4 Steps to Help Lawyers Handle Shame Triggers from Opposing Counsel

Though most of the attorneys I have litigated cases against are wonderful people who only want to represent their clients well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some just like to play games. They don’t want to turn over documents that are clearly relevant. They don’t want to think practically when evaluating a case for settlement. And they want to object all the time just to be difficult. Sometimes this happens because people lose their patience, get too emotionally invested in a case, or have other pressures that affect their decisions. Since I am an imperfect human and litigation is stressful, I can forgive a lot.

The kind of game that is the hardest to forgive, however, is when lawyers attempt to play games with other lawyer’s minds. Perhaps the most vile instance of this is the intentional shame trigger. This happens when one attorney tries to control another without legitimate power or authority with comments intended only to make the other attorney feel bad. By now, most attorneys know that they can dance like nobody is watching, but must email like it may one day be read in court. Thus, I usually don’t see attorneys flat out calling names or spewing hate explicitly. Instead, most shame trigger attempts I’ve encountered have been embedded in a discussion of legal or factual issues. This can make them even more insidious, however, because it means that an opposing attorney without good intentions might be able to worm their way into your head without you realizing it.

What is to be done about this situation?  I’ve found that several tools from my mindfulness training have helped me avoid becoming distracted when opposing counsel throws out shame triggers. Here are my tips.

1. Recognize.

The first step for dealing with a shame trigger is to see when it is happening. Clearly, mind games in litigation can come in all sorts of forms, so there isn’t necessarily a single definition that can apply to all situations. Even so, I find that shame triggers tend to occur when one party wants something from the other, but they don’t have legitimate means of obtaining it. I’ve commonly seen this arise in settlement negotiations when opposing counsel wants me to increase my offer but doesn’t have a good basis for explaining why the risk necessitates an increase. I’ve also seen it occur when parties are discussing things like deposition scheduling or discovery and there is a lack of guidance from the court or civil rules about how something must be done. When the respective parties’ interests and preferences clash, shame triggers might be thrown out to intimidate or manipulate opposing counsel into doing what they want.

Now, of course, it is our job as attorneys to sometimes point it out when things about the other side’s actions or case are wrong. For instance, it’s not inappropriate to tell another attorney that their client’s discovery responses are overdue or that their legal theory has flaws. Shame triggers, though, aren’t pointing out a lack in the other party’s case or a failure to undertake an essential procedural step. Rather, they are intended to point to a lack in an attorney’s worth as a person or professional. The calling card of the shame trigger, therefore, is that they usually involve passing judgment on an attorney and are unnecessary to making a legitimate request or explaining a position in a case. If you notice this happening, slow yourself down if possible and acknowledge what’s going on before you do anything else.

2. Equanimity.

The thing about shame is that it really hurts. Humans have an innate need for the approval and support from our communities. We go out of our way to avoid feelings of shame and judgment from others, including strangers and people we don’t approve of ourselves. This is exactly why lawyers sometimes stoop to the level of tossing out shame triggers to try to get their way: they sometimes work. Thus, once you are aware that another attorney is trying to shame trigger you, the next step is to draw on equanimity.

If you can give yourself a few minutes to take a break from the situation, that might be enough to calm you down. Unfortunately, though, we don’t always have that option. In times when opposing counsel is playing mind games, I remember my objective for my client and my values. I also recognize that the point of nasty, shaming comments is to elicit an emotional reaction from me and to distract me from my purpose in representing my client. I remind myself that the true test of my worth as a lawyer isn’t what another lawyer might say about me in the heat of a dispute, but only my own actions. This helps me find steadiness and stability as I venture on to respond in a way that serves my client best.

3. Choose Your Response.

Because lawyers use shame triggers to try to exert control when real control is lacking, the best way to undermine them is to choose your own response. As a child who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, the image that comes to mind with this is in the final scene of Labyrinth when Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) proclaims “You have no power over me!” to Jareth (David Bowie), thereby dispelling the illusion that his emotional manipulation could dictate her actions. Just like Jareth, lawyers who use shame triggers can present as powerful with their bluster and arrogance but those behaviors often mask a position of relative weakness.

Does this mean you have to call out the other attorney as a shame-triggering hooligan who “has no power” over you? Not necessarily, though an explicit but skillful calling out when discussions get overly personal or aggressive may be necessary in some cases. In general, though, I prefer to just let my actions do the talking. After determining what aspect of the commentary from opposing counsel requires a response, I show my strength with my next move. This may be a motion or settlement offer based on my evaluation of risk or no move at all as I call the bluff of the other attorney threatening a motion of their own. In other words, I redirect my energy away from their emotion and judgment back to the legal and factual issues in the case where it belongs. Wherever possible, I try to project calm and confidence as I do. In doing this, I avoid wasting time arguing with other lawyers about the propriety of their conduct and I neuter any power the shame trigger might have had because I stay focused on the work for my client.

