Emotional health and self-esteem are inextricably linked. So let me ask you a simple question: Do you value yourself? Right now, right this moment. Is it different from how you felt about yourself yesterday or a month ago? Do you know who you are at your core? Does anyone or anything else define that for you (i.e., a senior colleague or your work performance)?
Our emotional well-being hinges on self-esteem – that sense of unmitigated self-worth and the ability to hold yourself in esteem regardless of how well you are fulfilling your roles of employee, law firm partner, spouse, parent, etc. Holding yourself in warm regard no matter how well you perform at work staves off depression and anxiety.
Is your self-esteem rooted in true “self” esteem? Or is it a yo-yo esteem based on how much better or worse than others you are doing at a particular moment?
Working in the legal field, giving all of yourself to the job and often spending long hours at the office pave the way for the professional identity to take over. It becomes all too easy to ignore true self-esteem. To make matters worse, a lawyer’s success is viewed through a double-whammy prism of cultural expectations and surviving the pressures of the law firm environment. Culturally, you “have made it” if you achieve financial success, as reflected by the material possessions, and hit all of the life milestones expected of you, including an accomplished career. Professionally, being a sharp, detail-oriented attorney, jousting for clients, prestigious assignments, partnership or status and one-upping in constant power plays with opposing counsel – those are the things that often make a successful lawyer.
Figuring out who you are outside of your professional identity while trying to do the “right thing” expected by the culture and the profession is no easy feat. Self-esteem based on one’s self-image as a hot-shot lawyer is often the only kind of esteem that stands out prominently.
How do you actually know whether your self-esteem is the real kind? Imagine that all of your roles, professional identity, job title, wealth, material possessions and work accomplishments have been stripped away. What’s left? Who are you?
The things that we hold on to for dear life can trick us into believing that we should be valued for how well we do. They become the foundation of our self-esteem. How we fare professionally, what law school we graduated from, what firms we have worked at, how much wealth we have accumulated over the years – all that gives us a false sense of power, leading to a self-esteem based on our outward achievements valued by the outward-focused society.
Socrates has famously said that an unexamined life is not worth living. An unexamined life, devoid of knowing who you are and of the ability to hold yourself in warm esteem regardless of the fleeting professional accomplishments or failures, leaves happiness vulnerable to the tribulations of life. Losing a job, a promotion, coveted partnership or life savings to an imprudent investment or a free-falling economy can always be stressful, but that doesn’t have to mean you are an unworthy person.
You matter because of who you are, not what you do. Maintaining self-worth and self-esteem in the face of losses and failures, big or small, is one of the key factors in warding off depression and anxiety. Life inevitably has its ups and downs. The more aware and emotionally healthy of us tend not to experience failure as a personal affront to their sense of self-worth. Neither do they think a triumph at work makes them a worthier person. You can too.
Guest blogger Dasha Tcherniakovskaia is getting her master’s degree in mental health counseling at Lesley University. She is changing careers after devoting 10+ years to corporate law. She has worked as a paralegal at a major financial institution and an associate at a large Boston law firm.