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Law and wellbeing: are they incompatible?

Having procrastinated over the title of this article for a fair amount of time I can tell you that life in the brain of a lawyer ain’t an easy one. It’s teeming with all sorts of stuff: a ton of perfectionism, a heap of compulsive overthinking and a pretty hefty dash of pedantry for good measure.

We lawyers tend to be those people at school who win (after secretly revising for) the spelling bees. We’re Monica from Friends in that episode in a class raising her arm in the air in response to the teacher’s question shouting “I know, I know, I know…”. We’re the overachievers who want to excel at everything we do.

Once we get that first initial ‘hit’ of approval from our caregivers, our teachers, it becomes addictive. We want more of it, more praise and more recognition. From an early age we tie our self-esteem to the externals in life – what does this person think of me, is this grade good enough etc.

Thus begins a life lived on a hamster wheel; forever seeking the next ‘success’ and the next challenge.

Naturally, we seek out a profession that provides those external markers of success we seek and which satisfies our need for intellectual stimulation. And law is the perfect vehicle into which to pour a strong work ethic and intense drive to achieve.

And the truth is that the legal profession rewards us for these traits. The pursuit of accuracy to the point of OCD is applauded, we’re rewarded with bonuses for meeting or exceeding our targets and we’re taught that every minute of our days can be monetised.

But we can’t switch the compulsive thinking off.

The Stakes are High

The message is that accuracy, nay perfection, is the gold standard. And when we stray from that standard (as inevitably we do as humans), our bodies and minds get invaded by a shedload of fear. We feel under attack, as if there’s someone ready to pounce on our mistake, whether it’s the client, your boss or a solicitor at another firm.

The truth is that that is often the case.

Expectations are high of lawyers and there are consequences to getting things wrong. The bottom-clenchingly awful moment in the Supreme Court prorogation case a few weeks ago when it was discovered that the court bundle was incorrectly numbered gave many of us a shiver down the spine and flashbacks to errors that that have kept us awake at night.

And while we can all talk the talk about the importance of boundaries, we all really know that there are still many offices out there where chronic overworking at the expense of your health is worn as a badge of honour and seen as a demonstration of ‘commitment’ to the clients.

This reality doesn’t sit easily alongside the current focus on wellness in the profession.

Indeed, you could argue that a profession with precision and meticulousness at its heart as law does is inherently bad for your emotional balance and wellbeing.

We need to be honest about these tensions, not deny that they exist.

To make real progress with these wellness initiatives we need leadership from the top.

We need our leaders in law to do what they say and say what they do. 

Because as humans we all learn by imitation. If we have a boss who thinks wellness is a ‘great idea for young lawyers’ but who works all hours him/herself, people will be likely to follow what the boss does not what he/she says, in an effort to progress up the ranks.

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Critical Voices

It’s not easy to detach a lawyer’s self-esteem from their job even slightly. Helping lawyers to dislodge their own internal Critical Parent voice is a tough old task. This voice is the natural bedfellow of impostor syndrome; telling you you’re not good enough and making you feel like a scared child. The problem for lawyers is that that voice is often amplified and supplemented by criticisms at work, be it from a scathing judge, an angry client or a stressed out boss taking his/her ire out on you. We file these criticisms away in our brains and bring them out now and again as evidence of our lack of worth and ability. This creates a skewed perspective which can be incredibly damaging over time.

Our urgent task is to help lawyers to develop their own individual internal barometers that tell them when ‘good enough’ is enough.  We have to help each other to try to shut off or at least temper that instinct to strive for excellence at all costs (the cost usually being our physical and mental health).

It may be that the culture of workaholism in law firms will never really change until promotions stop being linked inextricably to billable hours.We can talk about wellness all we want but if those external markers of success are achieved by working yourself to the bone then the need to look after yourself will not really hit home.