4. Care for Your Feelings.

Now, this is not to say that emotions can simply be ignored when dealing with nastiness and shame triggers from opposing counsel. As I’ve written before, emotions need to be felt and it’s usually a waste of time to pretend they aren’t there. Though I try to avoid making decisions about legal strategy based on my emotions, it is necessary to deal with them later on in an appropriate and healthy way. In the moment, this may include simply sitting with the feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, or even fear that may arise when opposing counsel uses shame as a weapon. Coupling this with some breathing to calm your body and self-compassion may be enough to steady you so that you can respond and address the situation.

When you have more time, I have usually found it necessary to release the emotions further. Physical exercise has helped me let go of frustrations and the stress of dealing with difficult opposing counsel. Self-forgiveness and self-kindness are usually essential because, in stressful situations with adversarial people, I rarely handle situations perfectly. More significantly, though, I have usually found it most helpful to share my frustrations without revealing client confidences with a loved one or colleague.

More than anything, getting the perspective of someone else helps me ensure that I was seeing the situation clearly, and to validate my experience. Sharing my feelings doesn’t make the other attorney’s conduct any better but it has always helped me feel less alone in dealing with it. Often in litigation, we are in a situation where we must learn not to act on our emotions, so it is essential at some point to reckon with and honor them as normal and human. You deserve this support because the work of an attorney is hard and important, but offering this ongoing support to yourself will also help you build confidence as you face new challenges.

Unfortunately, bad behavior from opposing counsel is part of litigation. To be sure, firms, courts, and the profession must do its part to police and reduce unnecessary personal attacks that arise in the litigation context. As those actions emerge, however, us litigators have the power to not add to the nastiness, to keep ourselves steady, and to focus on the work of our clients. Shame triggers from opposing counsel are too common in litigation but they don’t have to derail your work as a litigator or haunt you. With mindfulness, intentionality, and proper supports, you can stay steady as you litigate cases even with difficult opposing counsel, get the job done for clients, and build confidence in your own abilities.

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Which Encanto Character Are You? Law Firm Edition

If you have small children or have just not been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know the lyrics to “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” by heart. Both of my girls are under 10, so although we don’t talk about Bruno we definitely have been singing about him, constantly, on a loop, for weeks now. And we have had vigorous philosophical debates about which character we like best and which is the worst. As someone who came of age in the era of internet identity tests, I couldn’t help but wonder which Encanto character I am. As a law firm partner, the next imaginings on the topic turned to my colleagues and lawyer friends.

When you think about it, the struggle of the family Madrigal in the midst of crisis and change isn’t too far off from the situations of many law firms trying to navigate technology, wellness, diversity, succession planning, and pandemic issues and move into the future. If you aren’t so sure, read on and find out which Encanto character you and your law firm colleagues might be.

Mirabel

Do you work in a firm and just stare blankly at people when they tell you that “you just have to find your niche”? You might be Mirabel. Although you haven’t quite figured out your superpower just yet, you are curious, collegial, and brave. If you have the support of compassionate firm mentors and enough freedom to explore, you might become a great leader because of your ability to see things that others ignore.

Abuela

Let’s be clear, the senior partners run the show. But, just like Abuela, they can become so fixated on stability that they block innovation and new leadership. At their worst, they may lead from fear and create toxic situations for others even when their intentions are good. Like Abuela, senior partners deserve respect for their ability to build stability in the midst of change over time but if that respect overawes all other voices the firm can’t evolve and it may alienate and stifle talented attorneys.

Luisa

In the firm setting, Luisa can come in many forms. They can be the big rainmaker who brings in the lion’s share of the firm business but feels burdened by the job. They might be the person who is effective at managing firm housekeeping and either volunteers or is voluntold for all the committees. It can even be that support staff member who goes out of their way to take care of others but gets taken advantage of when all the filing deadlines fall on the same day. These people struggle to ask for help and make a point of making things look easy. They are wonderful and critical elements of the team, but good firm leaders know to be proactive to check in on their status regularly to ensure that they don’t feel like a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus.

Isabela

The Isabela of the law firm is the person who shows exceptional talent and value in one area but struggles to expand their role. They may be an excellent writer or have a specific knowledge of technical issues that nobody else understands. Because these attorneys have found and excelled in their niche, they may usually appear like things are as sweet as rows and rows of roses. Growth, however, doesn’t just mean continued productivity and solid billable hours. It can also mean learning, trying new things, and surprising oneself with new skills. Safe firm cultures and open communication are essential to help these skilled attorneys avoid becoming pigeonholed so they have someone besides a recruiter to ask “what else can I do?”

