Today, the National Taskforce on Lawyer Well-Being is announcing the first annual Lawyer Well-Being Week which will be held May 4-8, 2020. This initiative is a joint effort of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Practice Division and its Attorney Well-Being Committee, and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program’s (CoLAP) Well-Being Committee. Principal of RB Consulting, Renee Branson is a proud member of the ABA Well-Being Committee and invites you to join her in being a lawyer well-being champion. Well-being is an institution-wide responsibility. Getting started can feel overwhelming, so we are here to help! Together, we can work to create a better environment for colleagues, clients, and organizations.
On the Lawyer Well-Being Week website, you’ll find more information and ideas for participating. To get your thinking started, here is a list of 46 Activity Ideas for getting involved. Once you decide how your organization will participate, please get in touch with Renee by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to us on our contact page. We will forward the information to the Lawyer Well-Being Week leaders who may highlight your planned activities on the Well-Being Champions page to promote your good work and give others ideas for participation. Finally, we’d be grateful if you would consider spreading the word and encouraging participation profession-wide. To do so, you’ll find a messaging toolkit on the website under the Awareness Messaging tab.
RB Consulting will be providing programming during the Week, so follow us on Twitter @resilientbounty and subscribe to our blog for articles, activities, and updates!
I wholeheartedly believe that tending to our well-being and cultivating resilience will lead to a happier life. However, “happiness” is not the goal. Sounds incongruent, doesn’t it? I know. Stick with me. If the measure of our success is only whether or not we feel happy, we are going to feel like failures fairly often. Achieving a steady state of happiness is chasing a myth. We are human beings with the capacity and need for a full range of emotions. Therefore, the goal of a well-being and resilience practice to be able to feel all of our emotions and know we are still ok.
When we identify difficult feelings as emotions to be conquered, we will spend a lot of time in battle. We don’t need to be at war with our emotions. Well-being comes from honoring our emotions. Here are some keys to understanding and accepting our harder feelings.
Stop to notice the emotion and how it feels in your body. Do you feel it in shoulders? Is there a knot in your stomach or a shortness of breath? Are there tears burning the back of your eyes? Sit with that feeling. If literally sitting with the feeling is too hard, walk around, get a mug of tea or some water. The key here is to not push the feeling away. If you feel tears, allow them to come. Your body deserves the release. Your emotions are signals. Listening to them helps avoid a crisis later on.
The unknown is scary. Unnamed emotion becomes the boogeyman under the bed. Unnamed emotion can leave us wondering if we are crazy. Naming it allows us to know how to care for the emotion. Is it sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy? Something else? Once you have named it, depersonalize it. Instead of saying, “I am anxious,” say, “This is anxiety.” This allows us to identify the emotion, but still keep a healthy distance from it. It doesn’t consume us.
Our hesitation about accepting difficult emotions comes from the fear that if we do, that feeling might decide to stay. We don’t want to put out a Welcome mat for an unwelcome visitor. But emotions are just that: visitors. “Good” or “bad,” they don’t stay. Emotions are not permanent. It can be helpful to imagine the emotion as a cloud. Receive your emotion knowing that it will pass like a cloud. While it is overhead, soothe yourself the way you would a friend. What loving kindness would you extend to a loved one who was experiencing hard emotions? Some self-compassionate words to use include:
- “This feels hard, but it won’t last”
- “I can handle feeling uncomfortable”
- “I can feel my feelings and be ok”
- “I am safe”
- “I am allowed to feel this way”
Once you have calmed yourself, return to your curiosity again. This time, allow your curiosity to extend beyond your internal experience. Investigate what triggered your emotion. Did it come from a work experience? Is something causing stress at home? Are you feeling unappreciated, disappointed, or judged? Can you recognize a pattern to the difficult emotion? If so, are there things you can do to disrupt that pattern? I learned that I was much more likely to experience frustration and shortened temper in the evenings if I didn’t allow myself to have a period of transition between work and home. Even just 15 minutes to myself in my room to listen to music, change clothes, or practice a short meditation helped me be able to approach the rest of the day more calmly.
