Book Review: The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris

What is confidence? That question lies at the heart of Russ Harris’ book, The Confidence Gap. Most of us view confidence as a feeling and, in fact, that is how most dictionaries define the term. Oxford defines “confidence” as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” What this definition doesn’t tell us, of course, is when this feeling should or must emerge. To be confident, is it necessary that one start out that way?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us may assume that this is in fact the case. We may believe that good and necessary action emanates from an unshakable, and perhaps innate, belief in ourselves, our teams, or our values. We may have watched the courageous actions of others from movies, history, or even our own communities that made it appear that their bold acts flowed from confidence. As a result, we may value confidence highly and simply assume that feeling confident is essential to living a worthy life.

This, however, is the very confidence gap that Harris argues against falling into in his book. According to Harris, the confidence gap is the space between action and feelings of confidence. He argues with clarity and wit that many of us believe that feeling confident is a necessary precondition to acting with force and skill. As a result, many of us never begin and take the action necessary to develop true confidence. Over time, this process can accumulate into a cluster of memories and fears that make us feel powerless, stuck, and drained.

The way out of this, according to Harris, is to instead accept the reality that anything challenging in our lives will inevitably cause most of us to feel unsure. In other words, Harris tells us to stop expecting and trying to feel confident from the outset. He suggests that we use mindfulness strategies to help us allow uncomfortable bodily sensations and acknowledge the troubling thoughts that may impede action. Harris suggests that neither thoughts nor feelings are themselves problematic if we can learn to “defuse” from (or not overidentify with) them. As we go through this challenge and take on new risks, Harris also explains that a healthy amount of self-acceptance (or self-compassion as I would call it) is essential.

To that end, much of the book is devoted to describing strategies for defusing in detail, including my favorite, which is to sing your nasty inner commentary to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday” or to type the statements out and put them in a funny font. I mean, doesn’t the phrase “I’m going to ruin my life.” seem less threatening when you type it out in pink Comic sans? And don’t these well-worn self-doubt phrases seem a little less dire when you sing them to yourself in the tune of “Happy Birthday”: “I’m a terrible mom. I’m a bad attorney. I am a total failure. My life is a mess.”

They sure do. Because, as Harris suggests, the words and the feelings don’t have power in themselves. They only have power because they can create discomfort in us that can stun us into inaction. If we can use mindfulness strategies, however, to give ourselves some space and grace in the midst of that discomfort, we can still learn to move forward in the midst of discomfort. That’s when we find confidence because we learn that fear can come but it doesn’t have to hold us back. In this way, Harris suggests that confidence is in reality a process rather than a feeling.

You could learn a lot of the lessons from The Confidence Gap without reading the book. In fact, I liked the book because it seemed to explain back to me in logical and research-based terms what I had experienced in my own life. I had always struggled with self-doubt and overthinking, but started to work my way out of those habits with years of mindfulness practice. Eventually, I learned my pattern: I would feel a rush of inspiration to try a new thing, then set out to try it, and then feel scared and want to quit.  After a while, my mindfulness practice became established enough that, instead of quitting or never starting at all, I learned how to not accept as true every thought that came to mind, care for my fear, and keep going. Over time, I noticed how often my fears were exaggerated and how rarely they affected my actual performance. Now, even though few new challenges go by where I don’t experience some fear and doubt, I am far more confident in myself because I know what to do with the fear and doubt. Now, I just bring it along for the ride instead of letting it drive the bus.

The Confidence Gap is a useful read because it can help you sort out the mélange of thoughts, sensations, and expectations that arise in the space between ideas and actions. The analysis in the book may help you understand what confidence really means for you and the strategies may help you avoid letting the confidence gap turn into a lifelong (or maybe just too long) inaction rut. So, if you want more confidence in your life or to understand the subject better, check out The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris for insightful analysis, useful strategies, and a much-needed examination of what confidence means.

Four Reasons Why I Don’t Like the Term “Imposter Syndrome”

It’s no secret that I am a self-doubter. I have struggled with it since I was a kid and, despite all my mindfulness training, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Doubt, it seems, is a part of my personality. So, you might be surprised to know that I don’t really like the term “imposter syndrome.” Clearly, I don’t dispute that the phenomenon occurs. And I know how self-doubt, even in the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating competence, can harm individuals and the organizations who need their talents. But I just don’t like the implications of what the term “imposter syndrome” conveys. Here are a few reasons why.