Camilo

Camilo is the foil of Isabela. This is the attorney who literally believes he or she can do any matter that comes up. These lawyers are often plucky, scrappy, and unsinkable and law firms can often use that energy to their advantage. On the other hand, figuring out the true selling points and marketing an attorney with a practice like this can be as confusing as trying to find the real Camilo in any scene in Encanto.

Julieta

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a temporary freeze on the person who brings cookies (or arepas) into the office to feed everyone, but the odds are that your firm nevertheless has a Julieta. For attorneys, this is the person whose office everyone runs to for advice or just to be heard. This could be a support staff member or administrator who goes the extra mile to not just do the work but also bring calm and kindness to everything they do. These people are mild, steady, and gracious. They may not always advocate for themselves but, because they are essential to the sanity of the entire organization, firm leaders should acknowledge and reward their efforts.

Pepa

All law firms like to say that they are collegial. I’ve heard most firms say how kind and decent everyone is. But I have never heard a firm claim that there are no drama queens around. It happens in every organization. The Pepa of your firm can bring the sunshine at a firm happy hour or party and may be quick to share a joke or story. They may also be the first to get lost in a storm of emotion when the network goes down at 4 PM and a brief is due. If this is you, surround yourself with steady, stable people and keep reading this blog so you can learn some strategies for managing stress.

Antonio

Unless you firm allows pets in the workplace, you may think there’s no place for Antonio in this quiz, but my obsession will not be deterred by anything so paltry as literal truth. In the firm setting, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that Antonio’s skill of talking with animals can be analogized to the uncanny skill that some lawyers have in dealing with clients. Surely, clients are people just like us lawyers, but in most cases their brains were not warped by 3 years of law school so this can sometimes make communication with clients a struggle. The Antonio of your firm is the person who can speak the language of clients across industries and build deep and lasting relationships with them.

Dolores

The Dolores of the firm is the person who just seems to know what is going on even when the partners all believe incorrectly it’s a secret. They may or may not tell everyone about what they know. If you are friends with Dolores, try to listen more than you talk and you may learn some interesting things.

Bruno

Yes, at last, we are going to talk about Bruno. I truly hope that you don’t have any lawyers driven mad by their visions of the future living with rats in the walls of your firm. So, what is the Bruno of your law firm? Well, Bruno is whatever issue your firm doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe it’s compensation. Maybe it’s succession planning. Or diversity. Or low morale. All firms have a Bruno but it’s the ones that eventually learn to talk about it that will be able to stabilize their casita to continue serving the community in the future.

So, which Encanto character are you? It’s a fun question to ask, and many of us may exhibit elements of more than one character. But, for law firm leaders, the lessons in Encanto about crisis and organizational change may be more than just family fun. Just like casita, law firms are also full of stars who want to shine, but their leaders must recognize and account for the fact that constellations shift to keep the magic going.

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Love Interval Training? Why Not Try It with Your Meditation Practice.

I previously wrote about how much I love Power Zone training and shared the lessons it taught me that could easily apply to life and meditation practice. Interval training, such as Power Zone, is an effective way to train the body and build physical fitness because it taps into the benefits of both high intensity efforts and periods of rest. When it comes to meditation, intervals may not be the first thing we think about because we may view the entire practice of meditation as a rest period. But, for new meditators especially, meditation can be challenging since most of us aren’t accustomed to relaxing and because it may put feelings and thoughts that we’d rather avoid front and center. Thus, while meditation is a practice that can ultimately help you deal with stress in life more skillfully, the truth is that it takes effort and discipline.

For this reason, it might actually help you to think about incorporating some rest periods into your meditation practice. I first learned about this idea years ago on a meditation retreat I attended. During one of the afternoon sessions (which are the the toughest for me because that’s when sleepiness sets it), the teacher reminded us to rethink our approach to meditation. He explained that, while we often designate a time period to meditate due to our busy schedules, we can play with the structure of our practice. In particular, he had us try a period of 4 minutes of meditation with alternating 1-minute stretch/movement breaks.

When I heard this, I instantly thought of all the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio classes I’d done. With this style of exercise, you do short bursts of high impact exercise followed by lower impact, active recovery periods. Of course, what the teacher at the retreat was proposing was actually “LIIT” or “low-intensity interval training.” I soon discovered that it was, indeed, quite LIIT. After several long periods of meditation that day, it was a breath of fresh air just to try a new way.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as with fitness, meditation practice is destined to run into roadblocks if you do it long enough. You may have injuries or illnesses. You may have mental resistance. You may just not feel like it. You may still be developing the skills needed to support a practice. Sometimes it helps to keep going if you free yourself of the mental constructs you’ve created as to the “way” you are “supposed” to do it. As one example, I usually try to get 30 minutes of meditation a day. When I ran into a bad patch a while back where I just didn’t feel like it, I committed to 5 minutes a day. I often ended up sitting for longer because, by the end of the 5 minutes, my resistance had passed. More significantly, though, I still have a practice today.