Let It Go
Much like our reluctance to welcome our emotion, we also have a reluctance to give up trying to control them. Stay open and curious, but do not try to force the emotions in any one direction. It is similar to our expectation and reaction to physical pain. The most common reaction to impending physical pain is to tense up. It is our body trying to protect us and control our experience of pain. The irony, however, is that muscle tension actually makes the pain worse. That is why breathing, relaxation, and meditation are actually more effective for physical pain management. The same is true for emotional pain.
It truly is ok to not be ok sometimes. It is all within the realm of mental wellness. When we honor the full scope of our emotions, we strengthen our resilience.
Ten years ago, I was out of graduate school and beginning a career in counseling. I was eager to put to use my newly honed skills working with families and children who had experienced trauma. Ten years ago, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, devastating the entire island and killing 230,000 people. These two facts would converge in a way that allowed me to see first-hand the resilience of children and families in a way that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
In the days after the earthquake, I was glued to the news wishing I could help. Living in Boulder, Colorado at the time, it seemed unlikely that I could do much more than donate to the Red Cross. I belonged to several crisis response groups through Facebook and other social media networks. A week after the earthquake, I received a message. There was a group in Colorado organizing to rescue children from an orphanage, God’s Littlest Angels, that had been nearly destroyed in the earthquake. Many of the children were already in the process of being adopted by parents in the United States. This process can oftentimes be a lengthy, years long process. Adoptive parents in Colorado and the larger region knew that their children had been in an earthquake, had survived, and were in continued danger from aftershocks, lack of electricity or safe drinking water, and growing potential of disease and illness. These parents were working to petition the U.S. government to expedite their children’s visas and adoptions so they could bring them safely home. With airports closed to just about everyone except military and humanitarian relief, they also needed to figure out how to transport these children safely out of Haiti. This could take days or weeks, but however long it would take, these parents knew that they and their children would need the support of mental health professionals to ease that transition in the midst of crisis.
In crisis work, I have been trained to have a bag packed and be ready to leave on a moments notice. Still, responding to a crisis call for the first time was a jolt of adrenaline. I received the message to head to Miami to help with the care and transport of Haitian orphans on a cold morning, January 20, 2010; I was on a plane by 3:30pm. Upon arrival at the Miami International Airport, I walked through the terminal toward a waiting room full of expectant, adopting parents. The children in Haiti had yet to leave the orphanage and miles of red tape had yet to be untangled. I had the feeling that the next couple of days and nights would be sleepless for all of us. The parents set up camp in a waiting area set aside for them. They had photos of their children spread on the floor in front of them. Families who had never met before were sharing stories, crying, laughing, and praying together. The nervous apprehension was palpable in the room.
Along with another therapist, I spent time with parents answering questions. They wanted to know how this experience might impact their son or daughter. They wanted to know how to help soothe them and ease them into this dramatically new life. We explained to parents how it would be normal for their child to regress developmentally for a short time: toddlers might want bottles again, toilet trained children might need diapers again, preschoolers might want pacifiers–and we assured them that this was healthy and normal response. Mostly, however, we listened. We wiped tears and held hands. We sat with them as they prayed. We held safe space for them.
When we weren’t with the parents, we were setting up a room for the children when they arrived. Upon arrival, the children would wait in one room and their parents would wait in the room next door. Each family would proceed through the expedited visa process one family at a time. This means that even after what would be 36 hours of waiting in the airport for the children to safely arrive in the United States, it would take more than 12 more hours for the children to go through customs and then to process each family. In the children’s waiting room, we covered the floors with baby blankets and play mats. Each blanket had baby bottles of water, pacifiers, and soft toys to cuddle. The walls were lined with clean clothes, diapers, soap, washcloths, and snacks. My colleague and I had gathered volunteers to help us welcome the children and the orphanage staff who were traveling with them. We needed volunteers to hold babies and provide a safe space for scared children. Volunteers who were willing to sing songs, be silly, and play games. We also needed volunteers to give respite to exhausted and traumatized orphanage caregivers who had protected these children through unbelievable terror. We had airline reservation personnel to Dade County Police to airport restaurant workers giving time to sit with the children.
