Yes, we are supposed to be rule followers. In many cases, we are hired because we are experts of the rules. But anyone who has practiced law knows that there are times when the rules don’t tell us everything. Sometimes the rules shift suddenly. And there are instances when we have to blend creativity and ingenuity to chart a course around, through, or alongside the rules for clients.
This is why lawyers, steeped in rules as we are, are not mere rule followers. Instead, our jobs position us to be badasses. Our role is to help our clients shape the future for their lives, their businesses, or their families.
Much the same way, “badass” may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about mindfulness and compassion. The popular image of mindfulness these days is a blissed out yogi sitting on a cushion. We are more likely to think of our grandmas than a superhero when it comes to the word “compassion.”
That magic ingredient is compassion. It’s a word that I have seen mostly absent from discussions of stress management for lawyers. I think some people have believed lawyers wouldn’t listen. Some may have believed talking about mindfulness by itself would cover the bases.
I wrote it as a short and simple guide to help lawyers (or anyone else) understand the concepts of mindfulness and compassion and build a meditation practice of their own. Having meditated now for nearly a decade, I understand that meditation can be a challenge so the book creates a four-week program for you to build skills and stamina for meditation. As you do the practices, you’ll cultivate mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and emotional intelligence.
The book includes no metaphysical discussions, little complicated terminology, and is actively and ardently anti-perfectionist. Admittedly, it’s a self-help book but only in the sense that it may offer some new skills, strategies, and ways of thinking that may allow you to help yourself. Explicitly, the goal of the book isn’t to change you in any way. It’s to help you see how awesome you are because your clients, your family, your community, and the world needs it.
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.
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.
This month, I decided to write on the theme of “humanity in the legal profession.” When I settled on this theme, it seemed at first like an easy concept to impart. But, as I sometimes realize when I sit down to write a brief, the writing process quickly reveals the gaps in my understanding. There are lots of things I love about writing but this aspect, humbling as it can be sometimes, is one of my favorites. It forces you to drill down on small things you might have otherwise overlooked.
In this case, the small thing I had overlooked was what does “humanity in the legal profession” really mean? Sure, I’d used the term “human lawyer” many times. I had considered to myself, if not said aloud, that I strived to show what it means to be a human lawyer. Still, I’d never thought about defining the term. When you write about a subject (especially as a lawyer) that’s usually a good starting point.
In this case, though, a dictionary definition was not helpful because I wasn’t trying to understand what the word “humanity” meant. Instead, I was trying to understand what it meant to demonstrate one’s humanity as a lawyer. To be sure, I had witnessed this in several ways in my own life. My family is filled with lawyers and so I was blessed to see regular examples of heartfelt care and concern expressed through legal guidance growing up. As a practicing attorney myself, I’ve benefitted from humanity from my colleagues and opposing counsel. And, on my better days at least, I have employed it too.
But still, the idea of humanity in law implies that it can’t be limited to just one lawyer’s lived experience. Fortunately for me, I happen to have a pretty robust LinkedIn network. So, I asked my lawyer friends there to tell me what being a human lawyer meant to them. Here are some of their answers.
Several respondents told me that humanity as lawyers had to do with how we show up in the world:
I think we are all human lawyers at heart. But we learn to muzzle our humanity to show up as who we think our clients want to see. Ironically, I think this is the exact opposite of what most clients crave. They want real, raw, empathy, humor, relationship. More transparency is the answer.
Still, it’s hard to swim upstream against the prevailing norms. I often encounter attorneys who are very reticent to share anything personal in their bio or express their personality in their content. This is a missed opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For the most part, clients choose you because of who you are and what you stand for. Not who you clerked for, your class rank, or the last case you won.
I actually say this just about every day! Human-first lawyering is a huge part of in-house practice. Lawyers (just like other humans) like jokes, and play fantasy football, and have interests outside of work and listen to punk rock. We’re just humans who went to law school and we learned some things there that can help you.
I am a human lawyer because I can speak of practical solutions not just legal ones and advise people to take pathways that are less disruptive to their mental health if they can still meet their basic goals.
Some lawyers even suggested that our humanity is essential for counseling clients, even when that means admitting to the limitations of the law:
As lawyers, our role involves “counseling” sometimes more than providing legal advice. Talking your client down from the ledge or from pursuing a vendetta or burning bridges or to encouraging the client to cut all ties and have a “divorce” from the opposing party. I handle probate, trust, and fiduciary litigation, which involves blended family situations or sibling discord. I remind people that sometimes, to be there for yourself, you have to “divorce” or disengage from that toxic or opposing party family member and maybe someday you might be able to see each other at Christmas but not this year. I believe in acknowledging our feelings and then, asking what can you do to feel that again or not feel that again. Acknowledge the client is stressed but also encourage them to concentrate on the next step, not the end result.
