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Speaker's Corner: Why do lawyers insist upon torturing themselves?

Recently, a new client of mine described to me how he had spent more than four agonizing hours staring at our telephone number, debating whether or not he should call for help and support.

The stated rationale underpinning his deferral of relief centred upon his multipronged belief that, first, as a lawyer, he fixes problems and doesn’t have them and that if he does, he doesn’t share them with others.

Second, lawyers don’t show weakness, as he called it, but instead surmount it. Third, he’s ashamed of himself for being in his current state and imagines that others would judge him even more harshly than he judges himself.

Over the past few years in my work helping lawyers, judges, and law students in distress, I’ve observed a recurring phenomenon that, at a distance, has always seemed gratuitously self-abusive. Permit me to illustrate the point with an anecdote.

I once participated in a weeklong leadership retreat in which a group of successful individuals took part in various leadership activities. They included a ropes course on which participants confront their fears by climbing to ungodly heights and walking across thin ropes bound between impressively tall trees.

One of my co-participants, a business executive with a spectacular intellect and kind heart, was especially nervous about undertaking the task at hand. With the encouragement of the rest of us, many of whom felt just as terrified as she appeared to be, this lovely woman donned her harness, clipped into the belay, and began climbing the ladder leading to the top of the tree step by agonizing step.

Several rungs up, she froze. There she stood, unable to speak or move for six minutes, as her endlessly positive colleagues egged her on and showered her with praise and encouragement. Finally, she began to descend and upon reaching the safety of the ground, she retreated to a corner of the campgrounds where she could sit alone.

Everyone was impressed by her effort and didn’t for one moment judge her for her inability to do more than she was able to do in that moment. We were proud of her and hoped she was proud of herself.

She wasn’t. During our debriefing session the following day, we learned of the inner agony this event induced in her. After some cajoling, she opened up and told us of how, as a child, she would endeavour to protect her younger siblings from an abusive babysitter by drawing attention to herself. This led to her being hung, feet first, by this tormentor from the balcony of their high-rise apartment. It happened more than once. Heights not only terrified her throughout her life, they reminded her of childhood trauma she hadn’t recovered from no matter how professionally successful she had become.

This horrific story would be pain enough for any person. However, as she proceeded to tell us, the previous day when she descended from the tree and walked off to be on her own, she didn’t hear our congratulations or expressions of admiration. All she heard were internal voices of condemnation. These voices savaged her for being weak, not being able to overcome her traumatic history, and embarrassing herself in front of others. She judged herself mercilessly.

It was at that moment that I realized that people layer pain upon pain. They not only suffer with actual trauma or distress but they add to it an additional dose of self-judgment for having it in the first place. They judge themselves to be weak and worthy of scorn for not getting over what happened to them. I would later come to learn in my work with legal professionals that this phenomenon is even more acute among that cohort. As with the woman I described, my immediate reaction to clients who judge themselves for their own distress comes from compassion, not condemnation. But for many lawyers, the latter reaction predominates, at least as it relates to their view of themselves.

Suffering is part of the human condition. This may seem painfully trite to say, but in the legal community, we too often view having human vulnerabilities as a failing. We observe our colleagues who all seem so pulled together and assume, therefore, that our suffering is an anomaly in our community and that, as such, we have a particular weakness that we’re not skilled or resilient enough to overcome.

My experience confirms for me that lawyers, despite protests to the contrary, are, in fact, human and that those who are able to accept their humanness live much more balanced lives. Whatever life throws at you, allowing yourself to feel and process the feelings that accompany those hardships helps you cope with and ultimately get past them. Resisting human frailties, on the other hand, leads to self-loathing and anxiety.

And yet over and over again, I observe legal professionals avoiding asking for help and instead they carry their pain alone while devolving into a morass of self-judgment and ever more agonizing distress. It’s unnecessary. Help for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety or for addictions such as alcoholism is readily available and demonstrably effective.

Diabetics wouldn’t judge themselves as weak for having to take insulin. They manage their disease. Yet these other conditions are easier to write off as character flaws. You don’t manage a character flaw; you correct it.

Lawyers who struggle with these conditions don’t need correction. In addition to treatment, they need compassion, empathy, and kindness. And they need those things from themselves first. If you won’t be kind to yourself, who will?

So for those who find themselves staring at the telephone number of a helping resource, whether it’s a friend, doctor, psychotherapist or lawyer assistance program, put down the mallet you’ve been hitting yourself over the head with and pick up the phone. Extending your suffering isn’t noble or moral; it’s simply prolonging the time it takes for you to recover. And rest assured that with help, you will recover.

Doron Gold is a case manager at the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program. He’s a registered social worker and former practising lawyer.

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