There is a common idea that confidence is this feeling of empowerment. Some people define it in the negative as if it the absence of fear or doubt. I don’t like those definitions. Perhaps they are true for some, but based on my own experience they are incomplete.
I think confidence is more of a process than an emotion. Thus, the test can’t be how you feel in any given moment. It has to be based on what you do over time.
So, when Attorney at Law magazine reached out to me to ask for a guest blog post, it didn’t take long for me to come up with a topic. I knew I had to write about confidence and explain it is really. I also wanted to explain why mindfulness and compassion are powerful tools for building confidence.
To learn more, check out the full guest post here:
People curious about my decision to quit drinking alcohol usually ask me (privately) some version of the same two questions: Why? and How?
The “Why” is different for everybody.
My “Why” was like an everything bagel – a really stale one.
Some people quit out of necessity. They get in legal trouble, their spouse threatens divorce, the doctor (or priest) says “it’s time,” they develop an allergy (that’s a real thing), they “accidentally” say something that incinerates a most-cherished relationship, their boss threatens them with termination, etc.
Others quit because they see the effects of alcohol around them and they just want to do things differently. They’re tired of the drama, the missed deadlines, the prurient behavior, the disappointments, the dishonesty, the worrying, etc. Alcohol weighs them down – indirectly, but in a powerful way. And it’s just plain exhausting.
Some quit for financial reasons. Regular boozing is expensive. I did the math for myself, and I figure (conservatively) that if I had never started drinking in the first place, I would have saved enough money to pay cash for law school.
Look: 21 years of drinking (I’m 42 and it actually started way earlier than that) x $25 (average) per day = $191,625. My law school charged me a whopping $120,000 (plus a boatload of compounding interest).
If that math sounds wonky to you, try this one: I quit 981 days ago. My sobriety tracker app estimates I’ve saved myself $24,425 since quitting. Think about what that means moving forward. I’m hoping to get another 50 years out of this ride!
Even moderate drinking drains the bank. A 6-pack of beer costs $6 – $10. If I bought one every other day (no more than three beers a day): that’s $18 – $40 a week; $936 – $2,080 a year; $46,800 – $104,000 in 50 years.
The numbers above don’t even account for lost productivity or the healthcare costs associated with regular or prolonged drinking. When I started my journey, I estimated I spent one hour a day drinking (it was way more). I’ve earned back almost 1,000 hours of my life – but it feels like a million. My productivity now is threefold what it was when I quit. I have three active boys, a busy law practice with my spouse, and a side-gig as an artist and marketer. I need all the energy I can get. And I love all of the energy that I have!
Truth is: there are a million different reasons to quit. No matter what yours are, have been or will be, keep a few things in mind:
1. Your “why” is the most important “why” for you, even if someone else tells you it is silly, stupid, meaningless, an overreaction etc. Nobody knows you like you. DO YOU. All the rest of it is just noise.
2. No one else’s “why” is better or worse than yours. Playing the comparison game will not – I repeat – will not help you. Compare yourself only to yourself and keep moving! It’s a game of progress not perfection.
3. Your “why” is not a point of shame – no matter how bad you think it is. YOUR WHY IS YOUR SUPERPOWER. Own it. Love it. Remember it. Honor it. Your “Why” got you where you are. And that, my friends, is a blessing – even if it hurts in the beginning. It won’t hurt forever, I promise!
4. You are allowed to share your “why” with others, but you don’t have to, especially if you’re not ready. Take your time. You may not even really understand your “why” fully until you’ve had some time to clear your mind and think about the impact of your choices and actions. Be patient with yourself and with others. Growth takes time. A lot of it. You’re allowed a little privacy in this process.
First,talk kindly to yourself. When you quit drinking, you are going to have feelings. Lots of them. Some may be painful or uncomfortable. And some may be wonderful beyond your wildest expectations. Positive self-talk is absolutely essential to riding this roller coaster. If you’re lucky, your parents taught you how to do this and you’re already good at it. But lots of folks are clueless when it comes to self-soothing. So, try this simple exercise: Imagine yourself 20 years into the future. Close your eyes and picture what you look like, how you feel and all of the wisdom you’ve earned over the years. Picture yourself happy, content, fulfilled and proud. Now, ask that future version of you to talk to the current you. Do it out loud. And keep it simple: “You can do this.” “I’m proud of you.” “This will pass.” “Just breathe.” Do this every. single. day. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a right way or a wrong way. Just do your best and thank yourself for the effort!