I think what can set you apart as “human” with clients is to be humble and admit when “the” answer isn’t clear or straightforward. I work in a science heavy area of law, with cases that are often full of unanswered questions of law. It’s hard sometimes for clients to understand that, but I have had many tell me they appreciate my honest and forthright answers… often after having talked to or worked with other attorneys prior. Sometimes a humble attitude is surprising to clients but it’s also earned loyalty and referrals.
Now, if like me, you have struggled with your humanity at times, don’t worry. A few of the respondents shared that you can remember or relearn your humanity even if, litigation for example, causes you to lose track of it for a while:
I bring humanity compassion and kindness to all my matters. I used to be a litigator and was becoming a jerk I switched to transactional work 17 years ago doing estate planning and business law. I now enjoy helping people set things up for the present and the future. I also perform about 240 hours of pro bono work every year. If there is anything that can be said for wisdom instilled by the elderly, it is treat people how you want to be treated and create memories because they are all you take with you and no one gets out alive.
I learned to be a human lawyer after experiencing the personal tragedy of one of my clients. I finally saw the true terrible price of a legal malpractice claim and realized that to help my clients (and myself) I needed a more holistic approach. I took a step back from just defending legal mal lawsuits and now attempt to address lawyers’ problems before disaster strikes.
So, there we have it. Humanity in the legal profession is about showing up as ourselves. It’s about honoring our emotions and those of others. It shines through brightest, perhaps, when we counsel with practical as well as legal advice. And it can even serve as our north star to get ourselves back to goodness if we lose our way in the difficulties of law practice.
Maybe there’s no unifying definition of what it means to demonstrate humanity in the legal profession, but it’s good that there are many examples of it. If you want more, check out The Human Lawyer Podcast. I was a guest on this podcast a few years ago and it curates the stories of some fantastic human lawyers across the country.
How do you show your humanity in your life and work?
There are so many resources, websites, books, and teachers of meditation out there now that it is very likely that, at some point, you may come across one you don’t like. You know what? That’s not really a problem.
There are many different meditation techniques from numerous disciplines. Even though many meditation practices have been studied in a clinical setting, the practice can be deeply personal and spiritual. In this way, it’s a good thing that there are lots of different teachers out there because there is bound to be one or more who speak to your experience.
In this interview, our founder, Claire Parsons, talks with her friend, Talar Heculian Coursey about influential teacher, Eckhart Tolle. Claire isn’t a superfan but Talar is. Check it out to learn more about Tolle’s teachings and style and to consider how teaching style can affect the way you’ve learned mindfulness.
Not into video? No problem. Scroll on down for a full transcript of the video with some links to Talar’s profile and website, as well as the past blog posts and other resources we mentioned.
Claire Parsons (“CP”): All right. Hey, everyone. This is Claire Parsons from the Brilliant Legal Mind blog and we are trying something new this week. We are trying one of our first ever video blog series. So I have with me to Talar Herculian Coursey. And if I said her name wrong, I’m sorry. She’s a good friend of mine from LinkedIn.
I am debunking myths this month on the blog. And so one of the myths that I wanted to debunk in this series is to talk about the idea that what happens when you come across a meditation teacher, you maybe don’t care for that much. If you saw a few weeks ago, I did a post about Kendrick Lamar, his new album and men’s mental health. And in that album, Kendrick Lamar name drops, Eckhart Tolle quite a bit. Eckhart Tolle had been on my reading list for a long time and when Kendrick Lamar you know, mentioned him so much I was kind of intrigued.
So I listened to The Power of Now and my honest opinion, is it it wasn’t amazing to me. I didn’t think it was bad. I didn’t think you said anything wrong. But it just didn’t speak to me. But my friend Talar loves Eckhart Tolle, and so I wanted to have her here to talk about why, just to sort of point out that maybe you don’t like a meditation teacher, but maybe somebody else does and that there’s a lot of different opinions out there about meditation teachers and what works. So we can talk about this so Talar, can you first of all, give me just an overview, a quick snapshot of who you are.
CP: Yeah, congratulations. on that. I just saw that. So that’s amazing. Talar. I know in addition to all of those things, you you have been certified to teach yoga and I know you do have an interest in mindfulness. Can you talk about that? Just a little bit.
TC: Definitely. My, my first introduction to mindfulness was through yoga. And I, I used to refer to it as my moving meditation. And while I do meditate, I use the calm app, and I try to meditate at least 10 minutes every day through the daily 10 minute meditation. I am not very consistent. I do enjoy it, but not as much as yoga so for me, the mindfulness practice of yoga that includes both not just both mind, body and breath, the connection is what really works for me and what I look forward to doing as opposed to sitting down to meditate which confession, even when I do my 10 minute meditations, I do it lying down. I know she tells you straight back, sit up, stay alert. I don’t do it. I don’t follow those instructions. But it works for me.
