5 Healthy Ways to Handle Emotions as a Lawyer

The first question I ever asked a meditation teacher showed how uncomfortable I used to be with my emotions. In the Zen tradition, you get an opportunity for an interview with the teacher when you go on retreat. I was totally unprepared for this on my first one so I asked the question at the top of my mind: is it okay if I cry when I meditate?

In not so many words, the teacher kindly explained that, yes it was okay when emotions came up during meditation. She wisely didn’t push me too hard to examine why I had asked the question at all and let me figure out that more fundamental issue for myself. In retrospect, I now know that the question isn’t whether it is okay to cry during meditation. The better question is why did I ever think it was a problem in the first place?

As I eventually discovered, I had been making some assumptions about my meditation practice and myself. I had assumed that meditation was about being calm, so through that lens crying was a problem. To dive a bit deeper, I had generally assumed in my life that I should be in control of my emotions, so when I reacted in ways that I didn’t expect it seemed to signal a problem.

In years of practice, I have come to learn that meditation is not about being calm, but instead is about being as you are in any given moment. In addition, our lack of control over our emotions isn’t the problem either. Usually, the problems arise when we fight against that lack of control. Even so, us lawyers are in the position where we often must modulate and monitor our emotions to do our jobs. How can we do this in a healthy way? Here are the five strategies rooted in mindfulness and compassion that I use.

1. Give them time.

Emotions sometimes have deeper meanings and sometimes they don’t. One of the best ways to tell the difference is to give yourself a moment to watch them and see what happens. The first thing you will notice if you can let emotions be is that they don’t last very long. In themselves, the bodily sensations often last about 90 seconds before resolving or changing to something else. So, if you can pause for a few breaths, let your body settle, and give your brain a chance to catch up, you may understand better what your emotions are trying to tell you. If nothing else, you’ll be present for yourself in an authentic way and remember for a moment that you are a human being who is affected by the world and that’s not entirely a bad thing.

2. Give them space.

As you give your emotions time, it also helps to give them space. What I mean by this is a few things. First, don’t force a conclusion right away. Don’t immediately put your emotions under the microscope. Don’t demand an explanation. Remember that emotions are feelings and they are not necessarily logical, so don’t judge or add on extra baggage that doesn’t need to be there. Second, it also means to let yourself expand around the emotions. Sometimes big emotions can feel overwhelming. In those times, I find the breath helpful as a tool to help me feel a sense of expansion as I make space for emotions. Strong emotions can also push us to contract around them, so the practice of allowing them to float (not pushing them away or reacting to them) is a way to honor our emotions while avoiding rash and potentially harmful actions.

3. Move.

Meditation is excellent for some emotions, but I find movement more helpful for dealing with the energetic ones like anger, frustration, or nervousness. After years of practice, I can sense when I am too keyed up to meditate. In those situations, I take a walk, do a strenuous workout, or put my energy to good use by doing yard or housework. The movement helps me to avoid ruminating about the situation and, even if I don’t get full clarity by the end of the activity, at least I did something good for myself or completed a chore. I also use this strategy when my calendar or case load give me reason to anticipate strong emotions. I make a point of working out before difficult depositions or important presentations. Even if short, I take walks or do some stretching or yoga the weeks I am in trial. At their heart, emotions are sensations which is energy. Movement can make you feel physically better and discharge some of that extra energy, so it is a great response to emotional surges.

4. Share them.

Lawyers sometimes must remind ourselves that we don’t have to handle everything on our own. As an introvert, this is true for me. When things are awkward, I tend hide them or try to fix them before anyone notices. Eventually I learned, though, that all the self-care strategies in the world are no match for the loved ones in my life. The reason is that our emotions can easily get mixed up with shame. Sharing our experience with those we trust is the most effective way to counteract shame. In many cases, our loved ones or trained professionals can’t change the situation or even offer wise advice. They can, however, remind us that we aren’t alone and our feelings matter and that is valuable.

5. Care for them.

The first few strategies emphasized some distance from one’s emotions to build stability in the midst of turbulence. Ultimately, though, practice with your emotions may reveal the truth that you can’t and shouldn’t try to become aloof from them. One amazing thing I have seen repeatedly is that compassion emerges when we feel suffering, whether it is our own or someone else’s. This isn’t to say you should always take on suffering or never use strategies to help yourself get distance when needed. It is to say that feeling our emotions and treating them like they matter is essential. This means being present for and accepting of ourselves even when our emotions are inconvenient, irrational, or uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean we always act based on our emotions, but it does require dropping the pretense that we can somehow rise above them.  

