Save Some Of That Care For Yourself
I want to ask you an important question, and I would like you to pause and think before answering it. I’m serious … don’t answer this question quickly… don’t give it a superficial, knee-jerk response. Instead, give the question some intentional, reflective thought. Here it is: How are you doing? Seriously, think about that question before you answer it. Deep down, how are you really doing? And please don’t say you’re “fine.” Because you know what “fine” means, right?
F.I.N.E. means: Fouled Up, Insecure, Narcissistic, and Egotistical.
Now, if your answer is that everything in your world is wonderful, I’m happy for you. But, if you, like many of us, answered that you’re not OK – that, you are stressed, tired, overwhelmed, fearful, uncertain, nervous, sad, worried, angry, or anything other than wonderful – I applaud you. I applaud your self-awareness, your honesty, and your courage in acknowledging that things aren’t OK. For some reason, that’s a very hard thing for lawyers to do. We are great at recognizing and dealing with other people’s problems, but we aren’t very good when it comes to introspection and self-examination. I believe that’s because we don’t like to acknowledge – to ourselves or others – that we are vulnerable. But acknowledging our struggles and our problems isn’t a sign of personal weakness. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of our humanity, and yes, contrary to popular belief, lawyers are, in fact, human.
When you look at everything that’s going on in our world right now, it is completely understandable why we would feel stressed, overwhelmed, and tired. In fact, it would be odd for us not to feel those ways. After a year-and-a-half, the pandemic looked like it was coming to an end. Vaccines rolled out. We put away our masks. We started gathering with our friends and going places again. Normalcy was returning – and that gave us hope. But then, the delta variant hit. And when it did, North Carolina saw a surge in COVID cases. COVID-related hospitalizations soared. And unfortunately, so did COVID-related deaths. This hit home – and hit home hard – when COVID took the life of our own David Freedman in September. David was one of the most talented, respected, and liked attorneys in the state. He was a devoted husband, father of four, and a close friend to many of us. David’s death, which happened despite his being vaccinated, has been painful and has left a tremendous void in our community.
Everything, All the Time
In addition to coping with profound losses, such as David’s death, we are dealing with other fallout from the pandemic. Some of us are facing financial strain and uncertainty. Many of us are worried about getting new cases. Others are worried about the safety and health of their children and loved ones. While our individual struggles may vary, there is one struggle that we all seem to be facing: All of us are suddenly being pulled in many different directions, seemingly all at the same time. Just as COVID surged, so have lawyers’ workloads. As trials resumed (sometimes with parties receiving little notice of an impending trial date), the pressures and demands on us have compounded. There’s a lot of work to be done and it all needs to happen NOW! On top of this, we are serving a public that is also stressed, angry, worn-out, and growing increasingly polarized and demanding. To put it plainly, while the practice of law has always been stressful, our collective stress levels are at an all-time high.
So, given these circumstances, it’s OK to not be OK. And recognizing that is important.
That being said, simply recognizing the problem won’t solve the problem. So, the question becomes: What can we do about it?
While we cannot control courts, judges, or our clients, we can control ourselves. And therein lies the answer. The most important thing we can do right now is take care of ourselves. This is something we must do. As they say during the pre-flight safety demonstration on airplanes: “Place the oxygen mask over your mouth and nose before assisting others.” The rule exists because if you run out of oxygen, you cannot help anyone else with their oxygen mask. Put more broadly, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anyone else. This is an important metaphor for lawyers, who devote so much of their time taking care of others. If we don’t take care of ourselves – if we repeatedly neglect or ignore ourselves (especially in these times) – we won’t be able to take care of anyone else, including our clients and, more important, our families and loved ones. While we often try to convince ourselves that we are supermen or superwomen and that we can do everything, the simple truth is we have a finite amount of energy. If we deplete ourselves of that energy – and do so for a prolonged period – we will exhaust ourselves. Our effectiveness, both personally and professionally, will plunge, and if we continue pushing forward and deplete ourselves further, our bodies, whether through illness or otherwise, will eventually shut down and force us to an abrupt stop. Once we reach that point, we will be completely ineffective and incapable of helping anyone.
We cannot afford to have that happen, especially now. So, we must take care of ourselves. We must do the preventative maintenance on ourselves that will allow us to continue effectively doing our jobs and taking care of our families.
Keep Promises To Yourself
So, how do we go about caring for ourselves? What sorts of things do we need to do? If we’re already stressed and spread too thin, isn’t adding more to our plates just going to make things worse? Don’t we need fewer things to do, not more.
The good news is the action we need to take isn’t overly complicated or time consuming.. It’s simple. But it’s important. Again, it’s preventative. So, rather than saying “I don’t have time for this,” I would encourage you to change your mindset to: “I don’t have the time not to do this” or “I cannot afford not to do this.” And here’s what I mean by that – by taking the time to do a few small things, you will actually create more time for yourself. The byproduct of these small actions will be significant. You will find yourself mentally fresher, calmer, and clearer. This, in turn, will make you more productive and efficient. It will take you less time and less effort to get things done. So, this small investment of time in preventative maintenance will yield more time – and less stress – for you in the long run.
For starters, I suggest that each of us to set aside some time daily for a healthy, non-work-related activity that will allow us to get into a “zone” where we can stop thinking about everything that we need to do. This can be something formal like mediation or yoga, or it can be cooking, sitting on a porch, reading a book, listening to music, or exercising. It doesn’t matter what the activity is so long as it quiets your mind. You don’t have to do this for long– 30 to 60 minutes is enough. Just make sure you engage in the activity long enough to give yourself a meaningful reprieve from the constant thinking and chatter that goes on in our heads about our work. Make this “personal time” sacred. Build it into your daily schedule. Put it on your calendar. And don’t compromise it. All too often, we sacrifice our personal time when pressing matters pop up. I’m not suggesting that you ignore the pressing matter, but I am suggesting that you fit these 30 minutes into your daily schedule so that you can better handle that pressing matter when it arises.
Also, try to find something each day that will make you laugh – and laugh hard. The old saying that “laughter is the best medicine” may sound a little quirky, but there is mounting medical research showing the benefits of laughter. This includes stress relief, better mood, and improved immunity. So, find something or someone who can give you a good laugh each day.
Next, make sure you find someone –a spouse, friend, pastor, mentor, or therapist– who you trust and can talk to openly about the pressure you’re under. I used to hesitate to discuss my struggles because I feared others would consider me weak or defective. But, to my surprise, when I started sharing how I truly felt with others, I realized I wasn’t alone and that many people felt the same way. More important, the sharing of my true self strengthened and deepened my relationship with others, and this, in turn, has made me a better, more empathetic lawyer.
Last, let’s keep in mind that our current situation (and our current problems) will pass. This is temporary. Things will not remain this way forever. We will come out of this pandemic. We are a resilient group. We are fighters. We are people of goodwill. We will persevere and we will be OK. But to do so, we must take care of ourselves.