I spoke with a coach recently who works with law firms on improving culture. The first thing she does when she goes into a firm is to ask the senior management team whether it would be willing to let go of one of the top billing partners if it emerged that he/she and his/her working practices were having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of their juniors. If the management team say they would not then she will not work with them. I admire her resolve that if a firm was not willing to place staff wellness ahead of profits then they were not a firm she could work with.

We’ve got a long way to go to redress unhealthy work practices and to better protect our lawyers from excessive working, excessive productivity and excessive availability. I believe that this generation coming up is the one to restore balance to the practice of law. But if we are going to do it then we have to be unafraid to be honest about the current state of affairs.

 

“What the hell have you done to my hair?” and other awkward conversations

“HAIR IS EVERYTHING”

We all secretly knew this to be true but it took Fleabag for us to know we knew it.

Clearly it’s not the only lesson to take from that programme (the main one being that, if that’s what priests look like these days, we need to start going to church a bit more…) but it really stuck with me, not least cos of my own experiences.

I was reminded again last week during my bi-monthly trip to the hairdresser.

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Now, nothing strikes fear into my heart like a trip to the hairdresser. I monitor covertly every snip of the scissors and dab of colour as I masquerade as a person hugely interested in the latest copy of ‘Now!’ or New!’ or some other excitably named trashy publication.

There is some sense to my neuroticism as, let’s face it, the stakes are high at the hairdresser. One false move by the scissor-wielders and you’ll be wandering around with a peroxide blonde mullet for the next year (trust me, it happened to me in 2003 and that was not a good year).

There’s also the ‘big reveal’ element of it all. That wait is like the Strictly Come Dancing episode where they pair off the dancers. Except a lot less fun. And if haircuts were pro dancers, I’ve had more than my fair share of Antons and far too few Gorkas.

There’s also something particularly awkward about trying to have a discussion in those hair salon mirrors that highlight every blemish. And there’s a weird power dynamic involved with trying to negotiate with some uber-stylish millennial when you’ve turned up in your trackie bottoms with no make up on and hair that’s not been washed for the best part of a week (so you can get your money’s worth).

But it’s not just about the hair.

While your average hair salon is a crucible of awkward conversations, these bottom-clenchingly difficult interactions are something that we all have to deal with in life, in the hairdresser or not.

I know I’m not the only one who suffers from an aversion to it all. Women particularly suffer from it. We are taught from day 1 of our lives to seek social cohesion at all costs. This can result in us squashing any uncomfortable feelings that we think others might not like, sticking a big smile on our faces and overcompensating by being uber-nice. In the therapy world,we call this incongruence– when the face we show the world doesn’t match our insides. It’s not good for us and it’s not good for the other person involved. Because how will they ever learn what we do and don’t like if we don’t tell them?

Part of getting older for me is about acting in spite of my fear and having these bold conversations I’m scared to have. What I’ve noticed is that, if I sidestep these conversations, the universe will keep sending me similar scenarios, be it with a friend or family member I find challenging, an aggravating call centre assistant, the hairdresser or a boss, until I adjust my actions so they’re more in tune with how I actually feel.

Things I’ve found helpful for such times include:

  1. Talking about how YOU feel, not what THEY’VE doneg. “I feel disappointed, I feel uncomfortable, I feel anxious”. It’s harder for people to argue the toss over your feelings than it is over facts.
  2. Get your script in order– prepare sentences or phrases that you feel comfortable with before you go into situations you’re likely to find challenging. I don’t drink alcohol and, in the early days of being sober, I used to have a prepared stock phrase I’d tell those people who asked me about it. Having that prepared in advance made me feel more confident about those situations and if someone kept pressing me on it, I’d just repeat slightly different variations of it until they got bored.
  3. Check your body language– a very effective way of wielding power in the workplace is to either loom over someone shorter than you (think Donald Trump in the pre-US election debates with Hillary Clinton) or the opposite; to remain seated at your  comfortable desk while your acolyte hovers around you. So, when you’re feeling nervous in a conversation, check how you’re standing and what you’re doing with your body. If you can adjust your body language to become more open and less timid then it often has a massive knock on effect on how you feel and on what comes out of your mouth.
  4. Not everything has to be resolved right now– If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it hard to express yourself, ask for a bit more time. It’s actually quite rare that things absolutely have to be decided on the spot. And if you’re getting cloudy in your head then it’s absolutely OK to go for a walk round the corner, call a friend, do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of what’s important to you again before you have to re-enter the fray.