Second, if you’re going to quit drinking, you’ve got to replace old habits with new ones. Use your hands. Try knitting, whittling, braiding leather, stringing beads, weaving. Get yourself a cheap sketchbook, a pocket-sized watercolor set, a notebook, a camera (your smart phone works!). Paint, write, draw, photograph, write poetry, imagine. Whatever you use, it needs to be portable, it needs to be mind-numbing and it needs to be with you all the time. Something you can carry through airport security (okay, maybe not a whittling knife). Every time you feel the old habit creep up, grab your “thing” and get those hands busy. Don’t stop until the urge passes. It will pass.
Third, there will be plenty of days when you want to drink. Have a plan. When I first decided to quit drinking, I took all the alcohol out of the house. We were in Covid lockdown so there was really no place for me to go to drink, so that made it easy (easier). But, if you know that going to Happy Hour on Thursdays with your coworkers will be a temptation for you, don’t go. Go see a movie instead or check out your local park or nature trail. If you do socialize with drinking friends, ask the bartender in advance to make you a fancy, refillable “mocktail.” I kept a pretty glass, soda water and fresh lemon and lime on hand at all times for the first year. Hot tea is a great sippy cup substitute also.
Fourth, sweat out that stress. You absolutely have to exercise. Make time. If you had time to drink yesterday, you have time to sweat today. At my drinking peak, I used alcohol daily to blunt a fairly heavy level of work/parenting stress. So when I quit, that energy had to go somewhere. I literally felt like I was going to explode. The first 60 days were the worst. Then my mom and sisters insisted we do remote cardio classes together. I cursed them for days. But it worked. With their help, I started a new habit, and prevented what I thought was sure to be a case of premature death by spontaneous combustion. Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be expensive. Cleaning house counts. Yard work counts. Just move. And make sure you’re sweating when you do it.
Fifth, ask for help if you need it. Everybody’s circumstances are different. You may have an unsupportive roommate or partner. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start (or how to stop). Maybe you feel trapped or ashamed or like you’re just not strong enough to weather the next storm. There are people who are ready to help you. Ask a doctor, a priest, a family member, a close friend, a local non-profit or a support group. Reach out to someone you trust. Loving arms will catch you.
Finally, think about how you see alcohol in your life. Look around. We are bombarded with advertising encouraging alcohol consumption in every one of life’s most glorious occasions: weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, the Super Bowl. We use it for celebration and in moments of sorrow. Did you get dumped? Blow that big presentation? Fail your final exam? There’s a concoction for that!
Alcohol. Is. Literally. Everywhere. I never really noticed this until I decided to quit. And then I asked myself, why do they want me to drink so much? It’s an odd thing, really.
I often wonder how things would be if, instead of asking “How” and “Why” a person quits drinking, we were to ask “How” and “Why” we all start drinking in the first place. The answer, of course, does not matter. All that matters is what you do today. And I have a question for you: What have you got to lose?
Author Bio: Christina T. Mazaheri is Managing Partner at Mazaheri & Mazaheri where she practices primarily in the areas of Employment & Civil Rights Law. She is a native South Carolinian and met her husband and law partner, Bernie, while working at the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ firm in Florida. Christina and her family (Bernie, their three boys and their Great Danes) moved to their “forever home” in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky in 2018. Christina handles cases in several states, and she has published articles and spoken on topics dealing with Wage & Hour, Age Discrimination, Arbitration and Family Medical Leave issues in the workplace. When she’s not practicing law, Christina takes an active role in educating her children, who are full-time practitioners of the Art of Fencing. Christina also enjoys creative urban agriculture, historic renovation, painting, music & textile arts, raising and showing Great Danes, and remaining active with her church.
I have been watching the clock today because I know I am supposed to write a blog post to be published tomorrow. It’s my 100th blog post and tomorrow (December 27th) is the second anniversary of the founding of the blog. You’d think the words would flow like the bubbles from a bottle of champagne, but they haven’t. After publishing my first book this November, I think I am a bit celebrated out. And, I have a work-related project that is occupying my mind.