On the other hand, I have also had times where I needed more than my normal 30 minutes a day to work through particular stresses in my life. The problem, though, as I have learned with years of practice is that I tend to have diminishing returns when I practice for longer than 30 minutes. My feet fall asleep, my knees and back hurt, and I tend to be so low on energy that I am almost asleep. In those times, I have instead broken up my long sit into two shorter sessions of 20 minutes with a few minutes to stretch in between. The results were much better and more helpful for me than trying to power through just 1 session of 45 minutes.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The point isn’t to have an ideal practice. It isn’t to have a practice that competes with anyone else’s. The point is to have a practice that serves your life. So, while discipline is certainly part of any good practice, don’t put your practice in a box. If there is one thing my practice has given me, it is an awareness of the dangers of all or nothing thinking. Sure, 4 minutes of meditation may not be as “good” as 5 minutes, but it is way better than 0. More significantly, recognizing that 4 minutes might serve me better than 5 minutes on a given day is practicing self-compassion and self-awareness which, as a lawyer, I constantly need to practice.

So, if you are struggling to find the time to meditate or have a hard time sitting still for very long, perhaps you should consider adjusting the way you are doing it. Think about where you are in your life and, with kindness and generosity towards yourself, try a new way. That’s what the meditation teacher was saying when he told us to try intervals: don’t let your mind get in the way of your meditation practice. To do this, you have to factor in your body and heart along the way. Low intensity interval training for meditation is just one way that you could balance your practice to help your mind, while acknowledging the whims and needs of your body and heart.

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Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

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Brilliant Attorney Profile: Hale Stewart Insurance Lawyer and Moving Meditator

One of the most common complaints I hear from new meditators is that they “can’t sit still.” My common refrain is that “you don’t have to sit still; you don’t even have to sit!” I’ve written about this before, but I am not sure I am the best emissary of this message. Stillness has never been the problem with my practice. Instead, I’ve craved it and relished every bit of silence I could get because my problems were excessive thoughts, doubt, and self-judgment. 

So this week, I am going to let the story of my friend Hale Stewart, an insurance lawyer and moving meditator, make the point. I have never met Hale in person but became acquainted with him on LinkedIn. He is the Vice-President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler and he posts regularly on insurance topics. Because that area is adjacent to my own, which includes some insurance defense work, I became connected with Hale and his posts started showing up in my feed. Hale’s knowledge of insurance so vastly exceeds my own that I often couldn’t contribute in a meaningful way to his content, but he had a good sense of humor and always had a joke or funny GIF to offer on my posts about mindfulness. 

I never expected Hale to tell me that he was interested in meditation. His sense of humor told me he was a pretty no-nonsense type of guy and I know he told me outright at least once that he wasn’t the type to sit and do nothing. But, one day, out of the blue, Hale messaged me to say that he appreciated my blog posts because they were practical, simple, and had helped him. This made me super curious, so I asked Hale to talk about his mindfulness practice. Despite Hale’s prior intimations that meditation wasn’t for him, I found out that he had created a unique, effective, and robust practice for himself.

Hale told me that he meditated during his daily cardio workouts on the treadmill. He had started this after thinking about spirituality and stress management for a while. In addition to being an insurance lawyer, Hale is also a former professional musician. While that experience exposed him to and made spirituality a part of his life, the steady march of time and the stresses of the current day caused him to begin exploring meditation as a new way to take care of himself.

After searching the internet, Hale found some guided meditations to pair with exercise. Hale said he enjoyed them because the teacher didn’t use a wispy, mystical, yoga teacher voice, so he could just do the practices without distraction. By doing those practices for a while, Hale learned to guide himself through the practice and he now meditates on the treadmill for nearly an hour most days. His practice includes body scan to get into his body as he begins his workout, breath focus to stay present with his experience, and visualizations of rainbow (“ROYGBIV” as Hale called them) colors. 

Hale, it seemed, didn’t know or care that this was impressive. He didn’t seem to notice that a daily practice of that length of time was incredibly robust for a new meditator. He also wasn’t too focused on the fact that his practice ticked some important mindfulness boxes (mental focus, body awareness, and breath work) or that rainbow colors have traditionally been associated with the chakra bodies from yoga philosophy. Instead, what Hale cared about was feeling better, enjoying the workout, and getting benefits. Though his practice is not yet a year old, Hale reports that he is already reaping those benefits, including feeling more present and focused and rushing less.  

Several things impressed me about this story. First, Hale’s willingness to explore and try something new is commendable. People new to meditation can take the practice and themselves too seriously at first, which can impede the curiosity and playfulness needed for the practice to offer its benefits. Hale didn’t do that and instead explored to see what was out there and played with the practice to make it work for him.