CP: And yeah, I usually sit up because I don’t want to fall asleep. But I sometimes lay down to meditate and it’s generally okay to find a posture that works for you. She’s probably just telling you to try to be alert on that app, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. So I asked you here to talk about Eckhart Tolle, and I know at some point on LinkedIn, like you had like Eckhart Tolle, like fan girl or devotee or something on your LinkedIn profile. So what is it about Eckhart Tolle that you like so much?
TC: It’s groupie. I am a self proclaimed Eckhart Tolle groupie. I don’t think that group these are just for musical bands. I think that authors can have them too and I and I’m one of his. I would like to think I’m his number one groupie. It’s really hard to say it’s kind of like obscenity you know, when you see it you know, and I guess for Eckhart toll, it’s, it’s when you listen to it, or when you read it. And it’s funny, you mentioned that, you know, you’re not a fan.
My first introduction to Eckhart Tolle was actually in Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier. I don’t know if you’ve read that or if you’re Dan Harris, and he wasn’t a fan either. But I went down that rabbit hole, and actually started with listening to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Eckhart Tolle. She did you know, I think it was a 10 part series, one podcast episode, per chapter where she interviewed at cart. So I listened to that before I read the book, and I don’t know if perhaps that helped me. Get you know more comfortable with the book. But I have the book in print. I have multiple copies that I gift to people, whether they want it or not. Some people return that gift. It does happen because he’s not for everyone. It’s kind of like caviar. You know, I don’t like caviar, but apparently some people do. I also have the power of now and a new earth on audio.
And so I like going to various chapters on the audio when I’m taking a walk and need to recenter myself. I just I just the way that he explains concepts and what he talks about, really works for me, and specifically, this concept of us being the watcher of the ego. You know, for me when I am trying to practice mindfulness, and not just because I’m trying to meditate or do yoga, really in interpersonal relationships. And conflict, even in communications on LinkedIn. After reading a Eckhart’s work, I will literally take a step back and watch my ego my ego might want to trash talk and complain and and argue but I will take a step back to watch my ego and recognize that it’s my ego that’s having that reaction. And in my opinion, I think most of the time, when we are reactive, you know, that is the ego at work as opposed to your you no mindful, true self. I can’t remember the question, but hopefully somewhere in there I answered.
CP: I think you did. You might have gotten into some of my later questions too, but no worries I can adjust. So, one of the things that in when you say when you talked about this think the thing that I like about Eckhart Tolle was the fact that I think he does explain concepts with a lot of clarity. The thing about his story that I think is the hardest for me is that in everything that I’ve learned about meditation and Buddhism, the enlightenment piece is the thing I struggle with most like I can’t necessarily conceive of it. You know, I’ve read about it, and I understand like, what in general it means, but I think his story is the hard part for me to understand how that just happens.
And so I think, he doesn’t get into the method as much like how to actually do these things. You know, he talks about concepts, but he doesn’t as much explain how to do it. He does get into meditation a little bit. I do like that. He talks about the importance of the body and meditation because I agree that that is very central. But like, that’s the piece that I have a disconnect with. He tells me where what the goal is. And he explains it very clearly. He doesn’t as much tell me how to get there. So when you say that you can watch yourself and your ego because you listen to him. Like can you connect those dots for me at all like in a practical way how his his work helped you do that?
TC: Like, you know, it’s hard to explain and I don’t you know, I don’t disagree with you. I don’t know that. His work. I don’t necessarily think of it as a you know, handbook guide for how to meditate and how to go about life. I think I think of it is more conceptual. And that you know, if you want to really hone in your mindfulness practice, you need to go deeper. You need to, you know, subscribe to your blog and listen to people like you to get the how, I don’t think he necessarily talks about how. I think he’s just painting the picture of where you can get to, and you know.
It’s interesting. I’m gonna go to something else you just said about the enlightenment piece. So I in addition to being Eckhart groupie, I’m also a Jesus groupie. And one of the things that I like about the way Eckhart describes his concepts he does pull in these great teachers, including Jesus, including Buddha, and Muhammad and all these other people. And his point as these concepts already exist and beliefs that you may already have you don’t have to choose one or the other. They’re not mutually exclusive. And he I feel like he describes it in different ways that different members of the audience might be able to understand it and for me as a Jesus groupie his reference to the Holy Spirit resonates with me in terms of enlightenment. So that’s what you know, my goal Nirvana, enlightenment that I’m trying to get to is access to the Holy Spirit within me, and stay true to that rather than the ego of my human form.
