If the main rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” then the main rules of thriving emotionally in the field of law are “boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.” You can preserve your emotional and mental health by establishing firm boundaries early in the legal career. These boundaries will help you successfully navigate all of the ego-damaging obstacles along the way.
Some boundaries, like drawing the line about how late you are going to check that flashing BlackBerry on a Friday night, are obvious. Other boundaries are equally as crucial, but it’s slightly more difficult to recognize their importance when you are just starting out your legal career and are eager to advance. The determination to excel and the mental stamina required to climb the metaphorical legal ladder are very admirable. It takes a special kind of personality and strength of character to be willing to compete in the field replete with aggressiveness and power games. The legal discipline embodies survival of the fittest at its best.
To survive, developing the instinct of self-preservation is a must. In this case, we are talking about the preservation of a stable self-image, which leads to the preservation of the emotional and mental well-being.
The self-image of a young lawyer can get attacked from a myriad of directions: formal and informal reviews by senior colleagues, client comments, snide remarks from the aggressive opposing counsel, and even the exasperated unhappiness of the significant others over what they view as a case of workaholism. With so much harsh anxiety-producing criticism coming from every angle, it is natural to feel inadequate, as if you could never be good enough. The sense of self-worth and internal value starts shrinking in no time.
This is where setting firm boundaries comes in, as scary and non-doable as it may sound. Establishing boundaries is about setting your own limits; it is not about setting limits on another person. Only you can decide how you will be affected by the cut-throat culture around you.
I used to feel small when I got yelled at or made a mistake at work. My self-image was getting gradually decimated, and I was feeling good or bad about myself in tandem with what senior associates or partners thought of my work. Some days I felt like I was someone else’s punching bag. Then I realized I was letting other people be responsible for my worth.
It was only when I claimed back the power over my own self-esteem that my self-image became stable. When I made a mistake, I no longer shuddered at the thought that I was an inadequate or unworthy person. I saw it for what it was: a mistake. My boundaries protected me from taking every failure personally, so I could review a mistake, embrace it, apologize for it (instead of rationalizing it to save face) and learn from it. Besides, lots of times when we get mistreated or berated, it is not about us: the other person is simply having a bad day (month, year or career) and takes it out on whoever is around.
Knowing that your self-worth does not depend on your work performance is essential. Sometimes standing up for yourself to a chastising partner or an irate client is not an option. But not feeling small because you didn’t do a perfect job is. Besides, it is easier to excel at work when you have created an intact boundary. There is no need to spend time and energy on soothing a wounded ego. The boundary is in place to protect what is unconditionally and intrinsically valuable about you.
These protective boundaries will help you deal with the barrage of criticism from stressed-out senior colleagues, impatient clients or cut-throat opposing counsel that is bound to chip away at your self-esteem. You can stop feeling like someone’s punching bag. Figuring this out early in the career can protect your emotional health for decades to come.
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.