Being a lawyer is difficult, even in the best of circumstances. It requires grappling with uncertainty and tough problems on an ongoing basis. And as you advance in the field you level up to even greater challenges and consequences. In order to manage this reality, it’s essential to care for your mental health. Keep in mind, the most valuable investment you can make is in your most important client-yourself.
Although lawyers can’t change the external factors intrinsic to the occupation, they need to look at where their power lies and identify what they can control…their mindset. This requires a shift from feeling beholden to the external to taking control where they can.
What is mindset?
Mindset is essentially the attitude, belief, or perception we hold about ourselves. It’s what we think about our basic qualities, talents, and abilities. Our mindset can be conscious or subconscious (meaning we may or may not be aware of it).
Mindset infiltrates everything we do and is virtually impossible to turn off. When we’re not aware of our mindset or have a negative one, it can create undue stress, and prevent us from living a fulfilling and meaningful life. A positive mindset is essential to our mental health.
How does mindset develop?
Our mindset is shaped by the stories and experiences we learn throughout life. Initially, it develops during early childhood and is usually based on what we observed from significant people around us: parents, siblings, teachers, and caregivers. Certain mindsets are beneficial throughout our lives, but others can have a negative impact especially if they are taken to the extreme.
For example, If you were raised in a family that believed that everything would always work out, you might naturally have an optimistic mindset. With this mindset, you may worry less and have less anxiety. But when taken to an extreme, you may also have less urgency to resolve problems or be proactive about issues in your life.
If your parents had extraordinarily high expectations of your performance in school or in sports, there’s a likelihood you grew to have unreasonably high expectations of yourself. This mindset can motivate success, but can easily turn into an insatiable need to achieve when taken to an extreme.
The good news about mindset is that it’s flexible; you can change it at any time in your life. Over time, new experiences can replace some of the mindsets that you developed as a child. This article will discuss two key factors in shifting your mindset- stress resilience and locus of control.
What is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset?
Let’s look at two important mindsets that can have a significant impact on our mental health: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.
A growth mindset is focused on the development and holds the belief that you can change, or improve your abilities. It views problems as opportunities, recognizes that effort and attitude impact performance, and seeks feedback to improve. This mindset allows us to learn from our mistakes and accept our imperfections.
A fixed mindset is the opposite. It views our talents and abilities as fixed and sees feedback as criticism. This mindset causes us to be highly self-critical and tends to shame, blame and expect perfection.
What is the link between mindset and mental health?
There is a direct relationship between mindset and mental health. Our mindset can either support or threaten our mental well-being. Basically, our mindset is the filter through which we see the world. If our mindset is “I have to be perfect all the time,” or “life is always going to be hard,” we will increase our level of stress.
Whereas if your mindset tells you “The most important thing is that I try my best,” “Mistakes are learning opportunities,” your stress level can decrease. The more you can shift into a positive or growth mindset, the more stress resilience you’ll have.
What are the most effective strategies for developing a positive growth mindset?
It’s all about reframing your thoughts and keeping things in perspective. When in a challenging situation, focus on solutions, opportunities for growth, and your long-term vision. If things don’t go as planned, recognize resets and fresh starts.
What are some questions lawyers can ask themselves to shift to a growth mindset?
When you feel negativity or overwhelm kick in during a challenging time you can ask yourself: What can I control in this situation? Where is my power in this scenario? What can I learn from this challenge? How can I use a new skill to solve this problem? Notice how these questions focus on your power to manage situations and set the stage for growth.
How is stress related to mindset?
The bottom line is that a negative mindset is going to exacerbate stress. If we approach a work situation thinking that our efforts are going to fail, stress automatically occurs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as “the reaction people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.”
How does stress present itself? Being a lawyer is an extremely stressful career, and stress can show up in many different ways. There are emotional reactions such as irritability, lack of motivation, and feeling overwhelmed. There can be physical reactions such as tension, body pain, difficulty sleeping, and low energy. Behavioral responses can also occur, such as unhealthy eating patterns, binging on TV, or numbing yourself through social media.
Let’s look at managed versus unmanaged stress. As a lawyer, stress is unavoidable. The main difference between these two types is your level of functioning. With managed stress, you feel in control, you have a positive mindset and you’re using healthy coping skills. You can function with your mental health intact despite the stress.
With unmanaged stress, the stress controls you and can take over your life. You are battling a negative mindset and often turn to unhealthy or ineffective coping techniques to manage it. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, anxiety, or burnout.
What are the consequences of unmanaged stress?
Burnout is a common consequence. When unmanaged stress lingers, it creates the perfect conditions to sprout burnout. It becomes very hard to function in this state, as you feel depleted of energy and motivation.
Depression and anxiety can occur. Both can mirror burnout and cause symptoms like irritability and low motivation. As a mental health expert, I can say that burnout often co-exists with anxiety or depression. Unfortunately, depression or anxiety don’t always disappear when the stress decreases, which can cause long-lasting mental health difficulties.