As someone who took way too much time reading and thinking about meditation before I tried it, I was also impressed that Hale didn’t need a lot of theory to get started because he trusted himself. Many people new to meditation worry initially about doing the practice “right” but Hale built a practice based on what felt good to him. This isn’t to say that theory is unimportant or that teachers and books are useless. On the other hand, though, it demonstrates that there are many paths to mindfulness and that we don’t have to know the path perfectly to walk it well. 

When we talked, Hale confided that he had never thought of himself as the type to meditate because he wasn’t someone who could just sit there. Rather than let this idea hold him back, he paid attention to what he needed and embedded the practice into his life, rather than conforming himself to what meditation was “supposed” to be. So, now when people tell me that they struggle with meditation because they “can’t sit still”, I don’t have to convince them. I’ll just remind them that there are lots of ways to meditate and suggest that they go talk to my friend, Hale.

F. Hale Stewart JD, LL.M. is a Vice President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler.   Hale has been involved in alternative risk for 12 years.  He has written two books on the topic (U.S. Captive Insurance Law and Captive Insurance in Plain English) and provides periodic commentary for IRMI.  A former professional musician, he remains an enthusiastic amateur jazz guitarist. You can learn more about or follow him on LinkedIn.

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Resolutions Schmesolutions: In January I Just Begin Again

I used to have a love hate relationship with the New Year. In mid-December I’d start daydreaming about all the big changes I was going to make in January. I would feel hopeful – excited even – for the possibility of a fresh start. New exercise routine! Healthy eating! Plenty of water! I’m going to meditate every day! I’d spend hours shopping for a new planner hoping to find just the right one to make all my goal setting dreams come true. Because this year, this year is going to be different, I’d tell myself.

Sure, all the wishes and aspirations for self-improvement that come with the New Year aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Seeing the New Year as a time of self-reflection and renewal can be incredibly uplifting. Who doesn’t love the idea of a fresh start?

The problem for me came half-way through January when all of my high hopes would come crashing down because I could never meet my own high expectations. And, by the end of January, I would be in full “I suck” mode. I’d beat myself up for failing yet again to completely reinvent my life and erase all my bad habits in a matter of weeks.

But that started to shift when I really started to appreciate what Joseph Goldstein calls the three most important words in meditation: “simply begin again.” The idea is that it our minds will always wander and our good habits will wane sometimes. There will always be times when we slip into our old physical and mental habits. When we don’t meet our own expectations it’s natural to feel like we’re falling short and get caught self-judgment.

As renowned meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg explains, this where self-compassion comes in::

The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.

Self-improvement and being motivated to be the best version of ourselves  are good things. The key is not to get caught in the mental loop of always feeling like we’re falling short, because the truth is, we will never be perfect. Let me repeat that: we will never be perfect. I will always have days or weeks where I don’t exercise, or meditate, or  drink enough water, or cook Pinterest perfect meals for my family. I’ll always have days and weeks where my house is a mess and I struggle to make sure my kids have clean underwear.

The truth is, I still feel myself getting caught up in the pizazz of the New Year, but it’s not the same. I don’t set quite as high expectations for the month, but the most important part is that I don’t beat myself up (quite as much) as I used to when January doesn’t go the way I want it to. I am ever so slightly starting to feel the freedom that comes with self-compassion.

So, I say, “resolutions schmesolutions” – January 1 is just one opportunity of an infinite number to begin again. 

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Anyone interested in mindfulness is almost by default interested in habits too. Even if you start a meditation practice with the aim of finding just a little bit more peace and quiet in your life, you inevitably will end up reviewing in detail your daily activities, the patterns of your mind, and the impact of your habitual reactions and behaviors. If you give the practice long enough, you very likely may start to see the impact of your habits and be in a position to change them in a positive way.

This is what happened to me. Years ago, I was unhappy, stressed, lonely, and saddled by constant overthinking. I started meditating, created enough mental clarity and stability to see that I was making some fundamental mistakes, and I slowly started to change them. First, I started making more of an effort with my social life, then I reactivated my exercise habit, and finally I added creative pursuits into my life. Nearly a decade after my meditation practice started, my life is much improved and it’s largely because of some habit changes.

So, I was not at all skeptical when I heard about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I knew that habits were important and I understand that even tiny habits could, over time, have huge consequences for one’s life. I admit, though, that I was just a little bit skeptical because I kept hearing, over and over again, about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I heard so many enthusiastic reviews that my inner rebel/cynic thought it must be too good to be true. But, it’s January and I’m thinking about my habits like many people as we move all too slowly out of this global pandemic, so I decided to give it a shot.

