We lawyers all know this monster, free floating anxiety and panic attacks. It stalks us minute to minute. In our cars, on the subway, at the supermarket, at the movies. It distracts us on date night. It puts up a wall between us and our kids, even when we’re “spending time” with them. It haurangues us on weekends and on vacation. In every moment it reminds us that we ought to be thinking about our next move, the brief or argument or deposition we’re working on, our investments, our kid’s school applications, our mortgage, taxes, divorce, disease. It’s just a part of life, especially for lawyers, but it’s a serious problem because it thwarts our ability to live in the moment and enjoy life to the fullest. It distracts us while the most important moments of life pass us by.
Why are Lawyers so Nervous?
Here we come up against the limits of my expertise, but I can tell you that in my own experience, I observe my anxiety coming from two sources: 1) a pathological lifelong desire to be perfect at everything I do; and 2) a sense of doom about the chaos inherent in the world and a desire to control that chaos. The first is pretty much endemic to any group of high achievers, whether lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists or concert pianists. The second is what we in the profession call “being lawyerly”.
There is an occupational benefit to “being lawyerly”. As a lawyer, your job is to look out for your client, find potential dangers all the way down the road, on either side, and even behind her. You need to be thinking 5, 10, 15 chess moves ahead, considering every possible permutation, every possible negative scenario, and be doing whatever you can to guard against, prevent or at least mitigate those risks. In short, you job is to maintain your client’s security, and the price of your client’s security is your insecurity.
The problem is that this professional posture almost always bleeds over into our everyday lives. The impulse to be “lawyerly” is so deeply ingrained in us from such an early age that we can’t help but be that way off the job, sometimes even more than we are on it. We get into the habit of imagining the world as a dangerous place fraught with peril and in need of our constant vigilance and studied caution lest we end up strung up by our toes. We become anxious about our finances and how Donald Trump’s discussion with the Ecuadorian defense minister on tennis shoes might cause the market to go up or down. About our kids and what deadly virus or predatory scheme might be lurking in the corners getting ready to pounce on them. About our spouses and their slightly too chummy relationship with that cute individual from accounts receivable that we met at last year’s holiday party. Being lawyerly, while a valuable skill for our jobs, infests every other area in our lives to such an extent as to literally drive us nuts (see, e.g. depression, drug abuse, heart failure).
What Being Lawyerly Means to Me
One of the reasons I stopped practicing law was that I was sick of being lawyerly. Literally. Constant lawyerliness was making me physically and mentally ill. I’ve always been vulnerable to depresssion, but being lawyerly caused it to flare up to such an extent that I was barely able to keep myself alive, much less live fully. I literally felt that life was a constant battle and death might be preferable.
Now that I’ve been out of the practice of law for quite some time, my outlook has improved tremendously, but I still find myself slipping back into my old lawyerly ways more often than I would like. For example, yesterday, I was looking at my stock portfolio, and I realized that I didn’t understand how to read it properly, and couldn’t figure out if an investment had made me money or not. I did not quite panic, but I became quite Obsessed with my portfolio. Were my investment strategies really working? Was the money really coming in? Was it just disappearing into the ether. What if I had to spend some of my savings? Would my investments replenish them quickly enough that I wouldn’t run out of money (as a small business owner, I rely on my investments to smooth out the gaps in monthly pay that most people with a regular salary don’t have to worry about). To make a long story short, I was on the phone with my brokerage at least five times for a total of two hours figuring this thing out. It turned out that I was making money regularly and my investments were doing fine, and I probably didn’t need to obsess. But I was being lawyerly, and I wasn’t going to let the issue go, or allow myself to think about anything else, until I was one hundred percent certain I understood every last aspect of how my portfolio functioned. (Did I mention I’m obsessive. Once I got a slide rule as a Hanukah present and spent a day and a half trying to reverse engineer the thing to figure out how it worked).
How I Flip the Switch
After years of trial and error, I have found that my anxiety cycle does have an “off” switch, but it’s not always easy to get to and engage. What I have found is that if I meditate and meditate well, I can get my mind to a place where I am at least comfortable with my thoughts. It’s not that I don’t have the same fears and concerns, but I can put my mind into a place where it lets them enter and leave Orderly, rather than gripping and holding them fast.
Exercise, I have found, is not as effective. Sure, it works while I’m in the gym, because it’s hard to think when you’re really pushing yourself physically. But I find that the moment I leave the gym, the worries come right back.
Re-wiring my Mind
Ultimately, even meditation and exercise are just palliatives. In order to really free myself of free floating anxiety and obsessive thoughts, I’m going to need to train my mind to stop being so lawyerly. I have not yet figured out how I am going to do this, although I’m trying to use the process of writing this blog, and the increase I hope it eventually generates, to work out a different way of thinking. How about you? Have you been able to dampen your lawyerly nature? What has worked? What has not? Please share in the comments.