Hello, My Name Is Lawyer – How Identity Is Wrapped Up In What We Do.

“First say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do.”  – Epictetus

“What do you do for a living?”  It’s a simple enough question; one we hear nearly every day.  We know what is meant by it.  It means what is your job, or what do you do to make money.  But the question creates a usage of the term “living” which assumes that doing a job or making money is the sum total of what is necessary to live.  Even in it’s frequently reduced form, “What do you do?” the question has a pretty huge assumption built into it – that what we do is who we are.  They might as well ask, “How shall identify you in my head?”  That I shall forever after think of you as: Lawyer.  The thing of it is, it’s not just the person asking the question who creates this equivalency – we all play along.  Rather than answering, “I practice law,” we usually just say, “I’m a lawyer.”  The ubiquity of the question and it’s automatic reply is a testament to the degree to which we identify ourselves by our chosen professions.

But isn’t there so much more to each of us?  Aren’t we also people, human beings?  Aren’t we mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and siblings?  Aren’t we also made up of the things we do when we are not practicing law?  For some of us, that might not amount to much more than being sleepers.  (If this is you, call me – we need to talk).  These questions lead to the deeper question of identity.  Identity is defined in the loosest terms as who we believe we are.  This can encompass how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, how we perceive others perceive us, and many other aspects of our thought processes combined with our experiences.

According to developmental psychology, from birth we begin to take in data about the world.  Somewhere around the age of 2 years old, we begin to form our notion of self (as distinguished from others) and start to apply the incoming data to ourselves.  Our identities continue to form through our primary relationships –usually our parents and siblings.  When a parent expresses love for a child, that love is incorporated into the child’s sense of self.  Conversely, if a parent does not express love, or expresses hate or dislike, the child incorporates that into its identity, usually one that is fundamentally lacking and unstable.  Through these processes we naturally become who we are.

Psychology calls what we commonly think of as identity, self-concept – the sum total of a person’s knowledge, understanding and beliefs about his or herself.  The self-concept is comprised of several components including the physical (our bodies, our senses), the psychological (our thoughts and feelings), and the social (our interaction with the world and people around us).  Included in the self-concept are subcategories such as self-awareness and self-esteem.

These abstract concepts most often manifest themselves in the form of categorizations, labels and internal and external precepts.  So, when someone asks, “What are you?” instead of saying, human being, we say lawyer.  This represents the mind’s natural tendency to distinguish.  An identity must by definition be different from others.  Being a lawyer implies a lot of things about a person.  It is prestigious, it implies intelligence, and it implies high socioeconomic status, among other desirable characteristics.  That is why many are motivated to become lawyers in the first place – a desire to possess those qualities.  Of course, anyone who has practiced law knows that those qualities can be partially or entirely lacking in lawyers just like in anyone else.  Nevertheless, in terms of labels to strive for, being a lawyer isn’t a bad one, Shakespeare and dead lawyer jokes notwithstanding.

But this becomes a problem is when a lawyer, or anyone for that matter, is subsumed by the label and becomes lost within the category.  When a person defines himself only as a lawyer, other critical elements such as human being, parent, friend, etc. get lost.  We probably all know someone like this.  Completely consumed by work, will do anything to get ahead, working one hundred hour weeks to the exclusion of everything else.  This also brings to mind the old saying, “if you don’t know who the fool in the room is, you’re it.”  Living in such a way is the basic mode of existence for many young lawyers, which explains the incredibly high burn out rate and the startlingly low levels of personal satisfaction.  But hey, at least you can call yourself a lawyer!  At first, that may be enough to get by.

It’s not healthy.  Surprise!  It’s not balanced.  Surprise again!  And it’s probably not the way most people would choose to live their lives if they knew what it would be like ahead of time.  Sadly, most don’t know.   Many of us were lured by romantic notions of Trials of the Century, billion dollar mergers, and Law & Order (or to date myself, LA Law).  We then got to find out what it’s really like, frequently unbalanced and often unhealthy.  Sure we can deny it for a while, while we rack up debts against our own health and mental stability.  And we can go for a long time before the lack of self-care catches up with us.  But eventually it does.  It always does.

And then it is up to us to fix it.  One way to start that process is to detach from the lawyer identity.  There is more to us than what we do.  Try to think back to the things we used to do when we measured time in months and years, rather than billable hours (or six minute increments thereof).  Remember the kinds of the things that made us laugh other than an adversary’s gaffe in Court or an inappropriate work e-mail.  What kind of things did we used to read before our Crackberries became our electronic leashes and primary sources of information?  Remember what life was like before the law?  It may be hard, but it’s in there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and reconnected with.  Those things are part of who we are too, even if we are still lawyers.