As I reflect on that time, I have to tell you I lose track of the hours. Deep in the airport, I couldn’t tell what time of day it was, let alone how long I had been awake. I was astonished at the strength and energy of the parents. They would take turns sleeping on the floor so that someone was always awake waiting for news. We finally received word that the children had made their way through customs and would be entering the waiting area with their caregivers. I still have a hard time putting into words my time with these survivors and heroes. I will never forget the nurse who was so exhausted she slid down the wall, still holding the sick infant she was caring for. It took a bit of time to convince her it was ok to let me hold the baby so she could go to the restroom, get some water, and eat some food. She sobbed when she handed me that sweet, tiny, feverish baby. She had made it.
As the hours went by, the room slowly emptied out. One of the greatest honors of my life was to carry these babies and walk these children over to their parents so they could take them in their arms. Ten years ago. I still follow most of these families on Facebook. I have watched them grow up and thrive. And I will continue to do so. They are indelible on my heart.
Earlier this year I was honored to be asked to join the board of SARA, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency here in Charlottesville, VA. As a board member, donor, survivor and as someone who has worked with survivors of sexual assault and trauma, I know the positive impact of SARA. SARA partners with the community to eliminate sexual violence and its impact by providing education, advocacy and support to men, women, and children.
This year, SARA is celebrating its 40th Anniversary. I envision a time when organizations like this won’t need to provide survivor services. That this hope I shared in the video below.
I used to have a hard time with optimism. That is a hard thing for someone who talks about resilience for a living to admit, but it is true. I would roll my eyes at the Pollyannas of the world. I have worked with survivors of trauma—and I am a survivor of trauma—so I know bad and unfair things happen. In those times, it felt hard to be optimistic. I eventually realized, however, that I was making a critical mistake: I was confusing optimism with cheerfulness. I believed that optimism meant that we had to deny the pain, worry, anger, or confusion that comes with crisis, challenge, and change. In other words, optimism was about putting on a happy face while the Lego Movie theme song, “Everything is Awesome,” played in a continuous loop until the pain was numbed.
Nope. That’s not how optimism works and thank goodness for that!
Here is the definition of optimism inspired by Dr. Martin Seligman which works regardless of our current emotional state: optimism is the belief that the current crisis or challenge is not permanent, pervasive, or (most of the time) even personal. As much as it feels like something will last forever, we can acknowledge that the present situation or emotion surrounding the situation is temporary. When it feels like the crisis is seeping into every part of life, we can identify its limitations. Even if it is just the smallest sliver of life that exists outside of our challenge, we can seek it out and stand in the warmth of it for a while. When it becomes all too easy to make the situation personal and we hear ourselves say, “Of course this is happening. Nothing ever goes my way,” we can look for evidence that the challenge or change is impersonal and independent of who we are. And, when it is personal, caused by our shortcoming or mistake, we can recognize that and empower ourselves to make amends and grow from the lesson. That, too, is a form of optimism.
What does this look like in practice? For me, it sometimes means that I can come home after a particularly trying day, when the weight of the world feels especially heavy, put on my yoga pants (which I have never worn to actually do yoga), sit on my couch and dive into a box of Chez-Its while I cry…and it still counts as optimism! Why? Because nothing in that definition of optimism requires me to feel any particular way. It allows me the space to show up however I am in the moment. Crying, fearful, worn-out, or angry. Optimism only requires me to understand that whatever I am going through and however I am feeling about it is temporary, limited, and impersonal.
One question still remains. Is there anything wrong with being a cheerful, sunny-side-of-the-street person? Well, it all depends on our level of authenticity (in fact, authenticity is the litmus test for most things as we navigate our emotional lives.) If our cheerfulness is a rose-colored denial of the realities around us, it is merely a mask we are wearing. When we have a skewed positivity bias (I call it the Pollyanna Syndrome), it can break down trust. Our family, friends, or colleagues question our ability to accurately assess a situation. Or worse yet, question our ability to be transparent and honest about the situation. Those masks take us right back to that place of inauthenticity that makes it hard for us to connect with others. And human connection is what we need most when things get hard.
