5 Steps to Help Lawyers Handle Hopelessness

­There is a lot going on in the world right now, but if you are a lawyer in the United States the term “a lot” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s not just that major and devastating events are happening. It’s that the conflict surrounding each event may call into question the legal system in which we work every day. Regardless of your political viewpoints on the events themselves, the turmoil surrounding our institutions of government, the authority of that government, and the scope of individual rights are likely to leave any lawyer questioning their work or role in the legal system. The term that keeps popping up in conversations, messages from lawyer friends, and my social media feed is “hopeless.”

While you may not have thought about it this way, hope is important to legal work. Clients put faith in us to handle their problems. In turn, we put our faith in the law, the legal system, and our own talents and processes to secure the best results we can. All of this turns on the idea of hope: that we have the power to do something good for someone else. But, when institutions change, appear to change, or are called into question by political events, hope can be hard to muster. This can drain energy, distract us from critical work, and in the extreme lead to conditions like rumination, anxiety, and depression.

So, what can lawyers do when they feel hopeless? It’s a hard problem and I don’t know that there is one perfect answer, but I have experienced this before myself. Here are the steps that have helped me.

1. Let yourself feel hopeless.

People ask me all the time how to “mitigate” or “deal with” emotions like sadness, anger, loss, or even hopelessness. My answer is always the same: let it be there. This is the hardest step and perhaps the hardest truth of life to accept, but feelings just need to be felt. Sometimes we may want to push them away or try to rush through them because we may fear that the feelings will last forever or that they signify more doom and gloom in the future. As we all know, though, all things are temporary, and we can’t really know the future until it comes. So, if you are feeling hopeless, let yourself feel hopeless. That means noticing what’s there, whether it is thoughts or physical sensations or moods. Don’t push yourself to feel hopeful or pretend that you are happy when you’re not. Just let yourself feel how you feel.

2. Treat yourself like a friend who experienced a loss

When you allow your feelings to be there, it may be obvious to you what you need next. Directly experiencing your own pain or emotions often gives you clues about what you need to address them. If not, though, your imagination can help. My experience of hopelessness is often very similar to any other kind of loss. The good news is that it tends not to last as long for me as something like being heartbroken, but it can feel similar. Thus, the best approach is to care for yourself the way you would care for any friend who has experienced a loss.

To do this, you’d ask them if there was anything you could do or anything they might need. Do this for yourself and give yourself what you need. If this is too much for you to do effectively on your own, connect with a friend or loved one and ask for help. Most of us wouldn’t try to handle a broken heart on our own, so don’t feel any obligation to deal with your own hopelessness by yourself.

3. Reconnect with positive things

After you have given yourself the time to feel and heal a bit, it can help to start reconnecting with positive things in your life. When you experience hopelessness, you may almost need to remind yourself that good things still exist. Let yourself experience those things as if they are totally new to you. Let yourself be surprised by how much even small things mean to you. Resist the urge, however, to jump to this step to push the negative feelings away with positive distractions. The point here isn’t to override or ignore how we feel, but instead to reconnect with the positive parts of our life as part of the healing process.

You may have to be intentional about this because, when bad things happen, we can sometimes feel guilty or even foolish for enjoying positive things. In truth, however, the nature of our human experience is that we can enjoy beauty in a world that is often harsh and find goodness even in dark times. We don’t have to rid the world of all darkness or ourselves of all dark emotions to earn the right to good things. We deserve good things and, as a practical matter, we need them more when life is hard. Reconnecting with positive things, whether we plan them specially for ourselves or just enjoy what’s there is our everyday lives, is a way to remind ourselves of this truth.

4. Draw inspiration from those who didn’t quit.

Once I have reached a certain level of equilibrium with bouts of hopelessness, it always helps me to remember the people who didn’t quit when they faced hopelessness. I intentionally wait to do this step until later in the process because it can easily turn into comparisons and self-judgment. After stabilizing my emotions, though, I find it inspirational to remember the people in my life or from history who must have faced hopelessness and continued in their struggle. This is a way of connecting with the idea of “common humanity” because it reminds me that it is normal and human for even the best people to experience hopelessness at times. It also helps me because it reminds me that there is value in doing good work even if success doesn’t happen every time or if circumstances derail your efforts.

5. Remember your values.

One of the hardest parts of hopelessness is that it can cause us to question our identities or our roles in the world. Hopelessness happens when our faith in something essential is shaken, so it can create all kinds of doubts about the work we do, the way we are living our lives, and the people with whom we spend our time. Doubt can be hard for us lawyers because we often look for certainty and solidity since we rely on those things as we advise clients and help them through difficult times. Yet, the truth is, that we don’t really need certainty or solidity; those things just make us feel more comfortable, safe, and supported.

So, what can we do when the world gives us a lot of reasons to doubt? The same thing we do when there are gray areas in the law: we trust ourselves and make a judgment call. When it comes to something like hope, this means we remember what we value and we try to live accordingly. World events may shake our faith in institutions and may make us worry about what the future may bring. That’s when our personal values matter the most because wise action may be even more essential in times of uncertainty. For this reason, reconnecting with our personal values may help us remember the ways that we can bring good into the world even during difficult circumstances.

Hopelessness is a difficult emotion to experience because it is something that can make us feel helpless, alienated, unmotivated, and alone. Though it can be a challenging emotion to face, each of us can learn to hold our own hopelessness in kindness. This will help us reconnect to ourselves, reevaluate our roles in our communities, and better understand the values we wish to bring into the world. Perhaps we may never recover the same hope we experienced before, but I don’t know that must do so in order to lead a good and happy life. Instead, it may be more effective to learn to let new forms of hope grow in us in each new phase of our lives.

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