Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) and the practice of law

I know a lot of lawyers will think, “Self-compassion? Isn’t that for weaklings?” It is precisely this thinking which makes our profession suffer so much. Thanks to a recent study by the ABA and Hazelden, we now have empirical evidence of how the stress of the legal profession affects us.

Wouldn’t it be great if the act of honing and refining your mental processes through higher education led to being free of  the stress caused by our fight or flight reactions? Sadly, even lawyers are not free of the evolutionary biology of our species. The ability to calm one’s self or respond with mindfulness is crucial to staying present and acting with all of our faculties instead of reacting without thought.

Luckily, thanks to our prefrontal cortex, we also possess the ability to notice what our reactions are (mindfulness) and employ skills which activate the contentment and safety system when we need it (self-compassion). It is this ability to pause between stimulus and response which allows us to gather our faculties and represent clients more fully and completely, while also managing our own stress.

Rapidly expanding research demonstrates self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional wellbeing, less anxiety, depression and stress, maintenance of healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and satisfying personal relationships. Being self-compassionate is also a proven antidote to interrupt negative and judgmental thinking

Modern responses to our own reactivity: Fight, flight or freeze

Fight: Employing self-kindness instead of self-criticism or judgment

Our evolutionary biology predisposes us to think negatively about a lot of things, including ourselves. In order to survive, we had to be hard-wired to expect the worst from the world. Instead of thinking positive happy thoughts about the unknown, we had to be ready to run. The mind’s tendency to expect the worst helped us survive in the past, but today causes us to be flooded with hormones which prevent us from thinking clearly.

In addition, the mind’s tendency to expect the worst is also turned against ourselves. When things go wrong, we think, “How stupid was that?” and experience anger at ourselves. This tendency toward negative self-judgment causes additional shame, self-blame and other reactions which are neither useful nor healthy because they increase the stress response cycle discussed above (including lashing out at others). How easy is it to carefully and logically evaluate a client’s needs when your system is flooded with stress hormones?

Treating ourselves with kindness when we notice this cycle has been triggered can help us activate the contentment-safety regulation system. This alleviates the suffering and soothes and comforts us when we are in emotional pain, rather than heaping more suffering on ourselves. By utilizing Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) we can bear suffering equanimity by increasing our resilience. (Read more about the practice of Mindful Self Compassion here).

Flight: Remembering common humanity instead of Isolating

Many times when we are under stress, our response is to try to “go it alone” and isolate, or view ourselves as isolated from others. We see our suffering and pain as abnormal and unlike what others go through.

Recognizing we are part of the larger human experience allows us to connect with our own humanity and recognize that others feel suffering, just as we do. We are not alone and we are not abnormal. This allows us to normalize what we are feeling and thinking

Freeze: employing mindfulness rather than over-identifying

When we go into freeze, our body reacts as if the situation we’ve imagined is actually happening. We can be identified psychologically with the reality which exists only in our mind and get carried away with this story line. This is called over-identification.

Mindfulness allows us to interrupt this cycle by noticing what is actually happening in the moment, rather than what we think is happening.

Applicability to legal practice

The ability to respond to stimuli in a measured way is key to self-management in stressful situations. Foundational is the ability to manage the stress. Employing self-compassion goes right to the heart of the issue and defuses it — rather than trying to “white knuckle” our way through a problem. The problem will not go away, but our own capacity for resilience and thoughtful response increases.

Studies show self-compassionate people are more able to learn from their mistakes, demonstrate accountability and resilience and exhibit authenticity in conflict.*  Self-compassionate lawyers might therefore be more likely to have compassionate and clear conversations with clients, be accountable in their dealings and experience improved client relationships.

Research also suggests self-compassion helps reduce the stress and pain of toxic perfectionism (correlated with self-criticism), which affects so many attorneys.

– Some of the research into Mindful Self Compassion shows that self-compassionate people:

– Are more likely to engage in healthy perspective taking (What is really going on in a situation?    Are there other ways to look at it?);

– Are better able to cope with difficult situations such as crisis, trauma, divorce or chronic pain;

– Tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships, are better able to compromise and are more compassionate towards others;

– Are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercise, eating well, drinking less and going to the doctor more regularly;

– Are more likely to take personal responsibility for their actions, and more likely to apologize if they have offended someone; and

– Are less fearful of failure because they don’t beat themselves up when they do fail.

These research findings have applicability not only to attorney-client and professional relationships but also to one’s own relationship with one’s self. If we are kinder and more compassionate to ourselves, we find ourselves being able to be kinder and more compassionate to others. Think how happy you’ll make your family and your legal assistant.

*See An Intro to MindfulSelf Compassion for a complete list of resources.