Fortunately, there is a type of authentic cheerfulness in the face of adversity that is empowering. Author Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as “stubborn gladness.” It is inspired by the poem A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert (no relation) that proclaims,
We must risk delight….We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
It is an understanding that our human experience will include darkness and light, good and bad. It is not a denial of our situation or feelings, it is a hopefulness and a willingness to allow ourselves to risk delight. It is not necessarily bubbling happiness nor sparkling glee, but it is, as Elizabeth Gilbert said, fighting “my way back toward the light.”
It is hard to come up with a new and enticing way to introduce the importance of sleep. It feels a bit like telling someone to eat more vegetables. There isn’t a whole lot of new ground to cover. Everyone already knows the basics. Sleep, good. Veggies, good. People quickly respond with a “Yeah, yeah. I know I need more sleep. But who’s got time?”
But here is what I wonder: what if the very reason we are constantly running with our days filled to the brim is because we are not getting enough sleep? Our brains are not functioning at full capacity when we lack sleep and, thus, our daily tasks not only take longer, but are actually more challenging. Chronic lack of sleep (anything below 7-8 hours of sleep) has been found to result in:
- Problem solving challenges
- Auditory and visual processing delays
- Attention deficiets
These are only some of the impacts on the brain. Lack of sleep, however, affects every organ and system in the body. It is tied to obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. It impacts our ability to relate to those around us, making relationship challenges (both at work and at home) more likely. So, while we know that sleep is good for us, we might not fully appreciate just how bad lack of sleep is for us.
Trying to get more sleep might feel like trying to find the right time to leap from a spinning merry-go-round. Even once you do, you find yourself laying there with a spinning head. Here are a few tips to ease the transition:
No Blue-Light Zone
I would like to tell you to plug up your electronics in different room than your bedroom. Not only is it likely to keep our minds overly active and pulling us to work and other tasks, the blue light emitting from our devices inhibits the production of our natural melatonin making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you can’t make the break of having your devices in the room (full disclosure, I can’t either), turn the settings to low or use the blue light filter available on most devices.
Meditation used to be associated primarily with spiritual practices like Buddhism. This is no longer the case. Mindfulness meditation is shown to ease insomnia as it allows to mind to focus on the present without the distractions of the past or future. There are many options for guided meditation that can be beneficial for learning. Apps like Calm have specific sleep meditations that help to ease you to sleep through both mind and body relaxation techniques.
Focus on Rest, Not Sleep
Our brains tend to turn into stubborn, unruly toddlers when we try to tell it what to do. While it sounds counter-intuitive, don’t try to go to sleep. Instead, focus on the enjoyment of rest. Let go of the pressure of falling asleep. Make sure the temperature in your room is ideal for you (cooler rooms induce more restful sleep) and bedding is cozy. Darken the room as much as possible. Focus on the pleasure of finally laying down in a comfortable position. Listening to ambient noise (crickets chirping, a fan blowing, waves crashing) while breathing deeply allows the body to transition into a deep state of rest, then sleep.
It takes an average of two months before habits become automatic. Take the winter months of dark afternoons and quiet evenings to begin your sleep habit makeover. Making small changes to your sleep habits will show up in your overall well-being, physical health, and way you approach the world around.
Negative Nelly. Eeore. Danny Downer. We’ve all been that person before. Faced with a challenge, change or, sometimes, just a glum Wednesday, we find ourselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of negative or distorted thought patterns. Unchallenged, over time, those thought patterns can become habit. Telling yourself (or someone else) to snap out of it or think happy thoughts does little to reframe these negative patterns. There are ways, however, to disrupt those negative thinking patterns that work.
Name It To Tame It
Not all negative thoughts are the same, but they all come from cognitive distortions: ways that our mind convinces us of something that is not true. Being able to identify these common distortions is the first step in combating them.
