Not all lawyers are miserable. But I think it’s fair to say that we all know at least a jillion or so who are. At least.
And my guess is that since you’re reading this, you consider yourself to be a miserable attorney or are concerned that you’re headed in that direction.
I’ve totally been there. (And according to this Forbes article, we’re not alone.)
Not only have I been there, but I was less than satisfied by what my Internet searches yielded when looking for ways to ease my suffering that didn't involve drinking booze. Yes, I was somewhat curious about why I was so unhappy, but ultimately I was most interested in how to end the misery.
While I’m not claiming to provide any kind of cure-all or quick-fix here (this post is anything but quick -- buckle up), I am offering actionable, happiness-driven ideas you can implement today to start feeling a little less crappy.
Setting the bar high, aren’t I?
1. Express Gratitude Daily
I know you’ve probably heard this before and possibly even read my take on it. But I write about gratitude first because it has been scientifically proven to increase feelings of happiness, well-being, fulfillment or whatever-the-eff you wanna call it. For serious.
The easiest way to do this is to keep a gratitude journal. I know, I KNOW. A freaking journal. I’m not a huge fan myself except when it comes to my gratitude journal.
Each night before bed, I jot down at least five things for which I’m grateful. Can be trivial (the delicious watermelon I had with lunch) or of great magnitude (our baby being discharged from the NICU). It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you genuinely express your gratitude.
Caught without your journal? No excuses! Write a gratitude email to yourself. Make an entry in your smartphone (apparently there’s an app for that). Close your eyes and make a mental gratitude list on the spot.
For the insomniacs out there, create a never-ending list of items for which you’re grateful as you wait to drift off. I find it’s far more effective than counting proverbial sheep and better at calming me down when my monkey mind won’t cooperate with meditation.
Looking for the motherlode of gratitude-induced happiness?
Write a letter to someone for whom you are genuinely grateful.
Could be a mentor who believed in you. Or maybe a family member who is always there for you. Whomever it may be, write the letter and then read it to them in person. I’m not blowing smoke up your arse even a little. Remember, it’s science.
If that’s a little too intense for you, drop the letter in the mail. But the boost in good mojo won’t be nearly as profound as expressing your gratitude in person. Your call, chief.
2. Get In Sync With Your Values
Living in sync with your values is another way to increase your happiness.
That’s life coach bullshit-ese for figuring out what’s really important to you and living your life accordingly. And it’s far easier said than done.
Values can be this nebulous sort of thing, which is kind of good and kind of bad. Good in that they are unique to you and grow and change as you do. Bad because you may not know where to start when figuring out what your values are.
Regardless, getting clear on your values will help restore a sense of control in your life -- something that is uniformly missing among miserable attorneys.
I mean, can you list your top eight values right now?
I sure as shit couldn’t when I was an attorney headed for burnout. And if I had identified and prioritized my values earlier in my career, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in the legal field as long as I did.
Wanna figure out what your most closely held values are?
As a jumping off point, I’ve compiled a List of Values cheat sheet you can download here. Ideally, you’ll print this out and circle the words that resonate with you. Feel free to jot down any other words that strike your fancy, too. Go coconuts on this thing! Then meet me back here when you're done.
Welcome back! So I know I told you to have your way with the List of Values, but now I’m telling you to narrow down your list to no more than eight. Yes, seriously. (Remember how you couldn’t even name eight of your values a minute ago? Ha!)
Odds are that many of the words that resonated with you did so for similar reasons. Group those words together. Play around with possible associations. Think about why certain words jumped out at you. What does each word really mean to you?
There are no right or wrong answers.
Someone may group together the words exploration, adventure and discovery into a value of freedom. Another might put creativity, choice and uniqueness under the umbrella of freedom. While someone else might link those words to their value of authenticity. So go with your gut on this stuff. The important part is really nailing down what the words really mean to you.
Once you’ve identified your top eight-ish values, rank them in order of priority by thinking about what you absolutely could not live without (aside from food, shelter, etc.).
Then take a step back and see where you're honoring these values in your life and where you’re not. If you’re miserable, I can pretty much guarantee that your soul-sucking job is an area where you are not living in sync with your values. And if you’re like most attorneys, your job is virtually all-consuming.
Your entire life is disconnected from your values.
While that last statement may seem ultra depressing (perhaps because it is), know that identifying your highest held values is like seeing that light at the end of the misery tunnel getting closer and brighter. And as you start to align your lifestyle with your values, you'll leave more and more misery behind you.
3. Discover Your Strengths
One of the first things I have every client do is complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s quick, fun and provides me with valuable information on my clients’ individual strengths.
Why should you give a crap about your strengths?
