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Getting Lost in Our Own Lives

Lawyers are especially adept at maintaining a façade. “Never let ‘em see ya sweat” is wonderful advice for entering into a tough mediation, negotiation, or lengthy trial. The problem arises when we take an adage like that to heart so strongly that we completely disconnect from our authentic internal experience.

Most lawyers we see at the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program who struggle with debilitating depression got there through decades of dishonoring, disconnecting from, or ignoring and pushing down their true internal emotional experience. How do we do this so effectively for so long? Part of the answer lies in something called the “False Self Syndrome.”

The False Self Syndrome

The term “false self” was originally identified and named by child psychologists who studied the socialization stages of children. We all have our default instinctual drives and desires. As children, for example, we do not want to share our toys, be potty trained, or eat with utensils. Yet society expects and demands these behaviors of us. We adapt because it is more important for us to have acceptance, love, approval, and affirmation from our caregivers than to firmly hold on to our toys (well, sometimes). We continue to adapt throughout life, adjusting and modifying our behavior to varying degrees in order to meet social norms and expectations. This process is a normal, natural one that helps to foster healthy ego development.

The False Self Syndrome, however, distorts this normal, healthy process. When the False Self Syndrome has taken effect in our young adult or even later adult years, we overly identify with the behaviors and image we have created. This process is an unconscious one we have learned by habit and conditioning because it rewards us handsomely at first: academically, emotionally, financially, and socially. The problem is that it eventually boomerangs on us. As we become increasingly preoccupied with the trappings of success and approval, such as looking good, always appearing to be on top of everything, and so forth, we concurrently abandon our “true selves” in the process. The true self can be thought of as our deeper, more eternal self— a self that is less reactive to life and less concerned with what other people think.

It is understandable that we might be trapped in the False Self Syndrome and its ensuing misery because most lawyers by nature are highly adept at adaptation by the time they reach law school. If not, law school surely is a boot camp that firmly establishes this unhealthy pattern in lawyers-in-training (a topic for another article). And finally, there are aspects of the legal profession itself that reinforce a false self in us.

Zealous Advocacy

Zealous advocacy is revered as the cornerstone of our profession. But no one in law school explains that we will be representing causes, conditions, institutions, or people that we disrespect, don’t like, or even despise. No one tells us or teaches us how to hold and manage that tension. We have to pocket those feelings and stuff them down, put on the false self persona, and march forward as a zealous advocate.

Instead of holding the tension, it is easier to act like we actually agree or support the position we represent. Of course we have to do that. We can’t go into court, a mediation, or a negotiation really in touch with feeling frustrated (or even disgusted) by our client’s position. We’d never be able to do our jobs if we did. So we split off from ourselves, disconnect the head from the heart, and go to battle. Over time, this suppression takes a big emotional toll on us if we are not consciously aware of what is happening. It can make a significant difference to simply be able to articulate—to ourselves or to a trusted friend—that we don’t agree with the position that, as a client’s attorney, we are required to advocate.

Always the Helper

Lawyers tend to be of a personality type that operates as a hero/rescuer. We solve other people’s problems. We take pride in that role. There is nothing wrong with it, except when we overly identify with it. We get into trouble when we don’t recognize that we need to hit the brakes. We get a lot of narcissistic perks for never saying no. We may get so identified with the rescuer role that we don’t—or can’t—admit to ourselves when we are in need of help. Feelings of vulnerability do not mesh with the view we have of ourselves as always being the helper.

Ignoring Boundaries

Speaking of never saying no…a career practicing law teaches us to ignore or abolish boundaries. We have been trained to devise strategic ways to overcome boundaries and to ignore limits. Our profession greatly rewards us for not having certain kinds of boundaries, and reinforces processes and patterns that disconnect us from our true self: always working late and on weekends, never firing a bad client, taking verbal abuse from senior partners—you can name others. These kinds of internal emotional boundaries, however, are really important for good mental health. We need to first recognize and then honor our own emotional and endurance limits. We also need to learn how to say no—to certain clients, to certain jobs or practice areas, and especially to our own internal voice that commands us to ignore what is really going on inside of us.

The Pressure of Confidentiality

As lawyers, we can’t talk about the moral complexities of the work we are doing, especially when we are zealously advocating for a position we do not personally support. We have no viable outlets for processing our emotional responses to our clients’ positions. So we ignore them, disconnect, and move on.

Success Can Be the Most Dangerous Trap

That success can reinforce the false self may be a bit counterintuitive, and yet it is probably the most important trap to understand. With constant success, we start to believe the persona is all there is. There is nothing deeper to connect to or hold us when things don’t go our way—we believe we really are in control, a master of the universe.

A few years ago there was a very successful lawyer who was famous for never losing a case. Then he lost a big case and committed suicide the next day. He had lost sight of the fact that sometimes we just get bad facts. This is a true story and may seem extreme, but it is illustrative of the idea that success can become one’s image of self. What happens if suddenly that success is not there? If we don’t have something deeper, more eternal, and more authentic to ground us, we can get lost in the false image.

There is something to be said about failing once in awhile. Failure connects us to a sense of humility and humanity. Humility and a sense of one’s own humanity are not traits that are valued in the legal profession, but they are essential for a rewarding quality of life and sustainable mental health.

Reconnecting with the True Self

We attain a major milestone when we recognize the inherent pitfalls of law practice and how the practice itself reinforces the false self. That recognition alone is often enough to help a lawyer struggling with depression and anxiety wake up to his or her true self. Reconnecting with our true self is very empowering. A world of choices opens up for us.

The encouraging news is that more lawyers than you might imagine have traveled this journey of awakening and have found deep fulfillment in a legal career established on a different, healthier, and more consciously awake footing. You can, too. n

This article was originally published in the ABA’s Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section’s TortSource, Summer 2015.

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