It is no surprise that each of us responds differently to life’s changes and challenges: the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a good job obtained, a good job lost, a financial success, a financial setback. No two of us react in exactly the same way. That’s natural and to be expected. Given that, we each have our own unique life experiences, how we deal with changes, challenges, and difficulties when they occur is often a reflection of our past experiences, habits, and behaviors, and our particular view of the world. Thus, how we thrive – how we individually manage to successfully function in good times and in difficult times will be different for different people. Despite how we may individually navigate this process, however, thriving is ultimately the goal that most of us seek to achieve.
“Thriving” is an elusive concept. For those both in and out of the legal profession, it can generally be understood as the ability to experience well-being in each of the primary dimensions of one’s life. These dimensions typically include:
Our emotional and physical health,
Our occupational satisfaction and financial stability,
Our intellectual and creative enjoyment,
Our sense of social belonging and connectedness, and
Our existential sense of meaningfulness and purpose.
That’s a tall order! More often than not, we experience more success in some dimensions than in others at any given point in time – and that’s to be expected. Sometimes, however, factors entirely outside our control intrude on our lives in very dramatic ways that significantly challenge our overall ability to thrive. It is during these times – and especially during these times – that we first need to identify those things over which we do have some control, those things over which we don’t ….. and we need the ability (i.e., wisdom) to recognize the difference between these two realities.
For example, when uncontrollable circumstances impact an important dimension of our lives, say, economic security, does that mean we have no control over other dimensions, say, emotional and physical health or social connection? The answer is obvious. When events occur and make uncontrollable for a time one part of our lives, our overall health and well-being – our ability to thrive - depends upon our continuing to attend to other, more controllable, aspects of our lives. Thus, recognizing what is realistically within our control is a necessary starting point if we are to maintain and nourish our thriving skills in difficult times.
A second critical action we need to take during challenging times is to actively seek out and use resources that are available to strengthen and nurture those important (and controllable) dimensions of our lives. That also is a tall order! But tall orders do not mean impossible orders, even for lawyers who are more accustomed to being a resource than seeking a resource.
There are two common stumbling blocks when seeking resources. One is uncertainty about the impact of the challenges faced and the other is quite simply identifying reliable resources. With respect to uncertainty (the quintessential fear of most people, especially lawyers), there are three helpful things to keep in mind:
Uncertainty often produces fear, stress, and anxiety responses; it’s a product of the natural, physiological fight-or-flight response our bodies are biologically designed to experience in the face of a potential threat;
Uncertainty, and the anxiety it produces, frequently causes us to catastrophize, to fall victim to the negative thinking that so often accompanies the fear and stress of uncertainty – in much the same way that our clients sometimes unrealistically expect the worst;
And the Good News: Uncertainty in one dimension of our lives does not mean uncertainty in all dimensions; in fact, from a mental health standpoint, nurturing other areas of our lives (e.g., social connectedness or engaging in healthy, meaningful activities) will improve our emotional coping skills and allow us the emotional freedom and flexibility to find healthy emotional balance and seek helpful resources when needed.
At the end of the day, if we are to maintain our well-being during difficult and challenging times – if we are to thrive despite adversity – each of us has two directions to look: to others and to ourselves. Virtually all mental health professionals unanimously agree that we are social creatures– we cannot thrive without community. This is true for extraverts and introverts alike; both require social connection, though to different degrees.
It is absolutely imperative that we ratchet up our social contact with other people during times of adversity. If personal contact is not possible, we have the good fortune of 21st century technology. There are a variety of video communication applications and messaging platforms readily available today for us to stay in touch (e.g., Google Hangout, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook messenger, and Zoom). And, oh yes, there are always telephones and cell phones. Social connection during difficult times is the equivalent of the medicine we need to help keep us healthy.
Equally important is the need for us to attend to our own self-care. This may involve doing activities we enjoy and find meaningful – gardening, yoga, meditation, reading, walking, playing with your pet, etc. Doing these activities consistently and on at scheduled times is best. Self-care programs can also be coordinated with friends and relatives so our social connections are enhanced. A healthy diet and sleep regimen are also essential. Excessive use of drugs and alcohol are problematic during stressful times; they may provide a momentary respite, but have yet to be shown to make one’s difficulties go away. See, Well-Being Tools and Techniques, below.
Thriving despite challenges can itself be challenging. But it definitely can be done. And, for each of us, it needs to be done so that when the challenges are over, and life returns to normal, our well-being will have been as successfully maintained and nourished as possible, and perhaps even strengthened in many unexpected ways.
The Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) is an excellent starting place when seeking short-term counseling, resource information, and mental health and substance use advice and recommendations. The OAAP has served the Oregon legal community for nearly forty years. It has five experienced attorney counselors available to Oregon lawyers, judges, and law students. It is confidential, voluntary, and free. www.oaap.org
Douglas S. Querin, JD, LPC, CADC1
Oregon Attorney Assistance Program
Additional Resource: Well-Being Tools that Really Work (PDF)