“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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com.