And for some people, you know, who don’t follow Jesus there that you know, maybe something else will. I, you know, I don’t think I’m fooling myself. I have had these moments where I feel like I’m back there. I’m literally having this out of body experience. And when I say back there, because I feel like I consider, you know, the ego being the outer shell of my body, not necessarily just in physical form, but the, you know, the animal part of me, and and when I think about having my out of body experience or tapping into the Holy Spirit, I literally envision myself stepping back. You know what I mean?
And watching this other person that happens to be me having this human experience, and that’s what I think that’s one of the other things he says is, he describes us as the spirit having a human experience, you know, and I just, I don’t know for me, it. I really enjoy the kinds of visuals that he represents, and especially as it relates to how much emphasis he puts on connection of all of us, that we are all connected by one Spirit, one energy, you know, and it each one of us is just having a human experience of that energy. So I like that concept and and because I do believe that we are all connected, and I think it’s just not just in our own personal best interests to support that mission. But also for the greater good as well.
CP: So you got a little mystical on me there. And I’m not necessarily I don’t think that’s bad or unimportant because I think those pieces of life matter a lot, but in practical terms, because honestly, the reason I love meditation so much is because it’s practical, and it’s useful. So, you know, for our readers, who are lawyers and professionals, I mean, what are the practical things that his teachings have helped you, you know, do in your life, what are the practical benefits, and you can just list them if it’s easier.
TC: Well, you know, I think it just comes down to one general term. And, and it’s avoiding being reactive. You know, and I think that that’s part of the goal in meditation, as mindfulness is to be able to take that pause and be responsive instead of being reactive. And after reading his work several times and listening to it. I’ve gotten better and better at doing it both in my personal relationships work on LinkedIn in any situations where like, I can feel the fire of reactive, you know, bubbling up, but I’m able to step back and pause. And my personal method, like I said, is questioning you know, the reactivity that I want to deliver, questioning whether that’s my ego or my true self. So that’s, that that’s been how I’ve been able to adopt it. So
CP: Basically, my next question was going to be that, you know, I read the power of now and what other resources would you look to but it sounds to me that you maybe already answered that earlier when you said that interview with Oprah, to kind of go through that and listen to Eckhart talk about his book and what it means maybe in a more personable setting, since Oprah is a miracle worker in terms of her interviews.
TC: Yeah, it was phenomenal. And like I said, I don’t know if I would be such a fan had I not listened to that first because it made work so much more accessible. Okay, great. That’s a good tip. Definitely that one and for anybody who hasn’t read 10% Happier. You know, that was my introduction to mindfulness work, I think, but I really enjoyed that. He’s a good storyteller too.
CP: Well, on that note, I am a fan of Tara Brach and in 10% Happier Dan Harris actually is kind of critical of Tara Brach, too. And I referenced one of this on one of our earlier blog posts, but there’s a later interview of Tara Brach on Dan Harris’s podcast and they discuss that and they have a real nice conversation about how they both learn from that. So I definitely, I think for that reason, I’m probably like not wanting to go after Eckart Tolle and say bad things about him because like, I got really mad at Dan Harris. I was like “really?”
So I try I understand that there’s a lot of differences with respect to how people react to teachers, and that every teacher isn’t for everybody. So that’s kind of why I wanted to do this. So on that note, like if there is someone out there who finds a meditation teacher or reads a book or listens to some guided meditations or whatever, and they just don’t like the teacher, what would you tell them to do? If they were still interested in mindfulness?
TC: Keep looking. Absolutely keep looking. You know what, what I would analogize it to is food. We we all like different things. Just because you like fish and I don’t doesn’t make the fish bad. And you don’t stop eating. You keep searching for what works for you. And, I mean, personally, it’s been suggestions from friends and of course, my husband is also a certified meditation teacher, and he’s the one who first introduced me to Dan Harris and 10% Happier and he’s had a great practice for many years, but I would take suggestions from different people don’t hold it against them if you don’t like it.
I mean, Claire, you and I can still be friends even though you don’t understand how wonderful Eckhart is. He’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. But I think with the amazing amount of literature and people who are available in the mindfulness realm right now, you will find people that you love. It’s the same for yoga teachers with me. There’s, I love yoga, but if I don’t have a teacher, whose voice I like to hear, like if it’s cringy I’m gonna have a terrible practice the same with a meditation teacher, or if I don’t like the way that they are describing the poses or if they’re going too fast, whatever the case.
