By Mike Ethridge
Those of us in the legal world have a problem. We tend to spend a lot more time ruminating, questioning and scenario planning than actually living.
Imagine that you are in a large lobby, and at the edge of the lobby are two doors. On one door is the word “Heaven.” On the other is “Movie About Heaven.” Guess which line most lawyers would be in? The second one. We’d much prefer to learn about something, think and strategize about what we’re going to do when we get there, than simply walk through the door and experience it.
This excessive rumination is something of an occupational hazard for lawyers. After all, thinking plays a huge role in what we do. Justice is achieved in our world through order, structure and the application of reason. Therefore, we have to use our thinking/strategic mind pretty much all day long.
While the thinking mind is a necessary tool for what we do, it’s only a tool. It was never meant to be in charge. It was never meant to captain the ship of our lives. When it does we find ourselves always deliberating, excessively worrying, constantly wondering whether we should or shouldn’t do something. And it’s not long before all of this excessive rumination keeps us from actually living our lives.
This particular problem is amplified in lawyers because we are generally a pessimistic group by nature. Some research has suggested that lawyers are inordinately more pessimistic than any other profession.
The problem with being highly pessimistic is that when our minds devolve into worry, negative possibilities are generated at warp speed. When that happens we become totally identified with our thoughts and fears. And life can feel pretty miserable.
It usually works something like this—someone dismisses an idea we have or rejects us, and negative thoughts start multiplying like crazy. The voice in our head tells us we’re somehow inadequate, and it’s not long before we’re feeling isolated and lonely. Or we make a mistake. And all kinds of thoughts rush into our head telling us we’re not smart enough or not talented enough, and before long we’re feeling like we’re a failure at everything. Or a few weeks go by and we don’t get a new client. We start to think that we’re not as good a lawyer as we think we are, and everyone has figured that out. No one is going to ever hire us again.
Sounds crazy, right? But it happens with all of us.
Mindfulness practice helps us realize that we are not our thoughts. We are not responsible for every thought that comes into our head. Your brain produces thoughts, that’s its job. But that doesn’t mean those thoughts are under your control. Not every thought needs to be acted upon, paid attention to or taken seriously. As Eric Barker reminds us,
“You’re not your brain; you’re the CEO of your brain. You can’t control everything that goes on in “Mind, Inc.” But you can decide which projects get funded with your attention and action.”
So, the next time you begin to obsess over some thought, or you descend into the rabbit hole of worry, ask yourself—is this thought worthy of my attention? Is this thought useful? Or is it simply keeping me from being present to my life in this moment? Is it beneficial or is it just the overflow of old fears or judgment?
If you believe the thought is useful, pay attention to it. If not, ignore it and be present to your life. If you feel like dancing, but the voice in your head tells you you’ll look silly, ignore it and dance. If you feel like singing, but the voice in your head says others will laugh at you, sing.
Leave the theater of compulsive worry and scenario planning, and live your life instead.
About the author
Mike Ethridge is an attorney in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the founding chair of the South Carolina Bar’s wellness initiative, Living Above The Bar, and he is a frequent speaker at bar events across the country on attorney well-being. Mike is also the author of the attorney wellness blog, Lawyers in Search of Soul (www.lawyersinsearchofsoul.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.