As I have written before, I am a self-doubter. On a normal day, I would have liked the post and said something encouraging. But on this day, when things were not going as I had planned, the post made my mind start to churn. “Wait,” it posited, “am I letting myself be enough by struggling to get this post written just because of some arbitrary numbers?” When I couldn’t answer the question immediately, it sensed weakness and roared “Were you letting yourself be enough when you started this blog?”
As we head into 2023, I hope that you are reflecting on the fact that you are enough. I hope you know that you don’t need to accomplish huge goals or amazing resolutions in the new year to be enough. But when you’ve got being enough down, I hope you celebrate it and share it with the world. I hope you let yourself thrive and take the weird paths your soul asks you to take. That’s what I have done these past two years. I’m so grateful I had enough faith in myself to do it and to all of you for celebrating it with me.
Our culture has this trope of the long-suffering tortured artist. There’s this idea that creativity comes from strife and is fueled by addiction and misery. I don’t say things like this often, but I want that idea to die.
Think about it. When do most of us drink? Nights and weekends. When do most lawyers have free time to write and pursue personal hobbies or goals? You got it. Nights and weekends. When I started limiting how frequently I drank, I created more pockets of time in which I felt energetic and clear-minded enough to write. And, when things calmed down a bit and I had longer stretches, I could reliably bank a few thousand words at a time until I had a book.
I have used medication to treat depression in the past so I don’t suggest that other people shouldn’t. I have also used therapy several times in my life and benefited each time. The reason I felt relief when I read about the new study, though, is that more information may provide us with more options for treating mental health conditions.
Even so, I have to admit that I was also a little concerned about how the study might be spun or construed. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider when thinking or sharing news about the study.
1. The Good News
We have known for decades that regular meditation can have physical and mental health benefits, but it is not until much more recently that meditation has been embraced as a treatment for mental health conditions. The fact that researchers thought it worthwhile to consider the impacts of meditation practice v. medication shows how much of a mindset shift has occurred.
Overall then, the new study signals continued growth of research into the impacts of mindfulness and greater acceptance of meditation by the medical and scientific community.
2. The Potential Downside
Despite the positive indications from the new study, I also had some concerns . The first one that sprang to mind was that, perhaps well-meaning, but uninformed people may tell others to “just meditate” to address their mental health needs. Over the years, I have heard many friends confide in me that a loved one told them this. I have also had friends or contacts beat themselves up about not being able to manage their mental health needs with meditation.
Moreover, before you share information about the study, you should be aware of what it really says. The study didn’t compare 5 minutes of meditation a day with medication. Instead, it compared an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (“MBSR”) course with medication.
I have taken the MBSR course and it includes weekly classes, a recommendation to meditate 45 minutes a day outside of class (a huge amount for new meditators), and a half-day retreat. In other words, it is an intense and immersive commitment that is at least as time-consuming as therapy. So, be careful when you talk about the study that you understand that context.
3. What I Hope Happens Next
As we know, scientific progress is continually unfolding. Thus, this new study clearly does not represent the final limits of what we can know about the impact of mindfulness practices on mental health. Given the limitations of the MBSR program, I hope researchers continue to study the impact of mindfulness practices at shorter intervals but over longer terms on mental health conditions. I didn’t start at anything even close to the amounts recommended in the MBSR program but experienced significant relief after a few weeks and more pronounced benefits after several months.
I hope researchers also continue to develop studies that show us how meditation may work with medication, or therapy, or exercise, or time in nature, etc. And, of course, I hope we see more studies showing the effects of various meditation practices. Again, MBSR primarily relies on body work and breath practice, but other practices such as loving-kindness can have profound impacts on how we relate to the world and thus our mental health.
In short, I see the new study as an overall positive sign, but care should be taken with how its findings are discussed. Having personally experienced how much meditation helped me manage my own anxiety, I am glad the study shows that meditation may be a promising treatment option. I hope further research will help us understand more to ensure that all people have an array of potential tools to meet their mental health needs.