After a few chapters, I immediately understood why people love Atomic Habits: it offers clear, concise procedural steps for building better habits and ending undesired ones. The book itself is a very easy read. It’s short and has crisp, concise chapters broken up into bite-sized pieces. Clear’s writing style is, well, clear. He writes in plain English and a conversational tone. Though he often supports his conclusions with scientific studies, he explains them with examples that most of us would recognize from popular culture or our own lives.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Clear’s book, though, is that it offers a much-needed structure to those of us who want to review and change our habits. Anyone caught in the snare of a bad habit knows that it can feel overwhelming and rob us of any motivation to change. As Clear explains, habits are incredibly powerful because, for a behavior to become a habit, we have to accept it as part of our identity and then practice it and hard-wire it into our brains. Undoing that process for habits we want to change, therefore, can seem confusing, daunting, and even futile.

To address this, Clear distills the process of habit creation into a succinct set of 4 laws: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy; and (4) make it satisfying. By offering this system and strategies to support habit change at each phase, Clear’s process is a practical, logical, but also self-compassionate way of cutting through the inner resistance, doubt, and angst that goes along with any effort to change one’s habits. At the heart of Clear’s advice is the fundamental idea that discipline and willpower aren’t the way to change habits, but instead processes, routines, and supports are how to do it. As I have written before, I heartily agree with this approach and have experienced its benefits in my own life when I attempted to start exercising, lose weight, or cut down on my alcohol consumption. And I am definitely going to use some of Clear’s advice to address my current struggle of watching too much Netflix before bedtime.

So, am I ready to declare myself officially wrong to be skeptical about Atomic Habits? Not so fast. My habit of resisting admitting when I am wrong is pretty engrained, so I can’t let this review go without some critique. One thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes made habit change sound a bit too easy. While Clear appropriately has a chapter devoted to the struggle of habit change, it is surprisingly devoid of personal experience with struggle. This may not have been so noticeable if the book had not begun with Clear’s compelling story of a high school head injury that set him on the path to becoming a habit guru. Another problem was that the book lost steam after the first few chapters because even its structure seems to follow a set of rules and it quickly began to feel formulaic and rote.

These criticisms, of course, are not enough to devalue the practical advice and actionable steps in Atomic Habits. Instead, they are perhaps wish lists for the future works I hope to see from James Clear and a suggestion to read the book one chapter at a time with a period to digest the content before moving onto the next. If you are thinking of habit change this January, Atomic Habits is a concise and easy read that is certainly worth your time.

Do you need some help making our meditation practice a habit? Download the Meditation Habits worksheet below to apply some of the principles from Atomic Habits to get your meditation practice established as a habit. You can also check out our free ebook, Pause and Begin Again, to help you start or resume a meditation practice on our Resources page.

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Four Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Recover When You Struggle with Goals

January is a time for resolutions, and for some of us, that can also mean a time for disappointment, reality-checking, and self-flagellation. It’s easy to set goals, but much harder to keep them. It’s also simple to see how a habit change might improve our lives, but very difficult to change our engrained habits. I commonly see friends and acquaintances lose steam with their goals or lose faith in themselves when they struggle with keeping resolutions. To avoid that, here are some mindfulness-based strategies that may help you get back on track.

1. Notice how you feel.

Setting a goal is likely to inspire feelings of empowerment and hope. That feels great. But struggling or failing to meet a goal feels terrible. When you encounter setbacks or failures, it is normal to feel hopeless, powerless, and worthless. While, in the moment, this really sucks, these feelings can over time serve as motivation for wiser action if you don’t resist them or push them away. Mindfulness can help us in times like this in many ways. First and foremost, it can help us stay with and acknowledge these feelings, which in essence are sensations in the body. In times of struggle and failure, it can be easy to ignore or numb the uncomfortable, even painful, feelings that arise. If you can allow yourself to notice them, however, they may help guide you to care for yourself better and learn from your mistakes.

2. Be your own best friend.

If you can be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions as you deal with struggle or failure, you are bound to notice some rather nasty internal talk. Though this is normal, it won’t help you learn or get back on a personal growth track. Nevertheless, we humans tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are with other people. The solution to this is to develop a habit of treating ourselves like we do our best friends so that we can activate self-compassion. Just ask yourself the following question: “If my best friend set a goal and failed to achieve it, what I would tell them?” Most likely, you wouldn’t be judgmental, critical, or mean. Instead, you’d be supportive, understanding, and caring. While this may feel strange at first, it will become natural over time and it will make failure and struggle a lot less scary.

3. Be aware of “all or nothing” thinking.

Once you’ve experienced and cared for your emotions, it may be appropriate and helpful to consider next steps. In particular, you may consider whether you should abandon or revise your goals or just get back to them. In doing this, watch out for all or nothing thinking. Sometimes, but especially in January, we can set goals for ourselves that are really geared towards improvement, though we can implicitly add in an unstated standard of perfection. For instance, if you set a goal to exercise every day in January, you may be discouraged when you miss a day in the first week. Does this mean the goal is impossible and you should quit? Not in my view. The goal wasn’t really about the streak. The goal was about establishing the habit. If you exercise 30 or 28 or 26 days out of January instead of 31, it seems to me you’d be pretty darn close to that. As you heal and learn from struggles with your goals, therefore, be aware of all or nothing thinking because accomplishing some of your goals can still represent amazing progress.