You know, I, I absolutely think it’s worth the effort to find someone that you like and you enjoy and it doesn’t have to be just one person you can find several. If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, have a mindfulness practice sooner. In fact, one of my goals is to start a yoga practice at my son’s middle school like once a week 10 minutes to start getting them familiar and use us to mindfulness at a younger age because, you know, I didn’t learn about it until I was in my 40s.
CP: Okay, so Talar I really appreciate you talking to me today and explaining some things that I may have missed with respect to Eckhart, so thank you very much. So just so people can find you. If people do want to find you, where should they look? You can find
TC: Find me most days at the LinkedIn coffee shop, which is just the platform but it’s kinda like a coffee shop, Talar Herculian Coursey. I also have a website, which is wwwtalaresq.com. And if you’re in Salt Lake City where I live, give me a shout just don’t be creepy and follow me home or anything like that. That’s where you can find me.
CP: All right, follow on LinkedIn. Do not follow home. All right, everyone. This is our interview blog with Talar and I really appreciate you taking a watch and checking out the blog. So I hope we’ll have some new stuff up next month including we might have a guest post from to Talar’s husband Bob so stay tuned for that. And we will see you later. Bye.
Most of the time, teachers instruct self-compassion separately from compassion for others. But as I wrote about it and thought about it more I realized something unexpected: they weren’t separate at all. This was kind of surprising to me, so I asked my teacher and the founder of the Compassion Education Alliance, Aly Waibel (full bio below), to clarify. Her answer was so good that I asked her for an interview so I could share it with you here.
Q. Self-compassion is fortunately getting more attention lately, but is it any different from compassion for everyone else? If so, can you explain how?
AW: Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to take action to relieve it. Compassion is relational and so always includes self and other, by definition. The suffering we’re aware of may be in ourselves or another, and the compassionate response or the desire to relieve the suffering is similar, regardless of who is suffering.
Self-compassion is a new term, and was originated by Kristin Neff as an antidote to self-esteem, which is based on social comparison. The self component of compassion is important to develop as many of us are inclined or conditioned to offer compassion to others and we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we are just as deserving of compassion as others, or forget to include ourselves in the circle of compassion.
Most of us have a negative critical voice in the head that is constantly narrating our experience with judgments, criticisms and preferences. This voice in the head can be like a bully or cruel tyrant. Self-compassion is a way to bring awareness to this negative self-talk in order to shift it toward more kindness. It helps connect us to our core values and strengths so we are more resourceful and available to others.
Q. So, why are we hearing about all these studies that say self-compassion is good for us? Why would we want to build self-compassion at all? Shouldn’t we just focus on building compassion overall?
The benefits of recognizing our common humanity and offering ourselves the kindness we’d offer a friend are many. However, it’s one component of the bigger process we call compassion. Compassion is relational and our concepts of self and other arise simultaneously. Any time we practice compassion for another, we are the primary beneficiary, and when we practice compassion for ourselves, others in our lives benefit.
Q. Are you saying that self-compassion and compassion for others aren’t in opposition to each other? Do they actually work together/help each other?
AW: They must go together, like two wheels of a bike. We can’t have one without the other. If we go too far into compassion for others we run the risk of becoming codependent and if we go too far into self-focused compassion we run the risk of becoming narcissistic or indulging in unhealthy self regard at the expense of others.
It’s all about balance. When I’m attending to my own needs, for example, I’m less of a burden on my loved ones. When I practice self-inquiry to question the thoughts I’m believing that cause my own stress, I feel more freedom and peace. And then I’m more aware and available to others who may need support or help. When I’m overly self-focused, I miss opportunities to help others. When I’m overly other-focused I run the risk of becoming burned out and then, again, less helpful to others. Most of us have experienced going through a really difficult time or life event and how offering compassion to someone else in the midst of that can feel really good. In other words, shifting focus away from me and my suffering to be there for you can support us both.
So the caution around self-compassion, for me, is that it may sound like it’s separate from compassion for others, or compassion in itself. Compassion is one process – it flows through individuals and helps each one who is involved — the giver and the receiver. Eventually, the distinction between the giver and the receiver of compassion becomes much less relevant. So regardless of where the suffering originates (in me or in you) the response to it is the same — an awareness of it and a willingness to relieve it, to reduce overall suffering in the system or in the world.
Q. Wait, if there is no dividing line between compassion for self and compassion for others, how do I protect myself and set appropriate boundaries?
AW: My experience is that with compassion practice, boundaries naturally arise. I don’t need to calculate, plan or think about boundaries as much. The ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ are more natural and intuitive and flow more naturally. There’s less obligation to say ‘yes’ and less guilt when ‘no’ is the answer.
Q. If compassion is a natural response for most humans, why do we need to do practices to cultivate it? What’s the best way to get started?