Well, for starters it’s super helpful to know your natural affinities. And, of course, to understand which of your strengths are subordinate to others. (Your lowest ranked strengths aren’t viewed as weaknesses -- don’t go shame spiraling on me now…)
So when you’re faced with a problem, you can look for ways -- especially novel ways -- to employ your most powerful strengths and improve your odds for success.
Even better? Five of the VIA strengths are directly related to happiness:
- Capacity to love and be loved
And even if those five don’t rank particularly high among your strengths, YOU CAN WORK TO BOOST THEIR RATINGS. (Yes, that deserved all caps.)
Since I’m a life coach, I nerd out over things like this and take the VIA every few months to see the shift in my strengths. And I’ve found that working on improving a strength does indeed cause that strength to rank several spots higher. Crazy shit, right?
Tip: Gratitude is the most malleable of the strengths and is proven to increase feelings of happiness.
Have I mentioned that gratitude is a gateway drug to happiness? Just checking...
4. Confront Your Inner Critic
You’re probably familiar with the concept of an inner critic. It’s basically that voice (or voices -- most of us have a whole committee of critics) in your head that tells you you're not good enough, insists on unattainable perfection, stymies the pursuit of your loftiest goals and generally acts like an all-around jerkface when you least need it.
So what's an hypercritical attorney to do? Behold a three-step approach you can use to confront your harshest critic.
The first step is identifying the critical voice (or voices).
Personify this voice and give it a name and identity (I’ll tell you why in a minute). It can be male, female, archetypal, cartoonish -- whatever speaks to you.
My loudest critic is the voice of one of my blast-from-the-past bitchy classmates. To protect her anonymity and my integrity, we’ll just call her Regina. As in, Regina George of Mean Girls. Her whole persona applies to my critic (thanks, Tina Fey!).
Next step: acknowledge that bitch.
Why? Because as much as I hate to say it, she isn’t going anywhere. She’s hardwired into our prehistoric lizard brains. So it would be crazy for us to ignore her completely.
And yet totally sane to personify and talk to this voice in your head. I see the irony; just go with it.
Hey, Regina! Yes, I hear your snarky, hateful tone (“Oh, how ‘cute’; you’re a life coach now. Good for you.” ::eye roll:: ) and questions that are actually thinly veiled judgments (“Do you really think lawyers will hire a life coach?"). I feel your fear-fueled disapproval when I challenge the status quo. And I know you’re never going to leave me alone completely. Boo, you whore!
See how that works? I know it seems crazy, but don't knock it 'til you try it.
Finally, tell that bitch to shove it.
Our inner critic serves an evolutionary purpose by protecting us from the strange, new and different. Back when we were cave persons, this was a vital feature for our survival to make sure we didn’t eat an unfamiliar poisonous berry or whatever. Now, not so much.
And thus it is time to bid that inner buzzkill a fond farewell. Because you need negative self-talk like you need another b-hole.
Regina, I’ve heard every negative comment you’ve ever made. And I know you think you’re protecting me from failure, disappointment and virtual disaster. But most of the time, you’re just a petty skank who wishes she had the lady balls to do what I’ve done. So it’s time for you to retreat to your den of catty insecurity before someone pushes you in front of an oncoming bus.
Kinda fun, right?
And now when your inner critic starts mouthing off, you'll be able to identify the voice and disarm it as appropriate.
And no one has to know about "the voices".
5. Set Meaningful Goals
When’s the last time you set and worked toward a goal?
Maybe in law school when you just wanted to graduate. Or when you were vying for your first job. But how about since then?
Sure, you’ve got work deadlines. But usually you’re not the one setting those. They’re driven by a source other than yourself.
Outside your control.
While setting personal goals can sometimes feel like giving yourself more work or engaging in a futile exercise that will end in failure, it’s a great way to reintroduce a sense of control into your life. Having an entire project under your control can actually be empowering, especially since you spend most of your time working on cases or deals in piecemeal fashion.
How often are you left out of the loop on a project for which you previously believed you were an integral part? Or omitted from an important email. Contacted at the last minute with an unreasonable request. Ignored when you suggest an alternative solution. Way too often for someone as brilliant and capable as yourself.
You deserve to have a say.
And by setting a meaningful personal goal here and there, you get to have a say in your happiness.
6. Stop Comparing
This is a huge-y. You have got to stop comparing yourself to others. It’s a bona fide fast track to feeling like poo.
You end up feeling that way because you’ve got a full picture of your life complete with context, nuances and emotions that you’re comparing to your perception of a tiny sliver of someone else’s life.
Holding your complicated life story (as often narrated by your inner critic) next to someone else’s highlight reel (as so keenly edited on social media) will never end well.
The underlying issue here goes back to values and -- you guessed it -- gratitude.