4. Remember your values.  

The best kind of goals are specific, actionable, and measurable. The dangerous part of this, though, is that goals can make us so laser-focused on one thing so that we forget the bigger picture. When I struggle with goals, I find it helpful to zoom out to get more perspective. I do this by considering not just the reasons I set the goal, but also my long-term goals for life. For many of us, we’d probably say that our goals for life include happiness, health, connection, and meaning. Those kinds of goals aren’t necessarily dependent on achieving particular objectives in life. Rather, they are achieved by living our deepest values in life. The beautiful thing about values is that you can live them in failure as much as you can in success. When I remember my values in this way, I remember what motivated me to set the goal in the first place and, in turn, that motivates me to be gentle with myself and start again.

Professionals and lawyers accustomed to meeting goals every day at work can easily forget that achieving personal goals and changing habits is really hard. Doing hard things becomes much more doable, however, when you use practices and develop habits that help you build resilience. Mindfulness practices can help with this because they help us remember that achieving goals is not just about discipline, but also about accepting life the way it is and caring for ourselves along the way. This January and this year, I wish you luck in achieving your goals but I wish even more that you care for yourself as you do it.

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Meditation Is About the Practice and Not the Session

New meditators commonly worry whether their practice is doing anything for them. They often say that they struggle to sit still, experience a deluge or thoughts and emotions, and do not feel calm at all. Most teachers (including me) would say that this is normal and that the practice gets easier over time. But new meditators may wonder how this could be? How could it be that meditation sessions can feel so difficult–even painful at times–but can still be expected to impart the benefits of peace and calm over time?

I struggled with this initially too, until I remembered one important thing: the goal of meditation was not to get “good” at meditation, but rather to help me build a better life. When you are new to meditation, the practice can be alarming because it is likely your first close encounter with your mental chatter, bodily sensations, and emotions. Most lawyers today have active schedules and numerous demands on our time and attention. This means that we can easily just not notice what is really going on in our minds, hearts, and bodies.

Meditation can be so disorienting because all those distractions are removed, so we can experience our inner lives more directly. While this can be scary at first, over time we can learn to be watchful of judgment and harshness with ourselves. We can train our minds to rest in the sensations of the body and use the breath as a tool to focus and calm ourselves. And, we can watch and learn how a flurry of thoughts, emotions, and feelings can subside if we give ourselves enough time.

In this way, the struggles in early practice may actually be skill-building exercises. This is not to say that all struggles in practice should be handled on one’s own or that more sitting is always the answer. Individuals who have experienced trauma or who experience severe emotional or physical pain should always care for themselves first and seek out help from a trained professional, teacher, or loved ones. But, for many new meditators, the struggles in some meditation sessions are where the benefits of awareness, compassion, equanimity, and calm originate.

As an example, I experienced a great deal of physical pain on my first retreat because I had been accustomed to sitting only for minutes, as opposed to hours a day. My body hurt and that, in turn, made me sullen, irritable, and doubtful of myself and the practice. Eventually, the pain got so bad that I had no choice but to skip a sitting session so I could do some yoga in my room to try to feel better. On the next session, I found myself much improved and I not only completed the retreat but was mentally present for the instruction and benefitted from it. The lesson from this, of course, was that I couldn’t expect my mind to grow when my body hurt. To be sure, this is a basic insight, but how often do we lawyers ignore the demands of our bodies because some other demand seems more important? Over the years, this lesson has helped me remember to care for myself first instead of always pushing through it and this has drastically improved my life.

This is why famed teacher Joseph Goldstein directs students not to evaluate one’s practice by one’s experience while meditating. Instead, he tells students to consider whether their lives are improving by considering whether they are rushing less, ruminating less, aware of their feelings and the feelings of others more, experiencing fewer physical signs of stress, and are happier. Even though I still experience difficulty in my meditation practice, I continue to meditate because all of these things have been true for me.

In short, the value of meditation comes from the practice itself and is not dependent on one’s experience in any single meditation session. While struggles during mediation are difficult to experience, those difficulties can help us build critical skills or examine detrimental habits, including judgment and harshness. Just like law, meditation is a practice because it never really gets easy. There is always room to grow, room to learn, grow, build skills, and better understand life and oneself. If you don’t get discouraged by poor experiences in individual sessions, the practice of meditation can help you create that room in your own life.

