The Resilient Lawyer – What Happens When We Are Not Intentional – About Becoming Resilient

In this COVID-19 world, being resilient is more important than ever.  Many people are facing increased demands at work and at home.  In addition to the increased demands, the lack of social connection and the limited ability to just get away from it all is having a negative impact on our mental health.  How are we supposed to deal with this all?  In my mind, I can hear the phrase that I am sure many of us have heard someone say to us when we were dealing with a difficult time: “Suck it up buttercup!”  As a matter of fact, I’m willing to bet that those words are the only thing that most of us have ever learned about becoming resilient.

What is resilience anyway?  According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, resilience is the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.  What immediately comes to mind for me when I think about this definition is an elastic – springing neatly back to its original form after being stretched and pulled into all kinds of shapes.   But, like most things, there are only so many acts of compressive stress that an elastic can recover from before it eventually breaks.

Humans, like elastics, are subject to repeated acts of compressive stress.  We have stresses at work.  We have stresses at home.  Bad things happen to us.  As a lawyer, which is known to be a particularly stressful profession, I have lost count of the number of repeated acts of compressive stress that I have endured simply in my job alone.  Did I miss a limitation period?  Did I miss a deadline to file something?  What happens for my client if I don’t win this trial?  Am I asking the right questions in this discovery?  What if my opinion to my client about this case is wrong?  I could go on and on.

In my early years as a lawyer, those acts of compressive stress didn’t really affect me, or so I thought.  Much like the elastic, I seemed to recover my size and regain my shape each time.  My recovery, however, was not because of any intentional act that I performed, rather it was by the old fashioned “suck it up buttercup” method.  Little did I know at the time that each act of compressive stress affected my ability to recover from the next one.  As the years wore on, each compressive stress seemed to become larger such that even the smallest of compressive stresses took on an enormous size.

Eventually, the compressive stresses added up to the point where every time I picked up a file, I was worried that something was going to go wrong, or that I had done something wrong.  Not only that, every time the phone rang, and every time that I received an email, a fax, or a letter, I assumed that the message in those communications would be that I had done something wrong.  Moreover, it began taking me longer and longer to recover from new incidents of compressive stress.  Unbeknownst to me, much like an elastic, I was getting to that point where I was going to break.

Thankfully, I had my “aha” moment before I reached that point.  One sunny summer day, at the ripe age of 49, sitting in my car in the parking garage at my office, I found myself not being able to open my car door.  I sat there, motionless, thinking that I will never make it to 70 if I didn’t take control of how I was experiencing my life.  Right then and there I vowed to take action – what action I did not know, but the decision to take action I knew was enough.  That decision allowed me to open the car door and head up to my office.

I can tell you that over the next two years, for the first time in my life, I became intentional about improving my resilience.  I read over 25 books, went to a psychologist, and started putting into practice what I learned.  Writing this today, I feel more resilient then ever and armed with the tools to keep me that way. 

In the coming weeks, months, and hopefully years, I will be writing more posts to pass on my own personal experiences and how I have learned to be resilient.  Why you ask?  Because if I can help just one person realize that it’s okay to talk about this subject, that it’s okay to get help, and that there is a path to becoming more resilient to deal with the compressive stresses, then I know I will have truly made a meaningful difference.

What will you do to improve your resilience?