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05/01/2015 - The Keys to Balance & Satisfaction in Work & Life

Originally published in the April / May 2015 Newsletter of the Manatee County Bar Association "Inter Alia"

Lawyers are consistently listed among the most stressed and unhappy professionals. They blame time pressures, difficult clients, unreasonable attorneys on the other side, even people in the office who seem to be making our jobs harder rather than helping. Yet some seem to handle it all and are happy, while others are not. What is the difference, and can we learn some new ways to approach all of this and still have a happy life? This article is a bit different from the usual, as it offers some insights into a better life, irrespective of the circumstances of our practices. We hope you will take the time to read it and be open to the ideas presented.

I asked my long-time friend, Judy Sedgeman, to collaborate on this article. At critical points in our lives we each learned something that "re-set" our thinking about why we got stressed, upset or "down," and how to get beyond those destructive states and find peace of mind, no matter what. Based on our experiences, we offer what we hope will provide some insights as to how and why we get stressed or upset, and a helpful understanding of the critical role we unwittingly play in creating those feelings.

Most of us "blame" our circumstances - whatever bothers us- for our stress and distress. We assume an external cause for the internal effects, and that leaves us in a dilemma. We cannot change the ebbs and flows of life, and we cannot change other people. So we do our best to adopt coping skills, or learn to work around our"issues," taking as a given that if you've got negative "stuff" in your life, you just have to deal with the pain. Like most people, until someone started pointing out the obvious, it never occurred to us to question our assumption that the circumstances of our lives create our feelings and reactions to them, and that we have no control over how that makes us feel. If that were the case, however, how could we explain these three clearly observable facts?
  • We don't always respond the same way to the same circumstances. One morning, our children, running around the house squealing, laughing and rough-housing appear annoying,intrusive and badly behaved and we snap at them, and our day starts badly. On a different morning, the exact same conduct not only does not bother us, we take delight in their happy play. The children haven't changed; what we see in them has changed.

  • The same circumstances don't elicit the same responses in others as they do in us. Simple example: Two friends go to a popular movie together. Coming out of the theater, one says,"That was such a light-hearted movie, a nice break from reality;I enjoyed it." The other says, "What a dumb waste of time, just a stupid, hackneyed plot." Each wonders what is "wrong" with the other that they were so mistaken about the movie.

  • Even when two people see circumstances the same way, overtime, they move away from them differently. For example: a client writes a harsh, nasty letter to a senior partner about the way two associates assigned to his case are handling things. Both get copies of the letter and are initially equally upset and angry.One steps back from it, looks for the grain of truth, has a heart to heart talk with the senior partner and calls the client to clear things up within a day or two. The other broods and ruminates about it,going over and over the unfairness of it, confides in friends about it,starts getting headaches, asks to be removed from the case, and avoids that client and his associate.
Clearly, there's an unacknowledged middleman between circumstances and our experience of them. That middleman is the power each of us has to think our own thoughts, and to take them more or less seriously,and to manage our own states of mind. Circumstances can't "make"us respond one way or the other; we think our way into our own reactions and responses. We create our own experiences and then take them as real and true because we aren't aware that we are the thinkers of our own ever-changing thoughts, navigating through life with our own ability to think, and think again if our thinking is taking us to an unpleasant place.

For both of us, that was a life-altering recognition because it acknowledged our personal power to see beyond any current distressing thinking / feeling and know that we could quiet down, allow those thoughts to pass, and get a fresh start on anything, no matter how bleak it seemed. It left us squarely in the driver's seat of our own lives. No one and nothing had the power to bring us down or lift us up; we could only do that for ourselves.

Knowing that empowers us to take a healthy energized approach to life and follow a simple set of ideals. Here is our formula:
  1. Understand Yourself and Others. For us, this is the starting point. Everyone has ups and downs; everyone gets caught up in anxious, negative, or stressful thinking sometimes; everyone has the innate resilience to get over it and return to equilibrium. When we notice our states of mind changing, we see how different the same situations can look, depending on how we are seeing life in that moment. When we're tired and we've been going over and over something in our minds, we tend to lose our creativity and compassion to crankiness and circular thinking. Low moods pass quickly if we see them for the temporary "thought storms" that they are, and don't get tangled up in them. Giving yourself some quiet time to allow your mind to settle, or getting a good night's rest, will restore your natural buoyancy. If you learn to say as little as possible in a low mood, and avoid taking personally what others say when they are obviously in a low mood, you develop the habit of compassion for yourself and others, and the ability to be at your best, and bring out the best in others.