The Chicken Little. There are few more anxiety provoking distortions than catastrophizing. We imagine an unfavorable outcome of a current or future situation and believe that an unfavorable outcome will result in disaster. We might get email from a boss that reads, “Please see me by the end of the day,” with no context and we are convinced we are about to be fired. In this situation, catastrophizing at its worse will cause us to begin acting as if the worst possible scenario has already happened. We might start boxing up the office in preparation for the imminent doom, or worse, fire off a defensive angry reply to the meeting request.
The Worry Wart. Rumination is a thought distortions that keep our wheels spinning without every making progress. In our overthinking, we imagine every possible outcome for every variation of a situation we are facing. While thinking through options and outcomes can be helpful and healthy, it becomes problematic when it disables our ability to make a decision. It is an attempt to game the system and control the uncontrollable. At the root of it, it comes from our reluctance to be vulnerable–to expose ourselves to risk or uncertainty. While we can minimize risk and uncertainty, we can never truly eliminated it.
The Perfectionist. Perfectionist thinking forces us to see only the flaws while ignoring the positives in a situation. What is not perfectly good, must be bad. Being a perfectionist is often lauded as a badge of honor as someone who pays close attention to detail and strives for excellence. In reality, perfectionist thinking harms both creativity and productivity because it freezes us in fear of making a mistake. Manifested differently, perfectionist thinking tricks the brain into thinking that no one else can be trusted to handle a task “the right way.” This distortion leads to resentment, overload, and fatigue.
The Defeatist. Overgeneralizing thought patterns can lead to feelings of self-defeat. Experiencing a setback, the defeatist thought pattern tricks us into believing that we will never get ahead or do anything right. The two favorite words of the overgeneralizing mind are “always” and “never.” “I always come in last/find a way to mess up/embarrass myself.” “I will never make partner/pay off my debt/impress my boss.” Defeatist thought patterns create a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Validate your feelings, challenge your thoughts. Wait a minute! Isn’t validating feelings giving into negativity? Not quite. Thought distortions come in a variety of packages, but at the root of it is fear. The discomfort caused by fear is real. The thoughts they produce, however, can be faulty. Acknowledging that you are feeling fearful gives space to understanding that a fearful mind can be playing tricks on you. Then you can challenge those thoughts by asking if that particular thought is helping me or hurting me?
Talk back to negativity. Once you have identified a thought distortion as harmful, you can talk back to it. When a thought distortion tricks you into saying “always” or “never,” restate your thought using “right now” or “today.” Acknowledge the difficulty of your current situation while also acknowledging that the current challenge is not permanent or pervasive. “Things are never easy for me” becomes “This job feels really challenging today.”
Change the scenery, literally. When we find ourselves ruminating or caught in catastrophic obsessive thought, the best thing we can do is get up and find a distraction. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, or chat with a friend. If you can’t physically change location, take five minutes to work on a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. When we find it hard to disrupt our mind, disrupting our body will help. Even a change in temperature or sensory experience from a short walk on a brisk day can shift a mindset.
Set a timer. For some, having an allotted time to give in to their worst thought patterns allows them to express their fears before moving on to more positive and rational thought. Setting a deadline is particularly helpful for overthinkers. If you know decision-making is torturous because of overthinking, start by giving yourself a designated amount of time to make the decision. Whether it is a 10 minute window for deciding where to have your critical business lunch or a one-week window for choosing whether or not to take a job offer, set the limit and stick to it.
Ground yourself. Not the kind of grounding you’d get when you came home past curfew, although sending yourself to your room can be good self-care. No, this kind of grounding is helpful for times when thought distortions trigger panic and anxiety. This is particularly common with catastrophic thinking. The fight or flight switch is triggered and our hearts race, our breathing gets rapid, and our ability to think clearly is all but gone. Grounding techniques work to slow our panic and bring us back to the present. Simple breathing techniques enable the parasympathetic system to lower our heart rate. Distraction techniques like naming everything in the room that is a certain color, or counting cars that pass the window for a minute can keep your mind from reeling.
It is important to remember that we are all susceptible to negative and distorted thoughts. Identifying what kind of thoughts we are experiencing and finding ways to talk ourselves down from them in the moment improve our ability to handle distress over time, creating new, more positive thought patterns.