AW: It’s sort of like working out. If we’re fortunate enough to have healthy bodies, we can work out and build our muscles to become stronger, or not. The body is innate and what we choose to do with it, or how we train it, is a choice. Compassion is like a muscle we’re born with that we can build with practices (meditation and visualization practices), so when we’re confronted with suffering in and around us, the compassionate response and capacity to relieve the suffering will be more likely to arise. Similar to how athletes will visualize their race or the game before going out to the field, remembering or imagining moments of compassion in a visualization or meditation can have a similar effect on our performance out on the field of daily life.
Most of us are very caught up in thinking – thinking about the past, planning for the future, judging others or circumstances, comparing ourselves to others, etc. We can get so caught up in and distracted by our thinking that we miss the present moment. And compassion requires our presence.
Aly Waibel has taught mindfulness and compassion courses and workshops since 2012 and she is a Senior Certified Teacher of the Compassion Cultivation Training course developed at Stanford University. Aly received her PhD in Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona College of Education in 2015 and has served in nonprofit leadership roles since 2015. She is currently the Associate Executive Director of Professional Training and Operations at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. In 2021, Aly founded the nonprofit organization Compassion Education Alliance (CEA), a global collective that offers courses and support to compassion practitioners, educators and social change agents. She works closely with her fiancé, James Wood, author of Ten Paths to Freedom: Awakening Made Simple.
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.
If you went to see Thor: Love and Thunder last month, you probably spent less time focused on Thor’s discussion of meditation with genius scientist and lost love, Jane Foster. As the two discuss their past, they confided that they each had tried meditation to heal from their losses. Rather hilariously, Thor proclaimed that it didn’t work for him because it “just made him angrier.” It was a relatable quip that most people in the audience may have heard, laughed about, and moved on from to the rest of the movie.
When I heard it, though, the biggest “well actually” line of dialogue began streaming through my mind. Obviously, I had to restrain myself from announcing this in the theater, but that only made me think about it more later. Because Thor’s misconceptions about meditation and anger are likely shared by many of us mere mortals, I offer this imagined dialog with Thor. Not sure it’s truly a Socratic method but what we experienced in law school probably wasn’t either, so close enough.
Camera pans out to reveal a strange light in the sky. The light grows into a bright white circle. From it, emerges a woman never before seen in the movie and who does not rightfully belong in it. Thor stands back from the light and reaches for his weapons in alarm. When he sees it is just a woman who clearly has no martial arts training beyond the occasional Peloton shadow boxing class, he stands confused but at ease.
Thor: Who are you and what are you doing here?
Claire: Hey, Thor, I am a human from earth. You and Jane are doing a great job showing vulnerability to address some unresolved issues. I don’t want to derail that but you said something about meditation that isn’t quite right.
Thor: How did you get here? Did Gorr the God Butcher send you?
Claire: I have no idea but no, Gorr is clearly the bad guy here. If only he had learned how to hold his grief, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That’s why I am here to talk about meditation and anger.
Thor: You don’t appear to be one of Gorr’s monsters, but I’d really like to get back to talking to Jane.
Claire: We all want you to get back to talking with Jane, so I’ll get to the point. That thing you said about meditation just “making you angrier” it’s not really true.
Thor: Now I am concerned that you are Loki trying to trick me. Are you trying to tell me you know my experience better than I do?
Claire: Not at all. I also don’t know what kind of meditation you were doing. But, I’m guessing you tried to sit and focus on your breath or something? Did you try Headspace or 10% Happier?
Thor: I have an app called ZenGod. It’s specifically for gods but similar. Yes, I tried to focus on my breath, but I couldn’t because I just became filled with rage.
Claire: Got it. And yes, that is totally normal. It happens to the best of us. What did you do when the rage came up?
Thor: I immediately stopped meditating and went to kill monsters with my ax.
Claire: Did that help you feel less angry?
Thor: It felt pretty good to kill those monsters, but the feeling didn’t last.
Claire: That’s really good too. Not good that you felt that way, but that you noticed it.
Thor: What do you mean? How could it possibly be good that I noticed this?
Claire: Well, the reason we meditate is to notice what’s there. When we notice what’s there, over time that becomes wisdom and we are in a better position to know what to do about what’s there. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to let things be, but the wisdom is seeing this.
Thor: I am a god. I don’t “let things be.” I hit bad things with my ax and summon power from the universe to destroy them.
Claire: Well, how did that approach work for your anger?
Thor: It didn’t work at all and I can tell because I am getting very angry right now.
Claire: That’s okay. It’s perfect actually. There’s nothing wrong with anger. You have every right to be angry. You’ve lost a lot. You’ve taken on a lot for other people. Your anger has helped you to protect others several times. Can you just let it be there now?