On that note, I had a bit of a breakthrough with my hairdresser this time. Having booked in for a cut and colour I was getting very ‘cloudy’ in my head about what colour I actually wanted. So I took a deep breath and said ‘“I’m not 100% sure which way to go on this. Let’s postpone for now and I’ll think about it further”. Such a little thing to the outside world but such a big thing to me.

And you know what? As I type this, there’s not a peroxide mullet in sight.

Thanks Fleabag.

 

Happy Birthday To Me!

So I’ve made it to the first anniversary of starting my own business and I’m chuffed as hell about it.

From starting out mildly terrified that I’d never get any work to getting to the point of having to turn work away, it’s been quite a journey. Here’s a few things that I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you

I’m a lawyer by background. What that means is that my natural tendency is to work, work, work and then, when the weekend comes, do a little bit more work besides. It also means that I’m inclined to judge my worth on the basis of productivity. I’m hard wired to bustle around like one of my kids’ wind-up toys until one day the batteries run out and the music slows down to that creepy drawn out whine (OK, so I don’t do the last bit. But I do go a bit wonky).

Even though I know this, I still find it excruciating when people (and by ‘people’ I mean my husband) ask me to slow down. It goes against the grain. It feels weird and uncomfortable to go easy on myself.

But I now understand that having spaces in the diary is precisely what’s needed to be a decent therapist. It’s during those spaces that the right-hand brain (the bit more inclined towards creativity and emotions) comes out to play (‘play’ being the operative word – various studies have shown how crucial it is for mental health and growth).

My job, more than anything else, is about encouraging clients to turn away from ‘fixity’ in their thinking about whatever situation has brought them to therapy and to inspire them to develop their curiosity and imagination about their lives. Trying to stimulate that mindset in clients while spending my own time in my logical business-sided brain just does not compute. It’s also a tad hypocritical.

So my own ‘homework’  has increasingly become to encourage my own creativity and inspiration to come out; I do this by being outside in nature, listening to different forms of music, being in my body in some way. None of this is about immersion in theory and books (although I do still love that bit as well – after all, you can take the girl out of law etc etc…). But my real homework these days is all about feeling and experiencing.

And for those of you who like measurable outcomes, all this messing about does lead to tangible progress. What I’ve realised is that those ‘peak moments’ or changes of heart, those realisations, breakthroughs and shifts that we all hope for arrive mostly when approached via the side door, in the gaps, in the silences, in the inbetweenness, when we’re feeling and experiencing. They don’t come around when we’re trying to force it using intellect and clever words.

  1. Trying to be all things to all people makes you just a bit beige

It’s a classic trend for those starting out in business isn’t it – to say ‘yes’ to everything and everyone. It’s borne out of good intentions but also fear. Fear of not having enough and fear of not being enough.

It’s also really hard to say no to people. Especially, I think, for women. Women seem to be particularly programmed to seek to create cohesion. As a natural people-pleaser, rescuer, fixer, whatever you want to call it, I’m no exception to this rule.

Left to my own devices, I could give myself sciatica bending over backwards in an effort to get you to like me.

But in recent years I’ve learnt better. I’m no longer everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (and I’m not sure I ever was really). And nor is everyone mine. And if I say yes to everyone then I become like a watered-down Green Tea (sorry Green Tea aficionados but it makes me want to vom) not a full-bodied English Breakfast. The more thinly spread I am, the less substance I have. And I want to have substance.