This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Too often, the phrase mental illness conjures up the most stereotyped caricatures. The realities are much different. One in five adults will experience a mental illness each year. One in 25 adults will experience a serious mental illness each year. Knowing this, how do we embrace the labels of mental illness in ways that are inclusive and empowering instead of isolating and disenfranchising?
My kids and I enjoy going thrift shopping together. It’s either a good deal or a good laugh and as a mom of preteens to young adults, I take both of those whenever I can get them! Last week as we were digging for treasure, I came across a shirt with this brand label sewn in the collar: ANXIETY. I laughed and thought, “well, if that isn’t the truth.” How many people feel like their particular struggle–be it anxiety, depression, addiction, or any of the mental health challenges we might face over the course of a lifetime–is inescapably sewn into the fabric of who they are? It is the label we walk around with, fearing that our tag will pop out of the collar for all to see. So we work to keep it tucked in and buttoned up, scratchy as it may be against our necks.
Labels can be harmful, no doubt. People can see the label and then see nothing more. The label speaks to what we think we know, not necessarily what is actually true. We place our own preconceived judgments on what that label means in terms of its worthiness, quality, and dependability. The full truth resides beyond the label. For me to decide if I wanted that ANXIETY brand shirt hanging on the rack, I needed to look more closely. Did I like the way it looked on me? What was the fabric and how did it feel when I wore it? I needed to pick it up, try it on, and get to know it. The same, of course, is true about the people we encounter every day and the labels they might be wearing.
Are the labels we wear, however, always a detriment? In recent years, we have learned of the power of standing up (shaky knees and all) to say “me, too.” Showing our labels for others to see has a magical quality: it dissolves shame. Shame researcher, Brene Brown, says “shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” However, it thrives and breeds in secrecy.
Does that mean that we must shout our mental health status, biggest challenge, or most tender vulnerable experiences for all to see and hear? No (whew, thank goodness). Sharing our stories and labels is a privileged and sacred space. The choice to share, how to share, and with whom rests wholly in each person’s power. Vulnerability must include healthy boundaries.
During this week of Mental Illness Awareness, find ways to challenge how you have labeled yourself or others? What needs to be changed and expanded? What needs to be honored? We are all more than the label we wear.
“Owning your story.” It is a phrase often repeated by life coaches, consultants, and therapists like myself. It is a fundamental ingredient of what it takes to live an authentic life. But what does it really mean? What is our “story?”
We each have a running list of things that we believe, understand, have had happen to us, and have had happen because of us. They encompass our greatest feats, our scar-ridden failures, our tenderest joys, and our wrenching heartaches. From the breath-taking to the mundane those moments create our story. We have this totality of things that are parts of the story, but what gives the story meaning depends on the narrative framework we put around it. Is our story a tragedy or triumph? We get messages that tell us which parts of our story we should feel ashamed or proud of, what we should deny or promote, and what we should accept as true or untrue about ourselves.
We must quiet those messages and sit with self-aware vulnerability in order to view and accept the wholeness of our narrative. Then we can truly own it. Owning our story prevents it from being a weapon against us to shame or threaten us. It cannot be used to put us on a pedestal or hold us to unreasonable standards. Owning our stories means admitting our failures with grace and forgiveness. It means allowing ourselves to feel pride for the talents and gifts we have to share. Taking ownership of our stories also means sitting with the discomfort of our trauma, fears, and losses long enough to heal from our brokenness. Once our story is fully ours, we can more easily be our authentic, vulnerable selves with others.
Owning your story does not require you to share or expose every facet of your life with every person you encounter. Was that an audible sigh of relief that I just heard from the other side of the computer screen? Whew! Right? Here is another way to put it: Owning your story does not mean you owe anyone your story. Part of owning your story is maintaining healthy emotional boundaries around your story. It is loving your story enough to share it with those who have earned the right to hear all the chapters because they are in your corner. You needn’t prove your worthiness by showing your scars to those who haven’t earned the right. Your scars (or your trophies, for that matter) are not the price of admission to belonging. Your belonging and worthiness are unconditional wherever you are in the journey of your story.