As explained in the article in Summer 2020 issue of this journal, I have been running workshops on well-being for some time now with solicitors, barristers and judges. They have been well received with good feedback, so they seem to be achieving something valuable.
They consisted of examining the physical consequences of being in “stress“. I explored the fact that there is no emotion called stress. If we are more precise and healthily honest, what people experience is in fact Anxiety with maybe an addition of Resentment, ie Anger:
And the physical impact of that anxiety / anger is threefold: the holding of the breath, the tensing of the body and the racing mind.
We explored how we can undo those with breathing, stretching and bending exercises to unfreeze the body. This amounts in some senses to the very essence of yoga – coming out of the tense, stressed body, which both reflects and perpetuates stress as the freeze reflex. I have found this understanding of yoga to be extraordinarily motivating. That was followed by some simple mindfulness exercises to calm the racing mind.
So far, so straightforward; it is quite easy, comfortable and indeed pleasant. However, this article explores material that may seem less straightforward– perhaps because it is in fact harder and less comfortable.
I would like to explore seven connected ideas that go more deeply into the psychology of being a lawyer, especially a litigator, and especially in family law. Warning: they get more and more demanding – or possibly to some more outrageous – as we go along.
First, we might ask why are we so stressed in the first place?
Of course, our jobs are often extraordinarily demanding and we have extraordinarily high levels of expected perfection in the law.
However, that is to place the cause or the blame outside of ourselves. Maybe there is a bit more to it than that. Do we seem to get stuck with that stress? A clue may be the fact that, even if we fully intellectually accept everything that is explained about stress reduction, we (and I do include myself) have some strange deeper resistance to doing enough about it – at least on a full, longer-term, ongoing basis.
It is as if, subconsciously, we are rather attached to our stressed state. Indeed, maybe we even sometimes self-inflict it; by, for example, leaving things to the last minute or taking on more than is practical.
This may connect with the cultural norm that has existed until very recently that it is normal, respect-worthy, even high status, to be a workaholic; overloaded and therefore stressed because it shows what important and demanding work we are doing. People boast about stress and how hard they work – with a somewhat heroic, martyred tone.
It is good to bring this cultural habit into proper consciousness, CBT style, so we can question it and, perhaps, reduce it to our benefit.
In fact, as explored in the workshop, by separating out the objectively demanding, important work we do from the subjective experience we have in doing it, we can more honestly admit the fact that, rather than simply labelling it stress, we are actually talking about being anxious and possibly resentful – and nobody would be particularly proud of that or boastful about it. Indeed, it may be rather embarrassing – hence some resistance in admitting this.
But secondly, where do we go from here? If we accept any of this what do we do about it?
Do we have the courage and open-mindedness to ask the question as to why this culture has developed? Why are some of us so much in the grip of a workaholic, stressaholic, masochistic, martyred, self-inflicting ethos?
This is an ethos where the adjective “driven“ is used as a compliment or word of admiration. Whereas in fact it is a word which perfectly but maybe shockingly summarises a lack of freedom. Being driven, as many of us are, raises the question of what or who is driving us? and where are we being driven to? What messages are there of the need to succeed, the fear of being in trouble?
Certainly, those motivations are highly functional in immediate career terms. However, they can have serious costs to us both in terms of our mental or emotional health and our emotional availability with family and friends. We can see that we all have elements of unconscious motivation; drives which are in fact compulsions, sources of anxiety and resentment; a sensitivity to those feelings but, harder to see, paradoxically an attraction towards experiences which trigger them.
I am suggesting the word “Stressaholic“ for this curious attraction to challenging experiences, and attachment to their apparently unpleasant consequences.
So, a question could be: can we retain enough of the motivation without its damaging side effects?
To answer that we need to go another level down:
Third idea – If we can identify an attraction to stress, i.e. if we are stressaholic, then we might like to look at the whole question of why have we chosen to do this work? With its focus on dysfunctional and conflictual families?
Dare I make the comparison with people who are the victims of domestic abuse in adult relationships and that they have almost always witnessed or been the victim of domestic abuse as children? They repeat that childhood pattern in their adult lives.
We are drawn to a life working with dysfunctional families and conflict – and of course hopefully resolving conflict and doing so fairly – is this because of a childhood formative experience of at least tension, maybe conflict and unfairness?
Now people’s immediate reaction might be – “So you are calling me screwed up? You are saying that the reason I do this work is because I’m neurotic?” Spelling this out to people who have made a living and whose future careers are based upon this behaviour, are they going to feel that I am telling them to give up their careers?
