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Attorneys, Life Events and Stress: Causes and Palliatives

published October 15, 2003

Jamie Barnes
( 106 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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<<Highly motivated and achievement-oriented attorneys typically fail to recognize stress for what it is. Pumped with self confidence, they greet each new day optimistically. But stress exists. It is the uninvited guest often sitting unnoticed in the corner. The purpose of this article is to point out some of the stressful events that can affect any attorney's life. The goal is to give you a better understanding of how stress has the power to influence everything you and your compatriots do.

Stress attacks one's mental equilibrium as well as one's physical self. It is worth noting that stress can be caused by sameness as well as by change. Sameness is stressful because it can be seen as a jail of the mind in which no Change, on the other hand, requires the forming of new patterns and reactions, thereby threatening the comfortable sameness and predictability of routines. Change in almost any aspect of your environment will require you to alter your normal responses, and there will always be a part of you that resents such an imposition.


Built into all of this is the notion of happiness here on earth and how it can be achieved. Earthly happiness is a relatively recent invention. Religions such as Christianity and Islam promise happiness only beyond the grave, implying that lasting happiness is not available here on earth, that a Platonian ideal life exists outside and beyond ordinary existence. Part of the enduring popularity of religion can be traced to its offer of future happiness to individuals who find their lives brutish, sad and ultimately meaningless.

In the past 100 years or less, the concept of 'Happiness' has been moved from the spiritual realm and placed in an earthly context. Generally speaking, the political and academic left believe that happiness rests within systems of thought and behavior and is not necessarily within the purview of individual control: one must change the system and the individual's response to the system to achieve happiness for everyone. A competing view, prevalent among theorists on the right, states that happiness is an individual matter negotiated by the individual with his or her environment and is the individual's responsibility. This article adopts the more conservative interpretation and thus will ignore the inherent problems of systems and deal only with individual life events and how they impact the individual attorney's sense of well-being. We'll start with work itself.

A New Job
You may join a law firm right out of law school and stay with it until you retire or die, but the likelihood is that you will change jobs at least once and probably more. In doing so, you place yourself at risk. Even if you are giddy with the prospect of a raise and new challenges, part of you recognizes that you might run into a powerful partner who doesn't like you, co-attorneys who undermine you, and a support staff which keeps information from you. Until you learn to be comfortable in your new environment, you will be operating under a high degree of stress.

Marriage
Again, you may be giddy with the prospect of a happy ever-after life with some one who is a combination of best friend, lover and soul mate; but you run the risk that your significant other may change once the wedding ceremony is over, and not change for the better. There is sickness as well as health in your future when you tie your life to another. You will have to learn to take some one else's wishes into consideration and moderate or give up certain habits. You will exchange considerable personal freedom and autonomy for the enduring pleasure of companionship, love and emotional support from another. The stress inherent in any such arrangement is the fear of rupture and the need to begin the mate-seeking process again.

The Birth of Children
We may be fortunate enough to be supported by parents until we're through high school. Eventually, we take a spouse and stop our parental dependency although we may continue to seek their love and approval. Children raise the stakes considerably. One can divorce one's spouse but divorcing one's children is usually not an option. They are at minimum an 18-year if not a life-time commitment. For middle class parents, children can become progressively expensive the older they get. In addition, they continue to change as they mature, and each change requires adjustment on the part of parents and between parents. For high achievers who invest almost their total being into their work, attending a child's soccer game, for instance, is a no-win situation. Go to the game and you miss work. Miss the game and disappoint your child. Either way, you experience stress.

A Home and Mortgage
Ask most attorneys if they find a home mortgage stressful and they will shrug and tell you they don't think about it. A mortgage lasts anywhere from 15- to 30 years, and it presupposes earning a salary continually until it is paid off. The mortgage itself represents only a base level of stress. Sooner or later, roofs, carpeting and pipes need upgrading or replacement; electrical systems must be updated; exterior and interior painted, steps repaired. There's insurance. Water, electric and gas bills. A good question might be: How does anyone manage to keep a high paying job while dealing with a spouse, children and a house, all of them generating stress along with emotional sustenance?

Divorce
When a marriage dissolves, lines of trust established over time get breached. We are thrown seemingly loveless and abandoned into a world more often than not indifferent to our pain. If children are involved, there are issues of visitation and separation. We may have to find new living quarters and buy new furniture. The sense of rejection and failure is palpable. At work, we can seem either asocial or overly emotional. A little of us gets left behind in the former relationship. We are angry at our 'ex and angry with ourselves. This is not the subtle, underlying stress of a mortgage. This stress is out in the open, corrosive, the kind that often elicits intervention from bosses, psychologists and others.