Another result of unmanaged stress is resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking, drug use, and other addictive behaviors.
What are the red flags of burnout?
Stress eats away at your internal resources, like the ability to focus and manage your time effectively. This can decrease your motivation and productivity while increasing your sense of worry and overwhelm. Unmanaged stress leads to a high risk for burnout.
Other common signs of burnout are irritability, impatience, and loss of job satisfaction. You can also experience decreased energy, focus, and enthusiasm. In some cases, people become critical and cynical.
What is stress resilience?
Because stress is an everyday reality for lawyers “stress resilience” is critical. Stress needs to be managed so it doesn’t take over. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—family problems, relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”
Essentially, stress resilience is a person’s ability to successfully handle and adapt to stressful situations. It doesn’t mean that you learn to avoid stress. In fact, it’s the opposite. It means that you have the skills to manage and navigate stress without it overwhelming or overpowering you. I like to think of stress resilience as your ability to turn unmanaged stress into managed stress.
How can you boost your stress resilience?
Boosting your stress resilience will help you regain control. Intense deadlines, important high-stakes cases, and nerve-wracking outcomes…that stress comes with the territory for lawyers. So, the objective is managing it effectively and responding to it in a healthy manner so that it doesn’t control you. The key is to boost your stress resilience and turn unmanaged stress into managed stress.
There are many factors that can increase your stress resilience and high on the list is a growth mindset. Rather than focussing on all the fixed external factors such as hours, expectations, and the environment, you can start looking at where your power lies and identify the things you can control.
The psychology term for this is an internal locus of control rather than an external locus of control. People with a strong internal locus of control believe that they have control over situations and experiences that influence their world. People with an external locus of control, feel like they are at the mercy of their circumstances and environment.
Lawyers with a growth mindset and strong internal locus demonstrate stronger stress resilience and an ability to successfully handle challenges. It’s important to develop positive coping skills and strategies to help you develop a growth mindset and strengthen your stress resilience, to enable the shift from unmanaged stress to managed stress.
Negative versus positive coping skills
Negative coping skills are destructive behaviors that you use to manage stress but inhibit your ability to function, decrease your mental well-being, or diminish your capacity to thrive. This can include using drugs or alcohol, overspending, and skipping meals.
Positive coping skills are activities and behaviors that boost your ability to function, improve your mental well-being, enhance your capacity to thrive, and increase your stress resilience. This can include setting boundaries and communicating expectations. These actions can help strengthen your internal locus of control.
What are some positive coping skills?
Lets take a closer look at positive coping skills.
1. Setting boundaries (very important for lawyers!) – The legal field is rampant with ultra-stressful, competitive, and high-risk situations. That environment is unsustainable long-term so it is essential for lawyers to learn how to set boundaries with clients, colleagues, and even with themselves.
Block off times for solo work, meaning no meetings or calls are allowed during those hours. Learn to say no “guilt-free”. This can be especially difficult for younger lawyers but is certainly doable with some practiced phrases like “I’d love to help, but my schedule is full at this time.”
2. Enjoy hobbies – Managing stress includes replenishing your energy. Make sure you carve out time for fun. Whether it’s running, painting, reading, or ax throwing, give your brain a much-needed break from work while also releasing positive endorphins to boost your mood.
3. Practicing mindfulness – Mindfulness has been a buzzword for a while now and for good reason; it’s a natural stress booster and mood lifter. Use a meditation app, take a walk in nature, or practice deep breathing.
4. Setting goals – Setting goals can motivate you to keep moving forward. When you set a goal, try breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps to make it easier to complete.
5. Taking breaks – Taking breaks is an important part of stress resilience. Take notice of when your energy naturally dips… do you find yourself feeling foggy mid-afternoon? If so; that’s a good time for a break.
6. Setting a schedule and following it – Stress occurs when we’re limited in resources, such as time. Lawyers can often feel like they’re juggling a hundred balls in the air at once. Therefore, time management is crucial to stress resilience and will help you strengthen your internal locus of control. Use a planner – and don’t forget your breaks and hobbies!
7. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle – This includes eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. All of these things will help your body and your brain rejuvenate, and boost your mood.
A few final words
It’s important to remember that stress resilience doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, daily practice, and willingness to change your behaviors. Try to move from short-term thinking to long-term thinking. I challenge you to find at least one hour a day to focus on a growth mindset and engage in an activity that will build your stress resilience.
Being a lawyer can be a highly rewarding career, as long as you have the mindset to help you sustain and thrive at work. With a growth-oriented mindset and strong stress resilience, lawyers can learn to set boundaries, practice self-care, and use healthy and positive coping mechanisms even in the face of an intense work environment.
Licensed Psychotherapist & Certified Coach.