Becoming more discerning about what you take on is not about arrogance. It’s an acknowledgment that, when we have faith and put ourselves in the right situations, the work comes and it’s the right work and the right clients for you at that particular time. It’s a natural unforced process, a lot like those sessions I have sometimes with clients where it feels brilliantly effortless; like they are almost doing the work themselves, gently guided by me. While all sessions are rewarding, those are particularly so and I emerge feeling that I’ve learnt as much from the client as they have from me.

  1. No one likes an ending

British people, it seems to me, will literally do anything to avoid an ending. Endings in whatever form they may take are uncomfortable, they’re weird and frankly what’s the point of wasting time dwelling on them?

I get it.

During my therapeutic training, I was more sceptical than most about the amount of time I felt we  ‘wasted’ on talking about managing endings. To give you some context, I’m the sort of person who is up and out of her seat before the credits have even started rolling at the end of the film, leaving the other suckers to sit in those queues in the car park whingeing about the price of popcorn. And, speaking of cars, anyone who’s ever sat in one with me for any length of time will know that I’m an annoying ‘flicker’, switching from station to station before the song’s even finished. And (most embarrassingly) my relationship history used to be peppered with ‘overlaps’ with me seemingly unable to end one relationship before starting another, (something which, in these days of Brexit could be referred to as suitor ‘stockpiling’).

I used to do all I could do avoid endings. I’ve noticed that this is often the way with clients as well. The final sessions of therapy are often characterised by cancellations, illnesses and interruptions; various ways, consciously and unconsciously of avoiding the reality of an ending.

I don’t mean to sound critical (please see above for evidence that I have literally no leg to stand on). I just notice that tendency in us to avoid things that are uncomfortable.

What I now know is that when I allow myself to sit with the discomfort of bringing something to a close in my own life, whether it’s by having an awkward conversation, responding to an email or ending a relationship in some other way, I get a ‘clean’ feeling of something being brought to a close in a proper way. That’s very different to the murky emotional hangovers I used to experience where I knew, having not ended things ‘well’, that I’d feel slightly awkward if I ever bumped into that person in the street again.

I tend to agree with the Gestalt therapists on this (for whom life is seen as being all about patterns, with each ‘Gestalt’ or situation a type of circle to be completed), that it’s crucial psychologically not to leave ‘unfinished business’ in our relationships. If we do then it stops us from being able to focus on the here and now, as we’ve got too many loose ends to live fully in the present.

So, in summary, I’m a convert to the importance of endings. And so you’d think I’d have a good idea about how to end this blog. But I’m sorry, I’ve just had an idea for the next one so let me just write that down and I’ll finish this one later…

 

Developing resilience and why it’s not about becoming a ‘hard-a**’

 

“How can I learn to become more resilient?”

Clients often ask this in their first therapy session. They tell me that they find it hard to cope with setbacks and they set ‘achieving’ resilience as their ‘goal’ for therapy. It’s one of those buzz words like mindfulness that has been floating around for the past few years and many organisations and businesses have also cottoned on to this trend, offering training on how their staff can become more resilient.

But what does it actually mean to be resilient?

The dictionary describes it as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’ or ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’. This doesn’t sit right with me for a few reasons:

First, I think that applying the ‘bouncing back’ idea to humans and their pain (as I think many people do) is a mistake. I don’t think we do ‘bounce back’ to what we were after we go though suffering. It’s inevitable that we are changed by painful events. This is a good thing as our scars help us to develop more empathy and compassion for others when they suffer and we’re inclined to be less judgmental as a result of our own pain.

Second, the idea of resilience as meaning ‘toughness’ suggests being somehow immune or impervious to pain. Often, the people I see in the therapy room are on the more sensitive side. They encounter people in their lives who appear not to be buffeted around by the difficulties of life the way the rest of us mere mortals are and who seem not to feel pain to the same extent. Clients equate that persona with resilience and decide that that’s what they want to be like. Again, I think this is a mistake. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors for these seemingly thick-skinned types – the reality could be quite different to what we see and sometimes these people may be repressing their feelings or be emotionally avoidant. Regardless, when an emotionally open and demonstrative client tells me they want to embody that idea of what resilience looks like, it’s because they feel it’s shameful to be the person they are. They beat themselves up for ‘not being able to cope’ with life’s difficulties in a more socially acceptable way (i.e. behind closed doors). They tell me they want to become “less emotional” and “more self-contained”. This is basically just a way of denying who they are and trying to become someone else.