1. It Pathologizes What Might Just Be a Normal Human Experience.

A “syndrome” doesn’t have to be a medical condition, necessarily, but that is the most prevalent use of term. By saying “imposter syndrome”, therefore, we are reifying the notion that self-doubt is somehow aberrant or harmful. Certainly, as stated below, I don’t doubt the potential for harm on an individual or social level. I am saying, though, that the idea of self-doubt as inherently problematic may not be altogether fair.

Sure, self-doubt hurts and at times it can put us in boxes that we may have to escape. But it is part of the human condition too. Self-doubt, like all so-called negative emotions and experiences, doesn’t necessarily have moral value. Instead, it’s a state that comes and may go if we learn to let it. In my experience, it’s also a personality trait that, when balanced with some care and courage, can have beneficial results. I’ve learned to accept that, though my own self-doubt drives me nuts on occasion, it also makes me check my facts and keeps me honest, humble, and connected to my human experience.

For this reason, I don’t like the implication that “imposter syndrome” is inherently wrong because that view can contribute to self-judgment and impede the understanding and self-compassion that are needed to keep doubt from impeding growth. I think the better approach is to recognize that self-doubt is a part of the human condition and to account for it, with appropriate supports, as part of the healthy path to growth.

2. It Suggests that We Should Feel Solid in Our Identities, Despite the Fact that They Are Always Changing.

Identity is at the core of imposter syndrome. The use of the term “imposter” is intended to convey an experience most of us have had: that other people will somehow discover we aren’t as perfect/talented/smart/capable/kind/beautiful/worthy/lovable, etc. as we may seem. If you break this down logically, you will see that the concern here is that our “true” identities may not measure up to the perceptions others have of us. If you know anything about Buddhist philosophy, however, alarm bells should be ringing in your ears because, according to that school of thought, no true identity in fact exists.

The concept of “not self” or “anatta” as it is traditionally called tells us that there is no stable and lasting self to which we can cling. And even if you haven’t studied Buddhism, you can experience this for yourself. Go ahead and look for your self. Or watch that self of yours behave over time and in different contexts. You can test me on this if you like, but I bet you’ll find it hard to find a sold, steady self in there driving the bus of your life.

What does this have to do with imposter syndrome? Well, imposter syndrome suggests to us that it’s a problem if we feel unsure about our identities. If you look at it from a “not self” perspective, though, it’s not a problem at all. It actually is far more consistent with reality than the so-called “confident” and “normal” people who don’t question their identities. Now, of course, when this analysis becomes protracted, painful, and gets in the way of necessary action or growth, that can become a problem. But those issues are likely to be the result of attempts to cling too tightly to identity. The way out isn’t to strive to feel more solid in our identities, but instead to recognize that identity shifts as life changes and so doubts about it inevitably may arise.

3. It Suggests that People Who Don’t Doubt Their Abilities Are Necessarily Higher Achievers or Better Performers.

How many times have you been told that confidence is essential to success? Probably many, many times, right? Well, did you ever ask that person what confidence means? If you did, they’d probably look at you quizzically and say something like “You know, feeling good about yourself. Feeling capable or self-assured. Feeling strong.” That’s close to the dictionary definition of the term “confidence” to be sure. But, does this mean that, in the midst of a challenge one must in the present moment feel capable, strong, or self-assured to get good results? As a lifelong self-doubter and high-achiever, I can tell you that’s not true. Not all self-doubt impedes performance. As I’ll discuss when I review The Confidence Gap, it’s the self-doubt that impedes action which is the problem.

And that’s the problem with thinking of imposter syndrome as a syndrome. It doesn’t distinguish between the self-doubt that should be expected with growth and new challenges and the self-doubt that keeps us from taking the actions necessary to grow and face challenges. To truly understand that distinction for ourselves, we need to look at our self-doubt without judgment to see how it affects us. If we assume it is inherently bad or detrimental, we may get the wrong idea that we are destined to fail or be stuck in our current circumstances until we can force ourselves to feel assured even in the face of risk. But, that’s not confidence, that’s bluster and potentially arrogance and it doesn’t necessarily translate to better long-term performance. So, instead of focusing so much on the detriments of imposter syndrome, it may be more effective to re-think what confidence really means.

4. It Suggests that the Problem Is with the Individual When We Are All Interconnected.

Finally, I don’t like the term imposter syndrome because it perpetuates the myth of separation. While the nod to identity in the term acknowledges that we are social beings with deep needs for social approval, most of the discourse on the subject has focused solely on the individual experience of it.  Last year, the Harvard Business Review offered a refreshing take on the subject which suggested that imposter syndrome for many may be the byproduct of systemic bias. In this discussion, the authors suggest that it is time to dispense with the notion that individuals must fix themselves by overcoming imposter syndrome because, instead, we might spend our time better fixing the systems that have created it.

