Lawyers are better than most about learning from our mistakes, but sometimes, we need some guidance. We can become overly compassionate and end up with compassion fatigue, just like first responders.
Years of dealing with our clients’ loss, anger, and grief as well as the adversarial court system can result in attorney burnout and depression. In 2020, the situation became far worse: our normal safety nets disappeared, we were forced to isolate, people got sick and died at an unprecedented rate, the economy went into free fall, and we had to find new ways to practice law in the midst of a pandemic.
6 Lessons to Learn from 2020
We need to find and learn the lessons of 2020 and continue to grow if we want to be emotionally healthy and financially successful. Here are six of my key takeaways from an exceptionally challenging year.
1. Nothing lasts forever.
Just when we felt that the economy was flying and our country was doing better than ever, we were brought to our knees by COVID-19. Millions of businesses closed, the courts and litigants were hamstrung, the old ways of practicing law came to a screeching halt. Quite frankly (as one of my therapists used to say), if we weren’t stressed and depressed, we would be psychotic.
2. Success means more than money.
Sometimes we are tested not to find our weaknesses, but to find our strengths. My favorite definition of success was penned by Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children… to leave the world a better place… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
3. Happiness is a decision, not a result.
We all get to choose to be happy – or not – in spite of our circumstances.
The biggest myth of our times is that happiness will happen sometime in the future when our circumstances change. If you focus on your unhappiness, you will become increasingly unhappy. Politics, bank accounts, popularity, and accolades are great, but ultimately irrelevant to happiness. Good things come to those who are happy, not the other way around. If you want more clients, smile more. We all get to choose to be happy – or not – in spite of our circumstances.
4. Reach out and accept help.
For many lawyers, asking for help is a sign of weakness. For healthy people, it is a necessity. We are hard-wired for social connection. Isolation has been proven to cause mental and emotional health issues. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we have to pull together to find solutions. We need to look for ways we can help each other – whether it is community projects or group needs like advocating for our elders or something as simple as wearing a mask to protect others. Service is our highest calling.
5. Stop the self-sabotage.
We all want to love ourselves, but many people don’t know how to do so. We sabotage ourselves with erroneous defense mechanisms meant to keep us safe. Rejecting praise, not asking for help, pushing people away, not trying unless it will be perfect, procrastination, not meeting your needs by putting others first, and self-criticism didn’t improve anything. The year 2020 gave us the time to focus on ourselves and be grateful for what we had.
6. Be aware of your stress.
Many lawyers have been stressed for their entire careers. Some become addicted to it. Think about it: do you feel inexplicably anxious when everything is going well? Do you feel like there is a Damoclean sword hanging over your head even when life is good? We can become addicted to stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
When stress is not present, we can feel uneasy, bored, or restless. Some of my clients reported that they felt worse because they had nothing to do. They missed the stress – and the lack of stress felt like something was wrong. Go for a walk in nature, watch a sunrise/sunset, meditate, relax, get a massage. Don’t worry if it feels strange at first; practice makes perfect, even when you are practicing relaxation.
Lessons Learned from 2020
When we fail to learn the lesson, we are doomed to repeat it over and over.
Ultimately, we all can pat ourselves on the back by surviving 2020. If you did so and could be happy, then you are a Jedi Master. If you crashed and burned, welcome to the club.
When we experience setbacks but learn the lesson, it was worth it. When we fail to learn the lesson, we are doomed to repeat it over and over, which leads to more suffering and loss.
Try to look at life as simply a series of experiences intended to help us grow, love, and be happy. Let go of 2020, but keep the lessons you learned – because ignoring the lessons can end in tragedy.
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