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by Mary Kate Sheridan | April 22, 2019

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Whether it’s law school finals breathing down your neck, the impending recruiting season jittering your nerves, the never-ending billable piling up, or competition over a coveted lateral spot—the legal industry is overflowing with stress. And for the type-A personalities often attracted to the profession, such stress can make law students and lawyers harder on themselves. 

But sometimes what we need the most is to be compassionate to ourselves. In other words, we need to give ourselves a break. 

During the panel Self Compassion: Practicing and Teaching It in a Changing Legal Market at NALP’s Annual Education Conference earlier this month, Lisa Abrams—consultant at Lisa Abrams Consulting—and Ann Rainhart, J.D.—chief operating officer at Briggs and Morgan—discussed the importance of self compassion in the legal industry.

“Yes you are enough just the way you are but how do you enact that,” questioned Rainhart. “How do you put that in your life? You can do that through a practice of self compassion.” 

The pair introduced a variety of reasons why self compassion is so critical in the legal industry, including the breakdown in barriers between work and personal life, as well as compassion fatigue that stems from constantly helping other people.

In a world where we are constantly plugged in and never wearing our own oxygen masks, how can lawyers and law students focus on themselves? Below are six takeaways on how to implement self compassion in your every day practice or law-school life.

Treat yourself like a friend.

One useful approach in practicing self compassion is to treat yourself as you would a good friend. Whether we are internally chastising ourselves or denying ourselves basic physical or emotional care, oftentimes we don’t provide ourselves with the same love and attention that we would offer to our friends and family. Rainhart shared that we must be warm and generous to ourselves. “You’re the one person you can’t get away from,” she said. “That should make you care even more about yourself."

Be aware of road blocks.

Even if we strive to care for ourselves, we may come upon road blocks, and it is important to be aware of these barriers. For example, law students and lawyers sometimes shy away from self compassion because they rely on harsh self talk to motivate themselves. "They’re afraid they’ll lose their competitive edge if they approach it with self compassion,” said Abrams. Overcoming our own tendencies to distance ourselves from our emotions or to berate ourselves in the name of success can be a major struggle for those in the legal industry.

Understand your triggers. 

We all have triggers that launch us into stress spirals. Abrams emphasized the importance of awareness of our triggers. She shared three types of triggers: universal, common, and personal. Abrams cited Brené Brown in describing the universal triggers of vulnerability and shame. She then described common triggers that affect many of us, including feeling misunderstood, bullied, criticized, trapped, angry, or betrayed, as well as experiencing failure or disappointment. On top of that, we all have personal triggers that stem from our own life experiences. Arming ourselves with awareness of these can help us develop an awareness of our feelings and stressors.

You have control.

Small changes really can make a difference, even if we are wired for certain behaviors. During the panel, Abrams shared the observation that we are hardwired for fear, which triggers the release of cortisol. She noted that when we feel criticized, our reaction is fight, flight, or freeze. But she also explained that by caring for ourselves, we can activate our own neural pathways to trigger the release of oxytocin. 

Start small.

We all have our own issues, and especially for those in the legal industry, the list of stressors can be long. But as you begin this journey of self compassion, don’t attempt to “fix” everything and everyone at one time. “You don’t have to solve everything,” said Rainhart. “Pick one thing.” Focus on yourself first and decide on one area to work on. Once you are regularly wearing your own oxygen mask, you can turn to helping others embrace their own self compassion.

Engage in a four-step process.

Lawyers are already fish out of water when it comes to self care. So winging it is certainly not an option. Luckily, Abrams and Rainhart provided a four-step process for approaching self care. They shared the pneumonic ALPS (awareness, label, pause, self-soothing) to coordinate with the following four steps.

1. Develop critical awareness of physical symptoms and thoughts

This first step relates to several of the points above—you must first develop an awareness of our physical symptoms and thoughts. Become familiar with your triggers, feelings of vulnerability, physical symptoms, thoughts, etc., when faced with stressful situations.

2. Label emotions

Once you have a handle on your own thoughts and physical manifestations, try to label the emotions that you are feeling. “Labeling is so important because it calms the brain,” said Abrams. It’s important that we don’t ignore and stifle our own emotions. As Rainhart shared, “so much of our culture tells us not to feel these big emotions and to tape them down and keep going.” In turn, we may also feel uncomfortable when other people express emotions. Instead, you should strive to label these feelings and help other people label them. 

3. Take a mindful pause

Once you have accepted your emotions and pinpointed exactly what they are, you should take a step back through a mindful pause, which Abrams clarifies is not about being calm, but rather about bringing yourself into “the now.” Through mindfulness, you can help yourself to know “what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it” according to the panel presentation. Some mindfulness tools shared during the panel include deep cleansing breaths, awareness in the present moment, simple mantras, observing your thoughts, counting, and visualization techniques.

4. Use self-soothing techniques

The final step in integrating self compassion into your life is self soothing. The self-soothing tools that work for each person will vary. Abrams and Rainhart provided a few examples: kind self talk, mindfulness meditation, connection with others (e.g. talking to friends on the phone, joining a social group like a book club, etc.), gratitude (e.g. recognize good things that have happened during the day), and pleasurable hobbies.

The legal world is highly competitive and demanding. Stress is inevitable. But how we handle that stress does not need to be self damaging. If we take time to recognize our own triggers and feelings and take a step back to ground ourselves and implement self care, we can better tend to our mental health, which in the long run, will make us much more satisfied in our personal and professional lives. And by caring for ourselves, we can inspire those around us to accept self compassion as well—something the legal industry desperately needs.

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