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Third, because of these out-dated ideas of resilience, the well-intentioned initiatives introduced by organisations aimed at ‘improving’ the resilience of the employees are apt for misinterpretation. These programmes can be seen by employees as an attempt to foist the ‘blame’ for any issues in the organisation onto them. The message they take is that it’s about their ‘problem’ and that they needed to learn to be ‘better’ rather than about the organisation addressing its wider structural issues.

A new dawn – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I think that more modern ideas about resilience have a lot to teach us. These new concepts focus on harnessing the power of being sensitive and ‘emotional’, rather than on repressing or denying such qualities.

ACT is a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that focuses, broadly speaking, on accepting difficult feelings (rather than trying to avoid or distract yourself from them), and continuing to move in the direction of your values anyway.

ACT defines resilience as:

‘coping with challenges or setbacks in a way that allows you to remain committed to living in accord with your own values’[1].

The difference between this definition and the old-school ideas is there’s no requirement that the person themselves ‘be’ a certain way i.e. that they be ‘unemotional’ during the process nor ‘bounce back’ to what they used to be, in order to be considered resilient.

There’s no rulebook as to how you have to be; it’s purely about plugging away at trying to live in line with your values, regardless of the (inevitable) setbacks along the way.

Values

So how are we supposed to know what our values are? And what’s the difference between values and goals? It’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. Donald Robertson’s brilliant book ‘Building Resilience’ suggests various ways of getting to the heart of what your values actually are, including the following:

  • Think in terms of qualities you show in your behaviour, rather than goalsg. to act with integrity, to behave in an honest manner etc.
  • Think about the various roles you have in your life and how you’d like to fulfil those roles in order to be doing them well e.g. to be a mum with strong boundaries but also compassion, to be a lawyer who is thorough in your work but without castigating yourself for mistakes.
  • Think about any intrinsically valuable activities you have in your life and what they show you about what you value. An extrinsically valuable activity would be playing a particular sport because of a goal e.g. to become a professional sportsperson. Intrinsically valuable activities are those we do just because we enjoy them – if I enjoy cookery, is it because I value peace and quiet and alone time, the art of creating something, entertaining and providing for others? These activities can give us clues about ourselves.
  • Envisage your own funeral (morbid I know) and what you’d like people to say about you and remember you for.

 

My experience is that the new ideas around resilience and the gentler, more accepting approach is actually more likely to stimulate more long-lasting change. The traditional CBT approach of directly challenging our thinking and working towards defined goals can be great but it can feel like walking a tightrope, where one false step in either direction could mean falling off the wagon and going right back to square one. For example, if someone is struggling with overeating, often they set their goal to lose a certain amount of weight and/or only eat certain ‘good’ foods. Then, if they don’t live up to the requirements they’ve set themselves, they feel demoralised and ashamed, sometimes leading them to abandon their goal entirely.

The new approach to building resilience is two pronged: 1) to work on accepting our current state and 2) continuing to move in the direction of our values (despite the inevitable setbacks along the way). I believe that, in doing so, we create the right conditions for a more gradual change with longevity rather than a ‘boom and bust’ approach.

It would be great if we could stop using terms like resilience as a way of haranguing ourselves for not being the person we thought we would be. What ACT shows us is that the way forward is about inclusivity and acceptance, rather than shaping ourselves to fit into old ideas about what stoicism is and should look like.

Strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive concepts and, if we can keep working towards self-acceptance alongside our other goals then, ironically, these are the conditions within which we are able to grow and change in a healthy way.