Law practice is a rational, logical, and competitive. If we are honest, though, it’s also highly emotional, intuitive, and relationship based. Emotional intelligence is not merely about recognizing emotions in ourselves and others. Because of the toll that law practice can take on legal professionals, it is also essential to learn strategies to honor and care for our own emotions. This is not just true because it can help you maintain or improve solid performance at work, but also because you are a human being and your lived experience matters.

In short, the healthy way to deal with emotions as a lawyer isn’t treating your emotions as a problem, but instead embracing them as a part of the human experience. Coming from someone who used to struggle mightily with this, I know that this takes patience, trust, and effort but these strategies derived from mindfulness and compassion can help.    

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Meditation Is Not a Time Suck; It’s a Time Saver

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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What Is Restorative Yoga and Why Should Lawyers Try It?

Lots of people tell me that they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still. I usually tell them that they don’t have to sit still to meditate. Strangely, people also tell me with a similar frequency that they can’t do yoga because they can’t do the poses. Sometimes they say that they can’t balance. Sometimes they say that they aren’t flexible. Sometimes they express a concern that they look silly. In other words, these people tell me the inverse of what the people who can’t sit still during meditation say: that they can’t move the right way during yoga.

When I hear these concerns, one of the first things I say is to acknowledge that I used to struggle with yoga too, but that letting go of the idea that there was a “right way” to move was what helped me learn to love it. One of the practices that helped me do this was restorative yoga. When I finally tried yoga for real, I already had an active meditation practice but it helped me realize I had to develop some ways of caring for my body in addition to my mind.

Though I’d been athletic growing up, I had not worked out consistently in years, so I started with yoga as a way to ease back into movement even though my earlier attempts with it had not been successful. Because I needed time to build up cardio endurance, I had to start with slow and gentle classes first. That’s when I found restorative yoga. Lucky for me, it was enough like meditation that I could enjoy it but different enough that it could serve as a segue into more yoga exploration.

Restorative yoga is a restful kind of yoga. Poses are part of the process, but the poses are supported rather than held. You don’t build strength and balance with the poses. You practice rest instead and you practice letting yourself be supported. In most cases, the poses are done lying on the floor, reclined on props, including blankets, blocks, or bolsters, or resting against the wall or a chair for support. This is because yogis hold the poses in restorative class for at least 5 and often as much as 15 or 20 minutes at a time.

So, why is this good for lawyers? It’s good for a lot of reasons. Restorative yoga practices rest and being supported. Most of us lawyers are in the habit of being active all of the time and doing many things on our own. For this reason, practicing another way of being is a way to offer balance to our lives. In addition, the poses themselves are beneficial to the body. Poses that help open the chest or arch the back may counteract the effects of sitting at a desk all day and inversions may balance hormones and offer relief from the effects of gravity and wearing uncomfortable shoes.

Finally, if you are one of those people who have struggled with meditation because you can’t sit still, restorative yoga may offer a new way to think about mindfulness. The instruction in most restorative classes is just to be in the experience of the pose, to feel oneself resting, and not to drift off in thought.

This is similar to the practice of sitting meditation, but it has some additional physical and restful components that may help you relax into and tolerate the experience more. Even if you enjoy meditation like I do, you may find that restorative yoga is a nice way to mix things up or can offer a chance to find mindfulness when life makes meditation seem a bit too intense.

If you are interested in learning more about restorative practice, you can find it at many yoga studios. Some fitness apps and online platforms, such as Peloton offer it too. In addition, you can easily start a home practice by finding a set of restorative props online.

You can also check out some of the work of Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T. Her book, Relax and Renew offers pictures and explanations of poses and full sequences to help you do the practices on your own at home.

Just as you don’t have to sit still to meditate, you don’t have to move to do yoga. Restorative yoga offers lawyers the chance to practice rest so that they can find peace in stillness and pay closer attention to how their bodies feel. It is a beautiful practice that offers people in stressful jobs many benefits. Giving you the chance to experience how expansive yoga can be is just one of them.

Do you want to try restorative yoga? You can try our Legs Up the Wall Guided Meditation even if you don’t have any props. All you need are your legs and a wall.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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