Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule, however. It’s also about how lawyers actually think.
Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, PhD writes:
“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: “If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.” Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.
“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”
Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”
My friend Tom is also in this boat. He works for an insurance defense litigation firm. He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person. The culture of his firm tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials. He hates to do this, but doesn’t know what else to do. He has a family to support and feels stuck at his job.
He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like. There are, however, telltale signs.
BURNOUT’S TEN MILESTONES
- Over-commitment (always in motion)
- Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
- Idealistic standards
- Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
- Lack of help and assistance
- Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
- Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
- Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
- Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
- Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no
DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT SIMILARITIES
While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.
Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.
- Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
- The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.
DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT DIFFERENCES
Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is therefore more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.
- Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol, as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
- When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
- Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.
A STRATEGY FOR AVOIDING BURNOUT
It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:
- Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
- Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
- Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
- Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
- Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
- Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
- Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
- Consider changing jobs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
- Consider changing careers. Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision. It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.
Further reading —
The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder
Say Ciao to Chow Mein: Conquering Career Burnout by Christina H. Bost Seaton
Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine article
Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – American Bar Association article
Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work website article
“If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight. What had once been a throbbing, vital structure is now deserted. Where there had once been activity, there are now only crumbling reminders of energy and life. Some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.”
This is the opening of the 1980 book, Burn-Out: The High Cost of Achievement, written by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, the first person to describe the syndrome known as burnout. Dr. Freudenberger explained his use of the metaphor by noting that people who burnout under the stress of living in a demanding world are very much like a burned out building. Although on the outside they may look the same, “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”Bottom of Form
The discovery of burnout in the 1970s came during an era of great social and personal stress. It was a time of government corruption (Watergate), war protests (Vietnam), stagflation, soaring divorce rates, oil shortages, and an unstable job market where long hours and stressful work environments were the norm. The chronic stress of this era caused many people, especially those who were “accomplishers and doers,” to lose their enthusiasm.
Dr. Freudenberger noticed that while most of his high-achieving clients had once pursued life with vigor, excitement, and optimism, over time their passion had been dulled, in some cases killed by what he called “a demon born of the society and times we live in;” times exemplified by swift changes and the “depersonalization” of neighborhoods, school and work environments. They began to feel disengaged, disenchanted, and uninvolved, even when surrounded by family and friends. They began to view their jobs as draining and unrewarding. For many, life seemed to have lost its meaning.
Sound familiar? It should. Today’s world is remarkably similar. War, economic woes, distrust of the government, soaring unemployment, seemingly endless work days, and stressful jobs-all of these things are taking a heavy toll on the minds and bodies of our best and our brightest, leading to chronic fatigue, disillusionment, discontentment, and disengagement. In short . . . burnout.
So I thought I’d share with you some pearls of wisdom from the man who discovered the condition known as burnout. Although the insights and advice Dr. Freudenberger offered to victims of burnout were published over 30 years ago, they bear repeating because they are no less true today than they were 30 years ago.
“In a word, slowly. No matter how suddenly it seems to erupt, Burn-Out is a chronic condition; something a person has been working toward over a period of weeks, months, even years.” (p. 13)
The Type of Person Most Likely to Burnout
“The people who fall prey to [burnout] are, for the most part, decent individuals who have striven hard to reach a goal. Their schedules are busy, and whatever the project or job, they can be counted on to do more than their share. They’re usually the leaders among us who have never been able to admit limitations. They’re burning out because they’ve pushed themselves too hard for too long.” (pp. 11-12)
The Symptoms Common to Burnout
Exhaustion: usually the first distress signal of distress in burnout victims
Detachment: Dr. Freudenberger explains that when burned out people feel let down by people and situations (which inevitably happens), there’s a strong temptation to think, ‘I don’t care, it wasn’t important anyway,'” which leads to detachment.
Boredom and Cynicism: what was once exciting now feels draining, and “You begin to question the value of activities and friendships, even of life itself. You become skeptical of people’s motives and blasé about causes.”
Impatience and Heightened Irritability: as burnout worsens and it becomes harder and harder to accomplish tasks, impatience grows and spills over into irritability with everyone around.
A Sense of Omnipotence: Dr. Freudenberger notes that sentiments such as “No one else can do it. Only I can” are expressions of an unhealthy ego. He says, “Be assured–somebody else can do it. Maybe not the same way you’d have done it or with the same degree of excellence, but it may be a situation that doesn’t require excellence.”
A Suspicion of Being Unappreciated: burned out individuals often become upset over what they see as a lack of appreciation of all they do, and they become increasingly bitter and angry.
Paranoia: when people feel put-upon and mistreated, as burned out people often do, they become increasingly suspicious of their environment and the people around them.
Disorientation: feeling a growing separation from one’s environment
Psychosomatic Complaints: Dr. Freudenberger says that “Headaches, colds that linger, backaches–all these are signs that something is wrong, and it’s usually something the person doesn’t want to look at.”
