I was deeply touched by the recent Letter to the Editor by Joanna Litt who connects her husband’s significant mental health battles with the ever-mounting pressures and stresses of practicing law (NYLJ 11/16/18). Joanna’s tragic story is one that has become all too common. Her bravery to share her story is what compelled me to write this letter. Unfortunately, her husband’s struggles were very common, very real and extremely pervasive within the legal industry.
Some attorneys have the courage to openly share their battles with stress, anxiety and depression. However, too many others mask and hide their struggles for fear of being frowned upon, never seeking the help they need. I applaud the 24 firms who have signed on to the American Bar Association’s Pledge to introduce mental health initiatives into the workplace and I encourage all to do the same. We must support our attorneys the same way attorneys utilize the legal system to protect us. We owe it to them and we owe it to their families.
My work with many different professionals, including attorneys, has revealed certain key principles for living a happier, more fulfilled life. Once understood and implemented, these concepts can truly improve one’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
The long-term solution lies in creating preventive measures to support and empower our attorneys to avoid the escalation of stress, anxiety and depression.
Here are the key principles:
This is the most important step and the one most people find the hardest: the awareness that life can change. Many people become complacent and numb to the idea that life can be better. There is no reason for you to live a life less than what you deserve. This key is understanding that you too can have happiness and success. You have the power to have both and it starts from within. It’s understanding that anything you really want out of life stems from one motivating factor: your desire to be happy with yourself.
Every person has the capability to be happy. But if you are defining your happiness based on your wins and losses, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Too often, attorneys feel they are only as good as their last success. This creates a bumpy emotional roller-coaster life of ups and downs and is the main culprit for stress, anxiety and depression. You cannot define yourself by your work. You must define yourself by you; whatever that means for you.
Clarity of self. You must become clear about who you are. You are not just an attorney. You were someone before; that is who you really are. Your job is just an extension of who you became. What characteristics made you, you? What qualities did you have growing up that perhaps you suppress because it doesn’t fit your “lawyer” persona? I’ve worked with so many people who were creative, fun and funny, but once they became attorneys, they hid their real selves and became too serious and conservative. There seems to be this expectation that in order to thrive in the legal industry, you must think and act “like a lawyer.” But when you embrace your true self, you will flourish as an attorney and more importantly, as a person. Don’t compare yourself to others. Figure out who you are. Once you do, you will develop your own style specific to you; you will feel empowered being who you are, not who others think you should be. This will motivate you in a new way. Being comfortable with yourself and gaining clarity on what makes you unique is a key to happiness. Know who you want to be rather than some imagined expectation of who you should be.
Stop defeating yourself in your own mind. Attorneys are self-critical by nature. Self-criticism holds you back. Perfectionism should not be a goal, but a trait that must be recognized. You cannot be perfect; nor should you strive to be. You will win, you will lose, and you may even mess up royally. It’s called life, and you will learn from each. But take the lesson and move on. Don’t get hung up on wanting to be the best. Get hung up on wanting to be the best you. And when you do, you will start to look at all your results differently. You will no longer validate or define yourself by your successes or losses. Instead, you will define yourself by how you feel. Only then can you attract the success you really want.
Know what type of life you want. You cannot and will not be good at everything. So, what are you good at? What do you love to do? And don’t think about what your parents or your boss or the judge think you should do, think what do you want to do? Answer those questions and pursue those goals. I’ve worked with trial attorneys who hated trying cases and the stress associated with being in court. After some soul searching, they realized they were genius marketers. What did they do? They created a new business model based on advertising and marketing and referred their cases out to top trial lawyers. That was a win for everyone!
Not everyone wants to be a partner in a firm and not everyone wants to run a business. Choose what’s right for you. Different positions require different mindsets. Decide what’s right for you and move forward in that direction. Often the experience you find in one role will benefit you later. I have seen many attorneys begin on the defense side of an industry, only to switch to the plaintiff’s side. But the defense work clarified their next ideal job. Every work environment opens our eyes to qualities we like, dislike and love. Instead of complaining about hating your job, spin it as a positive – you now know what you don’t want!
Get personal with your work life. Your work life and your personal life go hand in hand. Pay attention to the positive qualities in your relationships, at home and in the workplace. Give yourself credit for what you have and have accomplished and will accomplish. But you must take care of your own well-being first. Your partner or family want a happy you. If you aren’t taking caring of you first, you have nothing to give anyone else. Not in the way you want to, anyway. You deserve a happy life and that certainly starts at home. Appreciate what you have or be open to ways to change it or make it better.
Set the tone each day. Every morning starts a new day. You have the power to start the day any way you choose. If you start your day rushed and disorganized, the rest of your day follows that mindset. Start each morning by writing 10 qualities you like or appreciate about yourself. Why? Because starting your day feeling great about you, recognizing all the amazing qualities about yourself, allows you to show up to world differently. You make better decisions. You attract opportunities and experiences based on a mindset of owning your worth. You evaluate yourself NOT on prior wins or losses but based on you.
And when you practice feeling good about yourself, and appreciating yourself, you experience freedom. This freedom creates the foundation for a happy life. It all begins in your mind and how you view you. Once you truly believe in yourself, you will experience less stress and anxiety. You’ll have the power to create the life you want versus reacting to the life you have created by default or by some imagined expectation.
Be open. Once you start appreciating yourself and stop defining yourself by your past, you will allow your new bright future to unfold before you. Life can and will be so much better once you understand the power you hold in your mind. And when you develop a clear, more positive mindset early on, that serves as the long-term prevention we seek. Only you know what’s best for you. And you deserve to be happy!
Investing in oneself is the only investment that guarantees a return. Now aren’t you worth investing in?
Connie Henriquez, founder of Start Loving Life, is a professional development consultant who works with mid-size to large law firms on personal development and mental health initiatives including private counseling sessions, group programs and workplace seminars.