How do you know that your values are aligned with those of the so-called Joneses?
You don't. And they're not.
And unless your highest held values are things like 'caring what other people think' and 'driving yourself insane', you stand to gain nothing but heartache by playing the comparison game.
So when you find yourself stalking and self-loathing on social media, here’s what I want you to do:
1. Log off all social media.
2. Write an extra entry in your gratitude journal.
3. Revisit or discover your highest held values as discussed earlier in this post.
4. Brainstorm ways of living that honor those values (Spending your precious little free time snooping on Facebook isn’t one of them.)
7. Just Breathe
Our bodies are so incredible. While they can be the cause and storehouse of stress (muscle tension, pain, weight issues), they can often provide us with an antidote. And breathing is probably the most obvious and least utilized remedy.
Of course, meditation is the gold standard of breathing exercises, but you don’t have to develop a formal meditation practice (something I’ve failed to do!) or become a yogi in order to reap the benefits of deep, deliberate breathing.
This is a huge one for me since my anxiety disorder manifests in chest tightening, throat clenching and breath-holding. It’s like my nervous system knows exactly how to get me to over-react in stressful situations: “Just cut off her air supply! The cortisol cascade will arrive momentarily!”
Obviously, my medication overrides this physical response for the most part, and I contribute to my well-being by exercising mindfulness over my breathing throughout the day. When I feel stressed, I’m teaching myself to first take several long, deep breaths to clear my head.
I mean, this stuff is so basic and impactful even Sesame Street is teaching it to kids. They have song called "Belly Breathe" sung by Common and Colbie Callet (and Elmo, of course) that reminds toddlers to stop themselves when they feel upset and take lots of slow belly breaths to calm down.
Dude. If little kids can do it, what's stopping you?
Belly breathing: so easy a lawyer can do it.
8. Move That Arse
We’ve all heard that 20 minutes of physical activity generates a boost in mood thanks, once again, to our amazing bodies and their intoxicating neurotransmitters. But even if you can’t fit in a full workout, moving your body for five to ten minutes can give your brain a break and your mood a much-needed boost.
So throw on a couple upbeat tunes on your iPod or Spotify (might I suggest Pharrel’s Happy?) and have a mini dance party. Or crank some party anthems in your car while singing and bouncing along. Now's not the time to give a shit if someone sees you. You've got suffering to alleviate!
If you’re into yoga, take a break to do a few sun salutations. Shut your office door if you have to. Put the phone on do-not-disturb. Turn off the sound on your computer and smartphone.
Get that chi flowing and those endorphins pumping.
Don’t let the idea that physical activity has to be a long and grueling endeavor. Yes, ideally you will get the regular exercise you need, but when you need a quick pick-me-up a little movement goes a long way.
You might even find that once you get started, you’ll take the extra ten minutes to round out the ideal 20 minutes. Because almost anything is better than returning to the prison that is your desk.
9. Learn to Celebrate
When things are going well, don’t minimize or gloss over them. Modesty has its place, but when you score a big win you’ve gotta bust out the bragasaurus rex. (Tactfully, of course, you don’t have to be a d-bag about it.)
What’s a bragasaurus rex, you say?
It’s that thing (Stefan from SNL, anyone?) where you get super excited about a major accomplishment and want to shout from the Jurassic Park mountaintop how great you feel. But the tranquilizer darts of fear of disappointment and fear of judgment take down your bragasaurus before he can gleefully squeal and stomp to his prehistoric heart’s content.
Crippling your bragasaurus doesn’t protect you from future disappointment or criticism.
It simply robs you of joy. Well-deserved joy, at that. Letting the old B-Rex out for a romp when warranted will even increase your happiness. No shit.
Because -- surprise, surprise -- celebrating your successes is a form of gratitude. Oh yes. By celebrating your accomplishments, you’re expressing how thankful you are for your success. Hence the bump in your happiness.
So the next time you land a new client, win a motion, pay off (one of) your student loans or any other noteworthy accomplishment that lights you up, release that exuberant bragasaurus and let him go bananas for a bit. The imagery of your goofy B-Rex alone should at least make you smile.
As I stated (read: covered my ass) at the beginning, these “remedies” are not quick-fixes. They require lots of introspection, brutal honesty and time -- the last item being the scarcest for most of us.
And let me be the first to acknowledge that digging yourself out of your lawyerly misery is nothing short of a herculean task; one that probably feels sisyphean at times.
But it is possible to end the misery.
Please use these tools (seriously, this post took me way too long to write -- at least humor me by trying one or two). Please. Start figuring out what it’s gonna take to get you happy. Like excited-to-get-out-of-bed-every-morning happy. And get it.
I hope you take that first baby step to feeling less shitty today.
Because you deserve to be happy.