  2. Don't Settle. There are so many things a person can do with a law degree. Keep exploring different options and do not settle for an area of practice or a career that you do not absolutely love. It may take a while to discover it, but persevere until you find what you really want to do. Don't give in to fear of change and fall prey to insecurity, as the path of life has lots of turns and bends in the road. When you keep your mind clear and your heart open, your own wisdom will guide you. People starting their careers today will probably work for more than 40 years. It is so important to do something that brings meaning to your life and a sense of purpose.

  3. Stay Fit, both physically and mentally. You cannot under estimate the importance of regular, consistent exercise. It is a great stress reliever and enables one to stay healthy, feel good and be on top of one's game. Make the time to work out every day. It is definitely worth it. Once exercise becomes a part of your life, it is just simply something you do as part of routine, like brushing your teeth.Your psychological well being is equally important. Remember to take time for rest and recreation. If you're stuck in a problem and not getting the answer you need, let it go for a little bit, clear your head, do something else and come back to it with fresh thoughts.Don't undervalue small interludes of quietude in a busy workday; just a few moments allowing your thoughts to drift and slow down,can make a huge difference in your enthusiasm and productivity.Much of our distress in life arises from pushing through even when we know we're not getting anywhere, rather than taking a moment and coming back refreshed.

  4. Be Kind. There is absolutely no reason not to be kind and considerate of your fellow workers. All too often, we have heard attorneys speaking harshly and with no consideration to their subordinates.Interestingly enough, we have never heard an associate speak in the same tone to a managing partner. We know better and we should do better. It makes for a much happier work environment and much happier employees who come to value constructive input offered in good will. In our businesses, we should lead by example.Kindness is a natural aspect of staying calm and "awake" in the present moment. In a calm state of mind and a secure feeling state,we are able to listen well and respond appropriately to others, even in trying situations. This doesn't mean being a wimp or a doormat;when someone is harsh, it reflects his or her own insecurity. There is strength in equanimity and good will, which foster trust, confidence in learning from mistakes, and truth-telling.

  5. Stay Current. Take courses, read, and be aware of what is going on around you and in the world. Keep up with what is going on so that your work skills are excellent and you can draw others into the satisfaction of being informed and knowledgeable. Curiosity and the capacity to enjoy lifelong learning are also natural aspects of a person leading a calm and balanced life. It is difficult to find time and energy to be interested in new things when it's all we can do to survive the stress of just getting through the work at hand. It is always surprising to people, when they discover the benefits of shedding stress and frenzy, how much time they seem to have.

  6. Balance. Cherish and maintain balance in life. Pay attention to your family and friends and take care of them. Be there when they need you and do what you can to help them. Take care of yourself and set aside time for yourself. Figure out a schedule for your life that works for you. Some people love to work on weekends and find it relaxing. Others do not. We each have to find the schedule that works for us. But we can only give what we have. If we allow ourselves to stumble into chronic stress, pressure and dissatisfaction,then we have nothing to share with our friends, family, colleagues and clients. Keeping yourself fit, in mind, body, and spirit, allows for a rich and fulfilling life.
Judith A. Sedgeman, EdD, is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University School of Medicine. Through Sedgeman Consulting LLC, she offers individual coaching, mentoring, facilitation of strategic thinking and leadership retreats, and mental health education. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, who received her MA degree from Trinity College, Hartford, CT, and her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from West Virginia University. You can learn more about her work at www.three-principles.com

Alexandra St. Paul, Esq. is a principal at Dye, Deitrich, Petruffand St. Paul, PL. She focuses her practice on estate planning, probate, trusts and trust administration. She received her JD from Loyola University and her BS in Economics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.