You’re not a pot roast. Has anyone ever told you that? No? Well, let me be the first. It’s important to remember that you are not a pot roast. Now you might be thinking, “I’ve never been confused about being a pot roast. So why are you telling me this?” That’s a fair question. Allow me to explain.
There is an old story that is often used in psychology lectures to illustrate the power of habits. I am sure it has many versions — and hopefully others transcend the gender roles reflected in the one I learned, which goes something like this:
One evening a young mother and her daughter are making a pot roast dinner together. After they season the meat the mother cuts off the end of the pot roast, puts it in the pan, and slides it into the oven. The daughter asks why she always cuts off the end of the pot roast before cooking it. A bit stunned, the mother admits that she isn’t sure. It was just how she was taught to do it. So, to get some answers they call the girl’s grandmother. Her grandmother also seems taken aback by the question having never been asked it before and simply replies that this was how she was taught to cook a pot roast and had always done it that way. Finally, the girl calls her great-grandmother hoping for answers. “Great-grandma, why do you cut off the end of the pot roast before cooking it?” Without hesitating, her great-grandmother replies, “Because it doesn’t fit in the pan.”
Granted, none of us mistake ourselves for pot roasts but I guarantee that all of us are in the habit of doing things that no longer serve the purpose they once did. The old adage “this is how we’ve always done it” is a key indicator that the true purpose for a routine has been lost over time. Yet we all do this. What is familiar is comfortable. We repeat what is familiar even though the reason for why we started a particular habit or routine has ceased to remain applicable, the habit has become counterproductive, or our circumstances have changed to the extent that more productive alternatives have become available.
While familiar might be comfortable, familiar might also be a burden. When we stop and question why we adopt or maintain certain habits we give ourselves the opportunity to honestly assess the effectiveness of our routines. For lawyers, this can mean taking an honest look at how they get clients, how they manage their practice, how they interact with opposing counsel, or whether they expand their areas of practice (just to name a few). One way that I see continuing familiar routines affecting lawyers on a regular basis is in the domain of their well-being, particularly in terms of how lawyers manage their stress.
The stress that lawyers encounter comes from various sources and are too numerous to list here. Trust me when I say that from my vantage point as a psychologist who works with legal professionals, many of the stressors within the legal profession are unique. Given the fact that studying and practicing law are uniquely stressful, this creates a challenge for everyone entering the study and practice of law while hanging on tightly to previous stress management skills. The familiar coping skills that worked in high school and college might be completely inadequate for law school and the legal profession. Holding on to the maxim of “this is what I’ve always done” in response to your mounting stress is not only ineffective, it can be downright damaging. This is one reason why rates of depression are 4 times higher and rates of problematic drinking are 3 times higher than the general population.
Assuming it is safe to say that nothing in its original form will stay relevant forever, it’s also safe to say that your mental well-being requires coping skills that evolve and adjust to the changing stress landscape. Let me encourage you to take a few moments to assess your stress management techniques.
Ask yourself some tough questions: Are coping with your stress the same way you did prior to law school? Do you envision any problems continuing your current stress management techniques if your current stress level continues or worsens in the future? Would you recommend that a close friend or loved one emulate your stress coping skills?
Challenge yourself to depart from the familiar: Spend some time imagining how a more effective, albeit unfamiliar, coping technique might improve your well-being even if your current sources of stress do not change. Investigate a few stress management techniques that have some evidence of effectiveness (e.g., meditation, exercise, improved sleep, healthy diet, talking with a licensed therapist, learning from a mentor, etc.). Identify and access a new resource (e.g., your state’s lawyer assistance program, a therapist, a career coach, etc.).
Fight your internal resistance: Change is scary. It feels vulnerable to question why you do what you do and to try changing a longstanding pattern. Remind yourself that every positive change in your life (new friends, education, professional accomplishments, personal development) came as a result of changing your status quo. Change will not always go smoothly, but resilience is developed when you persist.
Shawn Healy. PhD
This post was updated October 24, 2018 and was originally printed in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly May 3, 2018.