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6 Practical Steps to Support Yourself During Dry January or 300/65

This week, you may be one of many people trying Dry January for the first time. You may even have your sights set on the longer-term goal of 300/65, which limits drinking days to 65 for the year. Last year, I wrote about my experience trying Dry January for the first time and was surprised at how little I struggled with it. Like a lot of people, being at home social distancing during the pandemic had helped me develop some less than ideal habits, including drinking too frequently. By the time I tried Dry January, I was ready for it and I liked the results so much that I decided to do 300/65 too.

I had an amazingly productive year in 2021 and think that examining my use of alcohol helped to power that progress. If you are thinking about suspending or limiting your use of alcohol in January or for 2022, here are some practical steps that may help support your habit change.  

1. Start on the right foot.

One thing that helped me a lot in January, 2021 was that I had a meditation retreat planned for the days around New Years Eve. On most retreats, participants refrain from using any substances, including alcohol, that can impair the mind. While I had planned on doing the retreat well before I decided to commit to Dry January, it was a very happy accident for me. The retreat got me out of my house for a few days and gave me some distance from my habitual patterns. It also kept me focused so that I didn’t even think about alcohol. While we can’t always start the new year with a retreat, you can structure the first few days or week to support your goals. If you get off to a good start, it may make the whole process much easier. 

2. Get the booze out of sight (or out of the fridge).

I’m a beer drinker most of the time, so the first thing I did to prepare for Dry January was to take the beer out of the fridge. This was a tactical decision that made it harder for me to cave if a craving hit me. After I got through January and committed to 300/65, I decided to just not keep beer around the house. I also redecorate my formal dining room to accept it’s real use in my family: a craft room for the kids. Just to make space, I decided to move the liquor and wine to the basement, a space I only visit when I have a particular need to do so. The unintended benefit of this decision was that I wasn’t constantly reminded of the presence of alcohol in my house. With these subtle changes, it was a lot easier to not even think about drinking.

3. Be a scientist instead of a judge.

I am not the most disciplined person in the world. I’m actually a bit skeptical of discipline since I have tended to be too rigid with myself in the past, which inevitably ended up making myself rebel against all restrictions. But, I am naturally curious. Late in 2020, I started to wonder about my drinking and realized that only life experience could answer the questions I had about it. So, I treated Dry January, not as a referendum on my willpower or quality as a human, but instead as an experiment. Instead of a gold star, each day was another data point. I evaluated that data like a scientist and at the end of the month decided I needed to experiment further with 300/65. When I started drinking again, I made a point log the day as one on which I drank and note how the alcohol affected me. Sometimes it enhanced the experience, like when I shared a drink with a friend or had a nice wine with a favorite meal. Sometimes it just made me feel sluggish or not sleep well or gave me a headache. These data points helped me better appreciate that costs and benefits of using alcohol and to factor that in when I was deciding whether to drink or not.

4. Encourage accountability.

If you are trying to change a habit, one thing is clear: you can’t rely on willpower alone. Willpower is like a muscle; it gets tired. If you have to rely on self-control for your other daily activities (and most lawyers do), it can make you even more susceptible to cravings. Accountability can help this by forcing you to keep the consequences of your choices at the front of your mind. Using Try Dry or another app or tracking your dry and drinking days on a calendar or journal can help you keep yourself honest. If you need external accountability, set up a plan to check in regularly with a friend who can support your goals.

5. Plan for cravings.

Even if you take all the steps above, it is likely that cravings will still arise for you. Therefore, it may be best to have a plan of attack for responding when that happens. I did this by going shopping for tasty alcohol-free beverages before Dry January started. I intentionally looked for new things to try, so the fun of trying something new could remind me that disrupting habits had a good side. I also made a point of being kind to myself and avoiding self-judgment when a craving arose. One of the most common craving times for me happened when I cooked, since I loved to have a glass of wine while preparing meals. Looking for an enhancement that was neither food or beverage, I started listening to music or audiobooks while I cooked. It was just as, if not more, relaxing and it kept my mind off the drink I wasn’t having.  

6. Be prepared for feelings.

While most people who try Dry January or 300/65 are likely to first notice physical changes, it is possible that you may notice emotional differences too. Because alcohol is a depressant and is often used for the purpose of relaxing, it is possible that you may notice an increase in emotions when you limit it or stop using it. I noticed this myself during 2021 and simply relied on my other stress management strategies, including meditation, yoga, warm baths, hot tea, and talking to friends and family. On tough days, I did a combination of these things. Though it’s always difficult to deal with stress, the experience of caring for my emotions with healthy strategies cultivated personal confidence, strength, and helped me get to know myself even better.  

Changing habits is a tough thing to do. As I have written about before, changing habits relating to alcohol can be especially tricky, since shame and self-judgment can always arise. If you give yourself appropriate supports and a healthy perspective while attempting Dry January or 300/65, it may not just help you find success with your goals but also experience less difficulty while you pursue them.

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