Depression: In contrast to depression unrelated to burnout, Dr. Freudenberger notes that burnout depression is “usually temporary, specific, and localized, pertaining more or less to one area of life.”
Denial of Feelings: “Since we know that people who are subject to Burn-Out are the carers among us, it doesn’t make sense to assume that one day, for no particular reason, the caring simply stopped …. Far more logical is the assumption that the caring has been shut off for a very good reason–and shut off by the person himself.” (pp. 67-68)
What Burnout Looks Like to Others
“A person who is burning out is not, on the surface, a very sympathetic figure. He or she may be cranky, critical, angry, rigid, resistant to suggestions, and given to behavior patterns that turn people off. Unless we’re able to probe beneath the surface and see that the person is really suffering, our tendency will be to turn away.” (p. 11)
The Excessive Demands High-achievers Place on Themselves
“As we pile layer on layer, the weight bows us under. We begin to make excessive demands on ourselves, all the time draining ourselves of energy. To compensate for the weakness, the burning out we feel, we develop rigidity. Things must be just so … to maintain our position, we must constantly excel. Unfortunately, the harder we try, the more we impair our efficiency. About the only thing we succeed in doing is burning ourselves out more.” (pp. 5-6)
Taking a Good, Hard Look Inside
“Since being out of touch with, or shutting off, large parts of yourself is a primary contributor to Burn-Out, your greatest protection against it is self-awareness.” (p. 27)
“… never lose sight of the fact that you, as a human being, are more important than the task, no matter how crucial the task may be.” (p. 158)
Keeping a Sense of Humor
“Remember, if you want to avoid Burn-Out, heavy is out; light is in. Any time you can laugh at something, you reduce its importance, even if that something is yourself.” (p. 179)
The Paradoxes of Society
“At the same time our society dangles the impossible dream in front of us, it sets the stage for Burn-Out by eroding tradition, banishing our support systems, barricading minority groups, and dissolving relationships. It sends out mixed messages to all our emerging groups. Women, gays, Hispanics, blacks-we tell them all they are entitled to the same rights and privileges as the rest of the population; then we take our children and move to the suburbs. We advertise ourselves as “equal-opportunity employers;” then we offer unequal pay for equal jobs. To someone buying the promise and setting up expectations based on it, the contradiction between the myth and the reality is devastating. Not the least reason why Burn-Out is on the rise today is that our society abounds in paradoxes like these.” (p. 198)
Dr. Freudenberger offers three basic ingredients for overcoming burnout:
Self-Awareness: He says to ask yourself, “Are you in charge of your life? Or has it taken charge of you? By fostering this kind of awareness, you will eventually get in touch with the real you that you have become so estranged from, and some of your detachment will vanish.” (p. 205)
Slow Down, You Move Too Fast: Don’t try to be everywhere at one time. Breathe.
Kindness: Dr. Freudenberger recommends getting out an old family photo album. He explains, “Old photographs teach us a lot, especially about kindness … when you sit down with your album, look at that child you were from the vantage point of who you are now …. And remember, that little kid hasn’t vanished from the earth.” He reminds us that the child in us is alive and well somewhere inside and that we can help that child emerge by being kind to ourselves, accepting who we are, and exploring where we want to go.
Changing: The more well-rounded our lives are, the more protected we are from burnout. He recommends, “If you’ve stopped trying new activities, make a conscious effort to start again. Dig up your old adventurous spirit and get it going. Try jogging or skating or swimming or tennis or dancing, but try something.”
Finally, Dr. Freudenberger offers encouragement: “In every fire,” he says, “there are glowing embers. You can use them to rekindle the spark.”
And that’s true. Burnout is not a terminal condition. But it’s also not a condition that gets better by being ignored. So take an honest look at your life. Reassess your goals in terms of their intrinsic worth and update them as needed. A choice you made early on in life may not be the best choice for you right now.
Also, look at your relationships as objectively as possible. What are you bringing to your relationships, good and bad? And explore what your relationships are giving to and taking from you.
Look at your work. Does it consume you? Do you have a life apart from your job, or is your life your job? And is that what you really want?
Finally, what’s the state of your social life? Do you have one? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never took the time to do it? Why not?
When I was writing my book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, a friend sent me what I considered a very powerful quote, so powerful that I ended my book with it. Written anonymously, I believe it should serve as an important reminder that life is more than just a job or a marriage or the zealous pursuit of any singular goal.
First, I was dying to finish high school and start college.
And then I was dying to finish college and start working.
Then I was dying to marry and have children.
And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough so I could go back to work.
And then I was dying to retire.
And now I’m dying . . .
And suddenly I realized I forgot to live.
Achievement and success are important, but are they worth sacrificing everything for?
By Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.