After almost 14 years with my former firm, I made a change to a new firm this May. As excited as I was by the new opportunity, it was a hard process. There were many thoughts swirling in my mind and there was a ton of emotion. My reasons for making the change will remain private out of respect for everyone involved, but I have already said publicly that I was grateful for the start my former firm had given me. In this way, the goal when I left was not just to pursue a new opportunity but to do it while causing as little pain as possible.
Experience tells me that I am not alone in this. Even when a job is no longer right for us, we may feel loyalty to and genuinely want the best for the team we are leaving. We may need to maintain good relationships since lawyers in some jurisdictions might all know each other. Or maybe we just don’t want the personal baggage of knowing we made a hard situation worse with nasty behavior.
With all of those things in mind, here are the steps I took that helped me make my decision and leave with as much grace as possible.
1. Pick a new firm with good values.
Most of us would like to think that we are perfect angels and would always do the right thing no matter what. But, the truth is that we are social beings and are heavily influenced by those around us. Thus, if you want to live your values, it really helps to work at a firm aligned with them. One of the best things you can do to make a good transition is to pick a firm with good people who can support and guide you and will not put inappropriate pressure on you. In other words, the first step towards leaving well is to be sure that you are joining a team with good people.
2. Don’t gossip before you give notice.
This may be one of the hardest things for lawyers to do because we are incredibly social. Yet, this is why you should be cautious about sharing information about your plans too soon. Word spreads quickly among lawyers and the rise of social media has made that phenomenon even faster. To honor the feelings of your colleagues and allow for a planned message to clients, it is best to avoid discussing your plans publicly before you give notice to your firm.
3. Don’t play games with client relationships.
This one should be a no-brainer since the ethical rules prohibit it, but the temptation to get a competitive advantage in retaining clients is always there. Don’t give in. Following the rules when it comes to client relationships in the midst of attorney transitions is essential. Not only does it avoid putting clients in an awkward position, it also avoids behavior that will all but guarantee an acrimonious relationship with your former firm.
4. Talk to calmer and wiser people.
Though you should be discrete about it, life change necessitates seeking counsel from a wise and stable person. Ideally, this person can listen to you and remind you to take the long view and walk in the other person’s shoes. They can help you to focus on your future instead of getting embroiled in issues from the past. They can help you avoid becoming defensive or combative because you feel frustrated or unsure.
In the best case, they can even help you prepare for the difficult conversations that await you and help you plan out how you are going to give notice. Taking the time to talk out your concerns and plan out your course of action with a trusted advisor will help you stay true to your values even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
5. Manage your emotions.
Leaving a law firm is not just a business transaction. It also means changing or perhaps terminating some relationships. Emotions are likely to arise on all sides. It doesn’t work to fight them, so your best bet is to care for them. Expect that you may have to deal with a range of potentially conflicting emotions both in yourself and others. Plan in time to write or talk these issues out with interested parties or trusted friends and relatives. Move as much as possible to discharge excess energy and relieve stress. Give yourself grace as your emotions fluctuate from elation about the future to sadness and even grief about the past.
When you change jobs or think about changing jobs, guilt may be one of the first emotions you feel. Our work as attorneys and roles in our firms can serve as a foundational part of our identities. The idea of changing these roles can cause us to feel like we are being disloyal or doing something wrong. Or it can just cause fear about what the future might bring.
At the core of many of these emotions, you may often find judgment. When you can move past the judgment or at least hold it a little less tightly, another opportunity opens up. Instead of focusing on whether you or your decision is good or bad, you can focus with more precision on how to execute your decision the right way. If you make ethics and values the cornerstone of your transition plan and balance the emotions of yourself and others, you can change your law firm without losing your soul.
This month, I decided to write on the theme of “humanity in the legal profession.” When I settled on this theme, it seemed at first like an easy concept to impart. But, as I sometimes realize when I sit down to write a brief, the writing process quickly reveals the gaps in my understanding. There are lots of things I love about writing but this aspect, humbling as it can be sometimes, is one of my favorites. It forces you to drill down on small things you might have otherwise overlooked.
