I’m hearing from more stressed out lawyers these days. Due to the nature of our profession, we lawyers have plenty to stress about, and the unprecedented changes affecting the legal industry today just add to the mix. With my “fly on the wall” perspective as a lawyer-coach, however, I notice that the way lawyers talk to themselves about their situation dramatically affects their level of suffering, and can also impact their results. So I want to offer two kinds of tools that may help when you are feeling stressed, anxious or down.
1. Combat Thinking Errors
Notice whether you have any repetitive thought patterns that affect how you react to events that occur. In the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, psychologists say that an event occurs, we have an “automatic thought” about it, and that thought triggers our feelings and behaviors. Two people in exactly the same situation may have completely different automatic thoughts about it.
To illustrate, when you are at your desk and the phone rings, do you have an automatic reaction? Some lawyers inwardly cringe, anticipating that it will be a client calling to nag or complain about something. Others perk up, thinking that it might be some new opportunity coming their way. Still others snarl at the interruption, without regard to who the caller might be.
If your automatic thoughts frequently create stress, anxiety, irritation, sadness or some other unpleasant experiences for you, you might be suffering from a pattern of “thinking errors.” Check to see whether you tend to engage in any of these types of thinking errors.
- Catastrophizing – jumping to the worst possible conclusion; exaggerating the consequences
- Overgeneralizing – telling yourself that this always or never happens
- Black or white thinking – thinking in extremes, if it is bad, there can’t be anything good about it
- Mind reading – making assumptions about what other people are thinking
- Fortune telling – predicting the future instead of waiting to see what happens
- Filtering or disqualifying – overlooking, discounting or ignoring the positive and focusing on negatives
- Labeling – globally assigning traits to self or others (a failure, idiot, inept, clumsy, jerk)
- Personalizing – taking an event or someone’s behavior personally and overlooking other factors
- Shoulding – making rigid rules about yourself or others (clue: frequent use of words like should, ought to, have to, must)
- Emotional reasoning – relying too much on feelings instead of facts; assuming perceptions are facts
- Can’t-stand-itis – easily frustrated or intolerant of things you don’t enjoy, even when they are normal or necessary to achieve something desirable
- Unreal ideal –unfairly judging ourselves in comparison to others; comparing how we feel on the inside to how they look like they feel, on the outside.
Recognizing your tendencies to make thinking errors is the first step to feeling better. When you feel stressed, anxious or depressed, ask yourself whether you could be making any of the above thinking errors. Then put on your legal advocate hat and amass the evidence available to contradict that belief, assumption or thinking error that is causing you discomfort. With practice using your observation, logic and advocacy skills on your own behalf, you’ll notice changes. As you adjust how you think, it impacts how you feel, which impacts how you behave, which impacts the results you get.
2. Mindfulness and Meditation
Numerous scientific studies have documented the efficacy of meditation and mindfulness practice in reduction of stress and anxiety, along with providing other health benefits. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center provides a bibliography of such studies at http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/PDFs/MARC_mindfulness_biblio_0609.pdf.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” When we are stressed or anxious, our focus is on the past or the future. By bringing our focus to the present and holding it there, we can dissipate our stressful feelings.
Closer to home for lawyers, in 1999 Steven Keeva, a senior editor for the ABA Journal, wrote Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life. He outlined a number of practices for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression. He included anecdotes of how lawyers and law firms used mindfulness and mediation to transform their lives and their law practices.
More recently, lawyers Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford have shared how practicing mindfulness and meditation helped them to reduce anxiety, improve focus and clarity, and enrich their quality of life. Their 2016 book is called, The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation. If you are wondering how to meditate or what mindfulness really is, their book explains that and also provides advice and anecdotes about their use in law practice.
Even better however, there is a great opportunity coming up very soon. The National Association of Women Lawyers and Seyfarth Shaw LLP are sponsoring a free online opportunity to work through the 8-week course with authors Cho and Gifford. For more information and to register, go to http://www.nawl.org/theanxiouslawyer. It starts on September 7, 2016, but there is pre-homework, and a Twitter chat on August 29, 2016 for all you tweeters. I’ve registered for the guidance of Cho and Gifford and the camaraderie and support of other participants in developing a mindfulness and meditation practice of my own. Will you be joining me?
I’ll end this post with a compassion practice described in Cho and Gifford’s book:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you know ease and joy.
May you be free from suffering.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.