Thor: It’s hard. I don’t like it. I am very powerful and it makes me nervous to feel like I can’t control it.
Claire: Excellent. You are doing so great. Anger does scare a lot of us because it makes us feel out of control. The more powerful we are the harder it can be because we are responsible for a lot and we don’t want to do something bad. But, remember, you are holding it now. What exactly does your anger feel like now?
Thor: Feel like? It’s anger. Why do I need to explain it?
Claire: Great job again. You are so good at this. You don’t need to explain it to me or anyone else. What I’m saying is to feel it. Where in your body do you feel the anger? What sensations are there that tell your brain you are angry?
Thor: My jaw is clenched. My hands are gripping my ax. My shoulders are tight. I feel like I am holding my breath. My neck and cheeks feel hot. I want to hit something.
Claire: Wonderful. You are doing great. All of those things are normal. That feeling of wanting to hit is energy. We may not like it, but the function of anger is to make it clear to us when something is wrong and motivate us to act. Because you are a superhero, your habit is to discharge angry energy by hitting things. That can be good sometimes, but it can also be good to just learn to hold it for the times when you aren’t fighting monsters.
Thor: So what do I do when I need to hold it? I still feel angry now.
Claire: The first thing is to do what you just did. Notice what’s there. Recognize it as anger. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. After that, the most common way to come back to neutral is to breathe.
Thor: Breathe? That’s so basic. I’m a superhero. Can’t you do better than that?
Claire: You are a god but you have enough human in you such that the breath is the way you can calm down the body. Think of your breath as the ax you use to fight the monster of anger? Does that help? When you focus on your breath, specifically the exhale, it sends a signal to the body that things are okay, that you’re safe. Try it out. Take a deep breath in, feeling what sensations happen as your lungs expand. Hold it for a moment. Then exhale and sense what it feels like to let go.
Thor: *Rolls eyes but tries breathing*
Claire: Let’s try that one more time. This time see if you can make that exhale just a beat longer than the inhale.
Thor: *Continues on and then opens eyes*
Claire: Great job. How was that?
Thor: It helped. I still feel a little angry but I no longer wish to hit anything. But, I’m confused. I thought I was supposed to be calm when I meditated. You told me to feel angry.
Claire: Excellent question. Meditation isn’t about just feeling calm. Many people do it to learn how to get calm or get back to it. But the real object of meditation is to learn to be present with whatever comes up. If that’s anger, then it’s practicing presence with anger. The reason this helps you get calm is that eventually you learn that when you are angry, you can just be angry and you don’t always have to act based on it.
Thor: But what if I screw it up when things are too much?
Claire: You are going to screw things up. Meditation doesn’t make you perfect. It just gives you a new tool to use. The next part is forgiving yourself but I think the rest of the movie is going to cover that, so I will let you and Jane be.
Thor: Movie? What?
Claire: Ummm, errr . . . I just mean that I know you will figure that one out. But, if not, feel free to DM me @BrilliantLegalMind and we can talk again. Good luck with Gorr!
Thor: Goodbye, strange woman from Earth!
A bright light emerges again in the sky and a white circle enshrouds Claire. Thor and Jane return to talking and Claire continues watching from her seat in the theater.
Don’t get me wrong, this post is not intended to tell you to meditation-splain to random people out in the world, particularly not if they are large superheroes with magical axes. But, if you have ever struggled with anger in meditation, at least you know you are in good company. Best of luck in your practice, fighting whatever monsters in life you have to fight, and I hope you enjoy the summer blockbuster movies as much as I have.
If you struggle with anger in meditation or otherwise, you aren’t alone. Check out this article I wrote for Above the Law which shared my experience with it and what helped me. If you have any strategies or practices that have helped you, leave us a comment to share your wisdom with others.
There is a lot going on in the world right now, but if you are a lawyer in the United States the term “a lot” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s not just that major and devastating events are happening. It’s that the conflict surrounding each event may call into question the legal system in which we work every day. Regardless of your political viewpoints on the events themselves, the turmoil surrounding our institutions of government, the authority of that government, and the scope of individual rights are likely to leave any lawyer questioning their work or role in the legal system. The term that keeps popping up in conversations, messages from lawyer friends, and my social media feed is “hopeless.”
While you may not have thought about it this way, hope is important to legal work. Clients put faith in us to handle their problems. In turn, we put our faith in the law, the legal system, and our own talents and processes to secure the best results we can. All of this turns on the idea of hope: that we have the power to do something good for someone else. But, when institutions change, appear to change, or are called into question by political events, hope can be hard to muster. This can drain energy, distract us from critical work, and in the extreme lead to conditions like rumination, anxiety, and depression.