That’s a pretty good point but I might also add that there are some other cultural biases at play here, including the preference for certainty, authoritarian leadership, and the aversion to vulnerability and emotions in professional life. In this way, I’d agree that the emphasis shouldn’t be on “fixing” the people who have experienced imposter syndrome. Perhaps, the emphasis should be on creating a society and workplace culture where people, including leaders, feel safe acknowledging risk and doubt. To do this, we probably need the talents and wisdom of the people who know what self-doubt feels like and what to do about it. If the advice continues to be that imposter syndrome must be shed before leadership and success can occur, we may never get the leaders who can help us make that change.

In short, I don’t doubt that imposter syndrome occurs. I have experienced it most of my life. But I don’t like the way it is portrayed most of the time because it is at odds with my mindfulness training and my life experience. I don’t think my self-doubt makes me a bad lawyer or poor leader. Rather, I think facing my self-doubt and learning to care for it is what makes me a great leader and courageous lawyer. So, instead of focusing on ridding ourselves of imposter syndrome, overcoming it or even fixing it, maybe we should learn instead to accept ourselves as we are and life as it is to build the skills needed to face the inherent doubts, risks, and uncertainties in life and work.  

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What I Learned from Writing about Mindfulness for a Year

Today is an auspicious day for me. It is the one-year anniversary of the founding of this blog. Clearly, blogging is not a novel idea. There are tons of blogs across the internet. And, even for lawyers, side hustles are not super rare. So, why is this a big deal? I love writing and it helps me stay mentally healthy, so the fact that I have written consistently for a year is not all that surprising. What is surprising, though, is that I chose to keep writing even when I had other demands on my time. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I have to admit that it was not always easy to come up with topics and find the time to write each week.

Perhaps, then, the thing I am celebrating with this one-year anniversary is that I made a commitment to myself and stuck with it. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I am responsible for and accountable to a lot of people. Living up to my commitments to them is incredibly important. As a result, I have struggled over the course of my life with making commitments to myself. Though I am not necessarily a people pleaser, I have struggled with perfectionism most of my life. If I take on a job, I want to make sure I can do it well and I want to make sure my other commitments aren’t neglected.

Even though starting the blog seemed like a practical choice for me, since I’m a fast writer and loved writing about mindfulness, I was not totally convinced I would stick with it. After all, it’s one thing to do something for fun when the mood or energy strikes you and a totally different thing to commit to it long-term to build something new. So, even when I launched the blog, I was a little bit worried that life or law practice would distract me or I would just lose energy and quit.

Undoubtedly, this year has tested me on both levels. Life and law practice sent me many distractions. My energy was drained at times. But I kept going, sometimes even when I wasn’t sure why. Today, as I write this, I think I finally get it. I kept going because I had a vision for building something new. I wanted to create a space to share my view of mindfulness with the legal community and the world. In other words, I wanted to use my voice and my passions to help create a better world.

As you might imagine, that’s a tall order. So, I have had to continually remind myself that it takes time. I have had to keep going even when I felt tired. I have had to be gentle with myself when things weren’t easy or didn’t go as I had hoped. I have had to make a point of celebrating milestones, victories, or praise because I knew I would need the positive energy to sustain me during hard times. I have sometimes even had to just rely on faith when I thought I had no ideas and allow a post to emerge from me, seemingly without my conscious control.

In other words, this blog was borne out of my mindfulness practice in more than one way. The practice not only helped me live life in a better way so that I could be the mom, lawyer, and community leader I wanted to be. It also gave me the tools I needed to take on even more and to let a new part of myself emerge. It gave me the courage to handle adversity, the skills to stay calm when life is too busy, the space to allow a vision to coalesce, and the silence to listen to what my soul desires. When you have those skills, you can do more than merely achieve a goal; you can honor your deepest values while doing it.

That’s why I am so passionate about mindfulness. It’s not just a practice that builds the skills to survive life. It’s a practice that, if you let it, can help you build the life you really want. I’m proud that in its first year the blog has shared resources, ideas, and practices to bring mindfulness to lawyers and professionals. I’m proud that I made a commitment to myself and stuck to it. And I’m proud to go into 2022 as a lawyer, mom, community leader, and now established blogger. Thank you sincerely to all of the guest bloggers, readers, followers, and friends who have supported Brilliant Legal Mind and me. I hope we all find many more occasions to celebrate in 2022.