In this case, the small thing I had overlooked was what does “humanity in the legal profession” really mean? Sure, I’d used the term “human lawyer” many times. I had considered to myself, if not said aloud, that I strived to show what it means to be a human lawyer. Still, I’d never thought about defining the term. When you write about a subject (especially as a lawyer) that’s usually a good starting point.
In this case, though, a dictionary definition was not helpful because I wasn’t trying to understand what the word “humanity” meant. Instead, I was trying to understand what it meant to demonstrate one’s humanity as a lawyer. To be sure, I had witnessed this in several ways in my own life. My family is filled with lawyers and so I was blessed to see regular examples of heartfelt care and concern expressed through legal guidance growing up. As a practicing attorney myself, I’ve benefitted from humanity from my colleagues and opposing counsel. And, on my better days at least, I have employed it too.
But still, the idea of humanity in law implies that it can’t be limited to just one lawyer’s lived experience. Fortunately for me, I happen to have a pretty robust LinkedIn network. So, I asked my lawyer friends there to tell me what being a human lawyer meant to them. Here are some of their answers.
Several respondents told me that humanity as lawyers had to do with how we show up in the world:
I think we are all human lawyers at heart. But we learn to muzzle our humanity to show up as who we think our clients want to see. Ironically, I think this is the exact opposite of what most clients crave. They want real, raw, empathy, humor, relationship. More transparency is the answer.
Still, it’s hard to swim upstream against the prevailing norms. I often encounter attorneys who are very reticent to share anything personal in their bio or express their personality in their content. This is a missed opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For the most part, clients choose you because of who you are and what you stand for. Not who you clerked for, your class rank, or the last case you won.
I actually say this just about every day! Human-first lawyering is a huge part of in-house practice. Lawyers (just like other humans) like jokes, and play fantasy football, and have interests outside of work and listen to punk rock. We’re just humans who went to law school and we learned some things there that can help you.
I am a human lawyer because I can speak of practical solutions not just legal ones and advise people to take pathways that are less disruptive to their mental health if they can still meet their basic goals.
Some lawyers even suggested that our humanity is essential for counseling clients, even when that means admitting to the limitations of the law:
As lawyers, our role involves “counseling” sometimes more than providing legal advice. Talking your client down from the ledge or from pursuing a vendetta or burning bridges or to encouraging the client to cut all ties and have a “divorce” from the opposing party. I handle probate, trust, and fiduciary litigation, which involves blended family situations or sibling discord. I remind people that sometimes, to be there for yourself, you have to “divorce” or disengage from that toxic or opposing party family member and maybe someday you might be able to see each other at Christmas but not this year. I believe in acknowledging our feelings and then, asking what can you do to feel that again or not feel that again. Acknowledge the client is stressed but also encourage them to concentrate on the next step, not the end result.
I think what can set you apart as “human” with clients is to be humble and admit when “the” answer isn’t clear or straightforward. I work in a science heavy area of law, with cases that are often full of unanswered questions of law. It’s hard sometimes for clients to understand that, but I have had many tell me they appreciate my honest and forthright answers… often after having talked to or worked with other attorneys prior. Sometimes a humble attitude is surprising to clients but it’s also earned loyalty and referrals.
Now, if like me, you have struggled with your humanity at times, don’t worry. A few of the respondents shared that you can remember or relearn your humanity even if, litigation for example, causes you to lose track of it for a while:
I bring humanity compassion and kindness to all my matters. I used to be a litigator and was becoming a jerk I switched to transactional work 17 years ago doing estate planning and business law. I now enjoy helping people set things up for the present and the future. I also perform about 240 hours of pro bono work every year. If there is anything that can be said for wisdom instilled by the elderly, it is treat people how you want to be treated and create memories because they are all you take with you and no one gets out alive.
I learned to be a human lawyer after experiencing the personal tragedy of one of my clients. I finally saw the true terrible price of a legal malpractice claim and realized that to help my clients (and myself) I needed a more holistic approach. I took a step back from just defending legal mal lawsuits and now attempt to address lawyers’ problems before disaster strikes.
So, there we have it. Humanity in the legal profession is about showing up as ourselves. It’s about honoring our emotions and those of others. It shines through brightest, perhaps, when we counsel with practical as well as legal advice. And it can even serve as our north star to get ourselves back to goodness if we lose our way in the difficulties of law practice.