So, what can lawyers do when they feel hopeless? It’s a hard problem and I don’t know that there is one perfect answer, but I have experienced this before myself. Here are the steps that have helped me.
1. Let yourself feel hopeless.
People ask me all the time how to “mitigate” or “deal with” emotions like sadness, anger, loss, or even hopelessness. My answer is always the same: let it be there. This is the hardest step and perhaps the hardest truth of life to accept, but feelings just need to be felt. Sometimes we may want to push them away or try to rush through them because we may fear that the feelings will last forever or that they signify more doom and gloom in the future. As we all know, though, all things are temporary, and we can’t really know the future until it comes. So, if you are feeling hopeless, let yourself feel hopeless. That means noticing what’s there, whether it is thoughts or physical sensations or moods. Don’t push yourself to feel hopeful or pretend that you are happy when you’re not. Just let yourself feel how you feel.
2. Treat yourself like a friend who experienced a loss
When you allow your feelings to be there, it may be obvious to you what you need next. Directly experiencing your own pain or emotions often gives you clues about what you need to address them. If not, though, your imagination can help. My experience of hopelessness is often very similar to any other kind of loss. The good news is that it tends not to last as long for me as something like being heartbroken, but it can feel similar. Thus, the best approach is to care for yourself the way you would care for any friend who has experienced a loss.
To do this, you’d ask them if there was anything you could do or anything they might need. Do this for yourself and give yourself what you need. If this is too much for you to do effectively on your own, connect with a friend or loved one and ask for help. Most of us wouldn’t try to handle a broken heart on our own, so don’t feel any obligation to deal with your own hopelessness by yourself.
3. Reconnect with positive things
After you have given yourself the time to feel and heal a bit, it can help to start reconnecting with positive things in your life. When you experience hopelessness, you may almost need to remind yourself that good things still exist. Let yourself experience those things as if they are totally new to you. Let yourself be surprised by how much even small things mean to you. Resist the urge, however, to jump to this step to push the negative feelings away with positive distractions. The point here isn’t to override or ignore how we feel, but instead to reconnect with the positive parts of our life as part of the healing process.
You may have to be intentional about this because, when bad things happen, we can sometimes feel guilty or even foolish for enjoying positive things. In truth, however, the nature of our human experience is that we can enjoy beauty in a world that is often harsh and find goodness even in dark times. We don’t have to rid the world of all darkness or ourselves of all dark emotions to earn the right to good things. We deserve good things and, as a practical matter, we need them more when life is hard. Reconnecting with positive things, whether we plan them specially for ourselves or just enjoy what’s there is our everyday lives, is a way to remind ourselves of this truth.
4. Draw inspiration from those who didn’t quit.
Once I have reached a certain level of equilibrium with bouts of hopelessness, it always helps me to remember the people who didn’t quit when they faced hopelessness. I intentionally wait to do this step until later in the process because it can easily turn into comparisons and self-judgment. After stabilizing my emotions, though, I find it inspirational to remember the people in my life or from history who must have faced hopelessness and continued in their struggle. This is a way of connecting with the idea of “common humanity” because it reminds me that it is normal and human for even the best people to experience hopelessness at times. It also helps me because it reminds me that there is value in doing good work even if success doesn’t happen every time or if circumstances derail your efforts.
5. Remember your values.
One of the hardest parts of hopelessness is that it can cause us to question our identities or our roles in the world. Hopelessness happens when our faith in something essential is shaken, so it can create all kinds of doubts about the work we do, the way we are living our lives, and the people with whom we spend our time. Doubt can be hard for us lawyers because we often look for certainty and solidity since we rely on those things as we advise clients and help them through difficult times. Yet, the truth is, that we don’t really need certainty or solidity; those things just make us feel more comfortable, safe, and supported.
So, what can we do when the world gives us a lot of reasons to doubt? The same thing we do when there are gray areas in the law: we trust ourselves and make a judgment call. When it comes to something like hope, this means we remember what we value and we try to live accordingly. World events may shake our faith in institutions and may make us worry about what the future may bring. That’s when our personal values matter the most because wise action may be even more essential in times of uncertainty. For this reason, reconnecting with our personal values may help us remember the ways that we can bring good into the world even during difficult circumstances.
Hopelessness is a difficult emotion to experience because it is something that can make us feel helpless, alienated, unmotivated, and alone. Though it can be a challenging emotion to face, each of us can learn to hold our own hopelessness in kindness. This will help us reconnect to ourselves, reevaluate our roles in our communities, and better understand the values we wish to bring into the world. Perhaps we may never recover the same hope we experienced before, but I don’t know that must do so in order to lead a good and happy life. Instead, it may be more effective to learn to let new forms of hope grow in us in each new phase of our lives.
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.
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.