What is your identity?  How do you define yourself? Is being a lawyer (or any job) enough to define your identity?  Let me know your thoughts.

Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist.  His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Contact him at andy@bostonprofessionalscounseling.com or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com.

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I’m Not Saying You’re Crazy – How To Talk About Therapy

I’m Not Saying You’re Crazy – How To Talk About Therapy

“Where to look if you’ve lost your mind?” – Bernard Malamud, The Fixer

Recently, the question of how to refer someone to therapy has come up a lot.  The topic can be a difficult one to broach, especially with colleagues, co-workers and work friends.  On the one hand, you can clearly see that the person is having difficulty of some kind and is in distress.  On the other hand, you do not want to overstep your bounds, or worse, offend the person by suggesting that they should go to therapy.  For many that would be like calling someone crazy.  Only crazy people need therapy. I’m not crazy; ergo, I don’t need therapy.  Thank you very much.

Unfortunately, these sentiments arise out of the still pervasive and persistent stigma associated with mental health issues and treatment.  The stigma is based on a number of common misconceptions, the primary one being that therapy is for crazy people.  Leave aside for the moment that the term crazy is really meaningless.  The truth is that therapy is or can be for anyone.  It is for anyone who is struggling with stress or anxiety, anyone who is overtaxed at work, anyone who seeks resolution of feelings arising out of past events, or even anyone who just needs someone to talk to.  While we are still a long way away from actually publicizing seeking therapy, it is not something to be ashamed of.

Rather, seeking assistance is a clear strength.  It proves that a person has recognized his difficulty and taken affirmative action to address it.  How many people do you know who are in denial about their issues, who do not act, instead letting things pile up until they erupt in a self-destructive fury?  My guess is at least a few.  Those are people of whom you think: if they could just get their act together.  Well, going to therapy is the act of getting your act together.  It is to stridently emerge from denial to face difficulties and fears.

Therapy helps accomplish this by providing a framework for delving into the murky world of feelings, where emotions are typically thought of as bad and scary.  This is another common stigma-perpetuating misconception.   The reality is that emotions just are.  They exist.  We all have them.  Problems arise when we assign values of good or bad, positive or negative to them.  We are socialized to believe that an emotion like sadness is bad.  Therefore, we should not be having it, should get rid of it, and should certainly not talk about it for fear that the badness would make us appear bad to others.  However, sadness, like all emotions, is not bad.  It simply is.  It is our evolved response to external and internal stimuli.  Emotions help us to process all of the information around us that is constantly streaming in.  In the case of sadness, it can be an adaptive response to a loss, from which we can learn to do or think about things differently in the future.

Which brings us to another very large component of stigma – what other people think (or might think).  We have all been admonished by someone, usually our parents, “who cares what other people think?”  Well, we do.  We care.  Maybe too much, but we can’t really help it.  We tend to judge ourselves as compared to others, the flipside of that being that others are also judging us as they judge themselves.  That’s a lot of judging going on.  And none of it is particularly conducive to positive self-image or good mental health.  Still, if other people knew I was going to therapy, they might think less of me.  That maybe true.  But it is also true that we cannot control what other people think.  And we are often wrong about what others think because we tend to project what we think onto them.  Thus the underlying judgment is, I think less of me because I go to therapy.  Meanwhile, the other person could just as easily think I am a stronger, self-actualized person because of it.  Either way, what they think is up to them, not me.

So now we come full circle back to where we started – how to talk to someone about therapy, even though it comes wrapped up in all of these assumptions and negative connotations.   How can we strip the communication of the baggage and express our honest concern?

1.  Be honest, but not brutally.  These discussions usually start with a person coming to you for advice or to vent about something that is troubling them.  Either way, what they mostly want is to be heard.  A person feels heard when they believe that you understand what they are saying and where they are coming from.  The way to convey that is to reflect what they have said first before offering suggestions or solutions.  The therapist’s empathic standbys are “that sounds really difficult,” or “it sounds like you are having a very tough time of things.”  Now is not the time to opine or try to solve their problems.  Listening is all that is required.

2.  Be forthright, but not judgmental.  Sometimes people want your opinion and advice.  Sometimes.  If they ask, give it in a straightforward and gentle way.  Try to avoid judgment.  Avoid labeling things as good or bad, demonizing another person, or adhering to one particular side too strongly.  An honest opinion is still only an opinion.  You may give it, but the person need not take it.   Rather than judgmentally exclaim, “then why did you ask me?” try to be a model of acceptance.  Phrase ideas as suggestions rather than commands.  You might say, “have you ever thought about talking to someone?” or “I know someone who has experience with these issues.  He might be able to help you.  Would you be interested?”  You provide the option and the person then feels cared for rather than defective.