Sickness
The threat of something going wrong with the body or the mind is with us always. Sickness can be predicted when, for example, one eats or smokes or drinks too much over a long period. Most of the time, however, sickness cannot be predicted. It acts as a destabilizing, painful, random event entering our lives to threaten our livelihoods and potentially our very existence. Mental illness or its lesser corollary, neurotic behavior, can arise any time depending on the stress level an individual attorney is experiencing. Support networks and loving care can help alleviate the stress of sickness but can never eliminate it.

Remarriage and Blended Families
We re-establish bonds of trust when we remarry, but there are landmines ahead. Children's loyalties to the parent left behind mean they are not going to automatically accept us. There are ex husbands and wives in the mix. In addition, there is often a type of emotional hubris involved, the belief that "This time, I've got it right." Beneath the surface rests the fear that one is fooling one's self.

Death of Parents
When parents die we are orphaned. Often, a parent is the only one who will tolerate our endless talk of our selves. When parents die, our own mortality is suddenly put in play. We lose a sounding board and we lose unconditional love.

Being Passed Over At Work or Fired
This happens to almost everyone but for some it happens sooner rather than later. Worse is the shame one feels not measuring up to some one else's expectations. Others either pity us or believe we deserve what we got. We are confronted with our own limitations and the fact that others are regarded more favorably. Our first tendency is to blame others. For attorneys, most of them high achievers since grade school, being passed over or fired does not fit the life script. But adjust we must. Not everyone can become a partner. Not everyone can survive job cuts.

Burn-out
Some individuals can be saddled with horrendous personal problems and never suffer burn out while others go to pieces unexpectedly, seemingly without warning. 'Burn out' in medical terms is called a nervous breakdown. Each of us possesses a specific tolerance to stress and no two people are necessarily alike. When an attorney suffers burn-out, joy and satisfaction can no longer be found in work. In fact, just performing daily boilerplate functions becomes an effort. What happens to cause a high achiever to reach a point in which functioning professionally becomes so difficult? Here is one explanation: We construct identities so as to tell us who we are. These identities are similar to belief systems. They explain our lives to us and feed us myths about ourselves that give comfort and often a sense of invulnerability to any problems life creates. When something challenges this belief system -heavy and prolonged criticism, for instance, either from home or in the office, or any of the events already discussed such as being passed over, divorce, the death of parents, etc.-we first deny the challenge to our chosen identity and then, when evidence keeps piling up that indicates our identity construct is flawed, we suffer burn-out, or the inability to keep doing what we were doing.

Burn-out is accompanied by great sadness and a sense of hopelessness. Physicians usually prescribe rest and time off from work. Psychiatric help and drugs such as Prozac are frequently prescribed. Most individuals suffering burn-out end up returning to work, but in a sense, damage has been done. The fragility of one's own ego has been faced. Personal limitations are accepted. The mourning for the prior identity construct ends, and the self is remade.

Mid-life Crisis
This period of life, especially for the male, has been trivialized and frequently made fun of in the media. It calls to mind men wearing retro Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned to the navel sporting ear rings, toupees, face lifts and other obvious attempts to appear youthful. The perceived advantage of youth is partly its sense of freedom, irresponsibility and a life that is new and still unexplored. Mid-life becomes crisis when the individual recognizes signs of aging, which fuels the desire to cheat destiny and gain more time for one's self on earth. Also present is the sense that striving and hard work have not produced contentment. Existential angst takes over. Returning to an idealized youth is preferred to staying in place or inching closer to old age, death and oblivion.

Some Conclusions
The trick to a reasonably stress-free life is stripping one's identity of myth and pretension, but this is easier said than done. The process of 'self' building takes place over a life time. It takes a certain maturity to be able to look back and see where one's view of the world has been faulty and led to bad decisions. Mid life is typically when this process begins in earnest.

The first task of stress reduction has to do with recognizing where one fails to see the world realistically. The second part -the harder one-is to change. For most people, this is not possible. Ideally, we should always be introspective about our selves, taking clues from those around us, and asking from time to time what others think. Humility goes a long way in handling stress. If we do not set artificially high expectations for our selves we are less likely to be disappointed. Disappointment breeds stress. So does being highly critical of ourselves and others. Moderation is the name of the game here. Stay within your means financially and present a low-key version of yourself as human and vulnerable. Do all of this and you won't eliminate stress from your life but you will go a long way to minimizing its potential damage.

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