Obviously, people are not and should not give up work for a number of reasons. So, I wonder whether the best way of approaching this is to see if it is possible, when we become conscious of our compulsions, to convert them into highly energetic impulses or motivations?
If it is neurotic energy then we are driven. I offer the unattractive image of driving a car which is effectively out of control with the accelerator stuck down. We are careering along, not taking in the scenery, having to stick to main roads. Not able to respond to other vehicles. Perhaps waiting for disaster.
Drawing attention to that problem is not suggesting that you switch off, park up and go to sleep. Drawing attention to that problem allows us to unstick the accelerator and then we can choose how fast we go. We would therefore have much greater freedom about what route we take and how we engage with others.
If so, the first benefit of moderating compulsions down to being just motivations might be for there not to be the same self-consuming cost to ourselves. And it is also secondly worth exploring from the perspective of professional advantage the fact that compulsive behaviour is often not nearly as skilful as a more measured and self-aware motivation.
For the fourth idea, we come to the next big jump which many people may refuse: thinking about the roots and therefore the explanation of our behaviour and feelings.
We used to talk about neuroses and many people would, with a wry smile, say they saw themselves as being a bit neurotic and add “surely this is necessary to be successful?”
We now tend to talk about personality traits or even personality disorders.
The emerging one is CPTSD – Complex PTSD. This is seen as being different from ordinary PTSD which is seen as the result of some specific trauma in adulthood. CPTSD is seen as more about childhood PTSD, the impact of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” on the soft and developing brain of a child. That phrase, Adverse Childhood Experiences, is really helpful as it avoids the overheavy and therefore very resistible word “Trauma”.
And if we drop the word “Disorder” we can see that, like Autism Spectrum (Disorder), CPTSD can be seen simply as a spectrum on which we are all located. This destigmatises, de-pathologises the issue. Does anyone say they are entirely emotionally healthy? That they are not disproportionately sensitive to praise or blame? Is anyone immune from some general anxiety? Fear of being in trouble is such a prevalent and yet unspoken state of mind for most of us that it deserves to be honestly exposed and maybe even given a catchy acronym – FOBIT? That may sound strange but I find this resonates strongly with many clients.
To investigate a little further why this might be, we need to look at the whole concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences. If you research that online you will find a checklist which is quite interesting to do but it is skewed towards a certain demography – that of the classic “needy, disadvantaged patient“ e.g. questions like “Did you have a parent in prison?”
It may be time to formulate a different checklist of Adverse Childhood Experiences which is more about middle-class or apparently high functioning homes:
Maybe we need questions such as … Did you have parents who are both workaholics, modelling a view of the world that to be valuable and valued you have to be a big success? Parents also quite possibly too busy to be fully available to their children? Possibly parents being pressurising and critical in the way they may have thought of as being challenging and ambition building? Experience of Boarding school? Yourself or your parents?”
And this leaves aside the other elements from the traditional ACE checklist which may also be relevant in professional homes: parents’ mental health problems; substance abuse including alcohol; domestic conflict in the home; separation and divorce; loss of a parents as a result of that or as a result of bereavement.
For the fifth idea, I suspect this exploration in the last few paragraph is to push myself up against a pretty solid wall of resistance in many readers. So, I know from experience that the rewards at the end of the day mean it is worth pressing on and examining the reasons why people flinch away and reject the possibility of even thinking about their childhoods as including adverse experiences.
For some there is a loyalty to their parents who are now often mellow, loving elderly people. People have a love for parents which could forbid a calm, accurate awareness. Love can be blind at all ages.
A way forward from that is to drain out any blame. We would not blame a parent who had overt physical disabilities such as blindness or paraplegia, that might have limited our childhood opportunities. We could be matter of fact about that.
It is harder, but still possible to understand if they had more hidden psychological issues that reduced their ability to offer full love and care. There is no need to blame our parents for the fact that the best they could do may have been limited and that has significant implications for us as adults. Maybe we are the last link in a chain of emotional problems and limited resources that go back generations. And that we will not wish to pass on to our children.
For some people there may also be the belief that it is important to maintain a denial of those experiences because to admit them would be to play the victim and become helpless, pathetic, weak and dysfunctional.
That is based upon a model that the only choices in life are Rigidity or Collapse. Whereas the truth is that admitting the reality of one’s childhood, without blame and anger but with calmness and often a degree of sadness is courageous and is a recipe for Resilience.
One perspective is that people who may have had challenging childhoods can grow up with an anxious, and therefore black and white view of many things – and including therefore logically, their own childhoods.