Maybe there’s no unifying definition of what it means to demonstrate humanity in the legal profession, but it’s good that there are many examples of it. If you want more, check out The Human Lawyer Podcast. I was a guest on this podcast a few years ago and it curates the stories of some fantastic human lawyers across the country.
How do you show your humanity in your life and work?
I never ask anyone to explain themselves to me when it comes to meditation. Even so, I give talks about mindfulness a lot and people tend to volunteer why it can’t/won’t work for them. I never mind this because it’s an opportunity for both of us to learn something. The number one reason that people, especially other lawyers, tell me they can’t meditate is insufficient time.
For lawyers, this is surely a believable excuse. We are a notoriously time poor profession. There are significant financial incentives for using any extra time we have to bill hours or market and network to get the next client in the door. And then we might want to actually, hey, have a life to do things besides bill too. Trust me. I get it. I have no intentions here of telling lawyers that they have more time than they think.
Here’s the thing, though. Meditation is not a time suck. It’s a time-saver.
I’m a lawyer, a community leader, a blogger, and a mom. Do you really think I sit around meditating because I’m just bored? Even if you thought that, do you really think I’d pick the single most boring activity on the planet to fill my time? Of course not.
I don’t meditate because I have nothing better to do. I meditate because I have tons of other better things to do besides overthinking, reacting to every little thing in life with anger and hostility, and rushing so much that I miss those tiny joyous moments that creep into life unexpectedly.
Sure, over the last 10 years, I have probably spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours meditating. That’s a lot. But what I have not done or done far less is spend hours agonizing over some thing in the future I am worried about that never transpires. Or fretting for days about something awkward I said at a happy hour last week. Or scheming endlessly about the best way to handle a situation.
Instead, now I see when I am stuck in thought mode, regret mode, or perfectionist planning mode and I disrupt the loop. I make a decision to write down a few notes to get the idea out of my brain, talk to a friend, apologize, or just let it go by doing something else. The hours saved alone here is enough ROI for my practice, but the impact on my life by remaining engaged in the world rather than lost in thought is even more significant.
And can we talk about the sleep that I haven’t lost when I am dealing with a stressful situation? Or the fatigue or frustration that didn’t derail my work because I had a quick and reliable way of resting and recharging? Or the physical signs of stress I recognized early on and knew how to care for so I could avoid a disaster?
Look, I don’t write this piece to make you feel bad if you tried meditation and struggled with it because you are busy. The truth is that I have too. I have missed a ton of sessions over the last ten years. I have had to restart and reenergize my meditation habit multiple times. Sometimes it feels like a slog when I do.
I keep coming back to it though, not because I magically find extra minutes, but because I want to be present and content in the minutes I have. So, if time is the thing that sticks in your mind when it comes to meditation, maybe try thinking about time in a new way. Don’t just focus on the few minutes that it will take to meditate. Focus instead on the minutes that meditation might save you and the minutes of your life that meditation might improve.
What happens when you call 988? The program connects you immediately with a trained mental health professional. This is significant because anyone who has experienced any kind of mental health situation knows that there is almost always a waiting period to begin care. Moreover, like any other professional, counselors, therapists, and other mental health providers usually work during normal business hours. Though we have existing emergency services, like fire, EMTs, and police, those officials are not always trained to provide care for mental health needs.
In addition to providing a support for people in need during a mental health emergency, another aspect of the lifeline is normalizing seeking help. The 988 lifeline has media kits and logos for public use and a hashtag #Bethe1To to spread the word about suicide prevention. It also has a collection of stories of hope and recovery from those who have experienced suicidal thoughts or mental health challenges in the past and tools to help those who wish to share their own story. As someone who has written about my own mental health challenges, these are powerful tools for individual healing, building community, reducing shame and stigma, and spreading awareness.
Having experienced mental health challenges myself, I have experienced how hard it can be to recognize symptoms in yourself and to seek out help. For this reason, it is essential to have a lifeline, supports, and education available to empower communities to promote and protect mental health. I am glad that this new tool exists to support lawyers, professionals, and the entire community in the United States with mental health emergencies. Please help spread the word about it.
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.