[1] Donald Robertson ‘Build Your Resilience’ 2012 pg 4

Comparing your ‘insides’ with everyone else’s ‘outsides’…when your days aren’t so merry and bright

Every so often you get those times when a certain phrase plays over and over in your head. For me at the moment it’s about comparing my ‘insides’ to other’s ‘outsides’.

It’s a well-known phrase in 12-step recovery groups, referring to the fact that, often in life (and particularly in the social media-dominated world we now live in) people present a glossy, heavily manicured version of who they actually are and what their life is actually like. Our big mistake is to buy into the idea that these representations are real, to compare them with how we ourselves feel inside and find ourselves lacking.

The challenge of Christmas

Christmas is a particularly dangerous time for this. It’s that time of year when advertisers ramp up the schmaltz with idyllic looking scenes and happy families surrounded by delicious food and alcohol. The problem with all of this is it stirs up feelings of inadequacy for so many who feel that their lives don’t fit into the image portrayed. It can also be an incredibly triggering time for those struggling with addictions or dependence on food and alcohol.

The focus on children and family also brings up painful feelings for many. Some are going through a relationship breakdown or marking a first Christmas without their kids with them. Others are struggling to have children and Christmas is a painful reminder that it hasn’t happened for them (yet).

I often see people in the run up to Christmas struggling with the enforced jollity of it all and the stereotypes of what Christmas ‘should’ look like. It’s no wonder when we’re fed the idea that families should be together, having a wonderful time, we should enjoy masses of food and alcohol and we should all be happy spending lots of money on expensive presents for each other.

That’s a whole lot of shoulds.

And it excludes those who, for example, choose not to spend Christmas with particular members of their family as a healthy act of self-preservation. Or those who have to be very careful around their food intake or who don’t drink alcohol.

Advent and reflection

The price we pay for being overly focused on the shiny happy side of life is that those who aren’t feeling so shiny are left feeling lonely and ‘different’. I think it’s a dangerous thing to try to airbrush unhappiness and pain out of existence, even at Christmas.

Coming at the end of the year, Christmas is inevitably a time of reflection on the previous 12 months, which includes thinking about pain and loss. Traditionally, Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar), was a period of waiting, preparation, silence and also mourning. That space for reflection on the darker side of life, providing an important contrast to the sparkly excess of Christmas, has been lost for many. But we really need it, particularly at this time of year. Our depleted bodies and minds will thank us for it.

If, on the other hand, we seek to deny that pain exists or try to brush it under the carpet because it’s Christmas and we ‘should’ all be happy, the pain only digs its claws in even more

What clients often tell me is that, when they’re going through difficult times, what they really need is for others to acknowledge their pain and give them the space to feel it without trying to fix it. As M. Scott Peck famously said: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”

So, if you are spending Christmas this year with someone who is struggling, probably the greatest gift you could give is to simply be there and listen.

Coping at Christmas

So, how do we find this space for reflection that we so need? Some tried and tested methods include:

  1. Decide in advance how many events a week you can handle over Christmas and stick to that limit (even if you feel guilty). It’s OK to say no.
  2. Similarly, don’t feel guilty about leaving any party when you need to. Plan your reasons for leaving, escape routes (i.e. transport home) in advance.
  3. If you are at a party when you’re feeling rubbish but you can’t leave for whatever reason, try to find a person who looks less comfortable than you and speak to them. By focusing on someone else, it takes the heat off yourself and you might start to feel less awkward as a result.
  4. Have at least one day or even half a day which is about what you want to do, be it a lone walk, a run, a pub lunch, a trip to the cinema.
  5. Keep regular ‘anchors’ in your week that help to keep you feeling good – a bit of routine keeps us grounded at Christmas. ‘Anchors’ can be exercise, recovery meetings, specific time set aside for reading and self-reflection, baths etc. Whatever makes you feel good.

And whatever you do, remember this. Most people (however shiny and happy they look) are probably having just as mixed a time as you are. So don’t believe the ‘outsides’.

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