People sometimes think if they admit anything negative, then obviously they are claiming it was all negative and that they had a terrible, abusive childhood. However, they know that isn’t fair or accurate. So, they shy away from it and possibly idealise their childhood – but not necessarily in a golden way. Maybe just the image of “white washing” is closer to the truth. This can be seen as a covering up of the darker, unhappier aspects and in doing so, obscuring much of the detail. The outcome is that many people have surprisingly poor recollections of their childhoods.
But in fact it is possible to see that a childhood is a mixed thing and that seeing the sadder aspects does not have that accusatory or dramatising quality. People can then see their whole childhoods more realistically. If people don’t need to whitewash their childhoods, they can in fact see the whole experience more clearly in full colour and therefore have a clearer picture and better emotional access to the genuinely good bits – including the love that was on offer. This is what I have repeatedly found happened in working with therapy clients.
Six: One classic response to this line of thinking is “but my childhood was Normal!” So, going somewhere deeper and even more unpopular, we can look at the possibility that, for most of us, our childhoods happened in what we could see as the general, shared adverse reality – that of the modern world. And that is the context of “Normal.”
Just a teasing question: It is said that it takes a village to raise a child healthily – with the implication of being in a more traditional, wider family unit and beyond that with a community of people who know you and you know. All of these would be people who to varying degrees share and spread the burden of parenting and socialising the children. This is surely the model of living that was the norm for the millennia that formed our deepest “hard-wired” emotional and social needs.
Then consider what the consequences are of growing up in the exact opposite of that model. Firstly, we generally lived in nuclear families, with over intense parenting. Secondly many of us lived in cities, with stressful anonymity and thirdly, effectively, through media bombardment, we lived in a huge, competitive and often harrowing world?
Obviously, we cannot undo the reality of the modern world. But maybe if, and only if, we dare to notice these issues could we cooperate to work out ways accurately to mitigate and offset them.
Finally, idea seven, to take it all one step even further – consider if the consequences for many of us of childhood difficulties were perhaps a form of premature adolescence encouraged by the culture. If childhood attachments with parents were compromised, then the child may move on prematurely to the next attachment stage in life – namely of adolescence – pushing away parents, seeking independence, seeking attention and attachments, with peers and sexually,
And then, perhaps because it was premature, we may have a permanently arrested, ongoing adolescence – with insecurity driving competitiveness, acquisitiveness, grasping – materially or in terms of career and relationships including sexual relations.
This is reflected in and continues to be encouraged by our society and is now so much the social norm, so universal, so much underpinning the economic model of continual growth that it is extremely hard even to notice it. As an experiment, consider the range of magazines on sale in a newsagent: feeding a hunger which is almost an addiction to adolescent tastes – of beauty and eternal youth for both genders and images of boyish power, especially for males. The presence of more humanistic, domestic magazines on cooking, home life and health is encouraging although the need to be competitive sometimes infiltrates even those enthusiasms.
If this may all seem somewhat wild or idiosyncratic, it may be helpful to research “Neotony” and see that this theory is in fact pushing at an open door. Neotony is the retention of juvenile features into adulthood. This trend is common in evolution and greatly amplified in humans. Humans retain a plasticity of behaviour that is generally found among animals only in the young. The emphasis on learned, rather than inherited, behaviour requires the human brain to remain receptive much longer. Imagination and creativity are central to the extraordinary success of homo sapiens. And other juvenile behaviour is central to less admirable traits, such as selfishness, acquisitiveness and a lack of empathy especially if amplified by a runaway culture of exaggerated adolescence.
These are such large scale and demanding perspectives that they might distract and detract from the fact that we can and maybe should simply start from where we are – our own internal physical and emotional state and take reasonable steps to be more skilful with ourselves – for our own benefit and the benefit of those around us. So, I invite you to return to the first article about self-care.
Working with some lawyer clients who are hugely in their heads makes me realise just how much it is true that people like them and me and many others do not actually believe in the mind / body connection. And, therefore, don’t really take seriously breathing and yoga etc. Or do as much as we need to of it.
Strangely we believe in the cause-and-effect flowing one way – we know that being emotionally upset or distressed or stressed has physical consequences, possibly psychosomatic disorders.
But we don’t quite believe in the reverse flow – that intervening at a bodily level will change the mind, change the emotional state.
I think and hope that by naming this resistance, I may have already reduced it and people may take seriously the benefit of the breathing and very simple physical practice that I mentioned in the first article and is summarised above. Further details can be found at my website at davidjockelson.com.