3.  Be caring, but not aggressive.  Most people do not like to be told what to do.  In order to maximize the impact of any suggestion, it is important to keep in mind how the person is likely to react.  If you make a suggestion of therapy sound like a command it will be met with defensiveness and potentially anger, both normal reactions to feeling judged.  In order to avoid that, speaking from a place of empathy can help.  Framing things as applicable to you first can reduce the sting suggesting therapy can often bring.  For example, “when I went through a similar situation, it really helped to talk about it with a professional.”  This normalizes the person’s feelings while de-stigmatizing the idea of therapy itself.

What do you think?  Have you had conversations like this with colleagues, and how did you handle them?  All suggestions are helpful.

Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist.  His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Contact him at andy@bostonprofessionalscounseling.com or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com

This Is The Lawyer Therapist

Starting Over – A Story of Professional Armageddon and Rebirth.

 “I’m back, baby!” – George Costanza

I’ve risen from the ashes of a career in law to discover work with passion and meaning.  Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?  I guess it is, kind of.  As I entered into my tenth year of law practice, my entire life seemed to be crumbling in ruins around me.  I had long ago surpassed the 10,000 hours required to become proficient in my field.  The excitement of being in court had worn off, and all that seemed to remain was the daily struggle of fighting with other lawyers, often times just for the sake of fighting.  I was not fulfilled and I was asking myself, “What is it all for?”  In the meantime, at home things were no better.  I had put work ahead of just about everything else, even my relationships with my wife and children.  And those too began to crumble.  In a matter of a few months, I found myself living alone in an apartment down the street from my family, mindlessly taking the train into Boston everyday for another day of jousting.  Something (everything) had to change.  And change I did.

I quit practicing law, went back to school and became a licensed therapist.  In the meantime, I stabilized, bettered and created new relationships and got my personal life in order.  Though summed up in a couple of lines here, it was a long and often painful process, but one that was ultimately enlightening and fulfilling.  There was a lot of asking questions, searching for answers, and lots of therapy.  To put it plainly, I had to put in the kind of work on myself that I had always only reserved for my career.  This was not something I ever thought I would have to do, and I certainly didn’t want to do it at first.  Indeed, I had always thought that work on my career was work on myself.  At some point during the process, however, I moved from trying to figure out what went wrong to what I needed to do to be right for me.  As I became learned about the human mind and its emotional systems, I began to understand things about myself in a different way.  I learned that I had been driven to succeed, not for myself, but by my need to please others.  This ultimately left me feeling empty even when I achieved success because it was never for me.  That was but one part of what was going on within my personal internal dynamic.

This process of discovery led me to the here and now where I finally feel like I am doing what I want to be doing, with whom I want, and for reasons that make sense to me.  This led me to Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, my therapy practice that addresses the unique needs of lawyers and professionals.  When I was going through my own existential crisis, I looked around and the resources were few.  The stigma associated with mental health was, and still is, great.  There was no way that I would seek help because that would be admitting weakness.  It was counter all of my training, my instincts for survival, not to mention being personally humiliating.  I could handle it.  Just stuff it and move onto the next thing.  Put out the next fire.  No problem here; denial in action.  I pretty much had myself convinced.  But people around me knew better.  When I finally allowed the truth in, I was greeted only by the damage I had done in my avoidance.   I had more to fix, not less.

Now, I want to make it easier for people to reach out and get help.  I am aware of the concerns that plague good people badly in need of it but afraid to ask.  I am aware of the stigma.  I am aware of the perceived danger of going to therapy – not just that there is something wrong with me (that is bad enough), but that I might be crazy.  Or worse, that my boss or colleagues will think that.  I am aware that a positive reputation is a fragile and hard-won thing that must be carefully managed and is easily damaged.  I am aware of all these things and have ways to handle them in a discreet and effective way.

I am also aware that we are often so tightly wound that the idea of pulling on the thread threatens to unravel the entire ball of yarn.  But sometimes we have to unravel the ball.  It is usually the best way to discover what lies within, at the core of things.  And that is where to begin to look for answers to longstanding questions.  Boston Professionals Counseling will help people do just that.

I’d love to hear from you.  What sort of things do you think lawyers need to work on?  Are there particular areas that are more problematic than others?