On the well-being
February 1, 2021 at 1:50 a.m. CST
At this time of COVID-19, when so many of our norms have been disrupted and the future is uncertain, it is an understatement to say that there is much to be feared.
One of the benefits of regular mindfulness and meditation practice is that you get to know and understand your own thinking better, a process known as metacognition. I noticed that my mind was constantly filled with negative thoughts and that I was always imagining worst-case scenarios and sticking to impossible standards and self-criticism. Maintaining a mind prone to optimism, creativity, and constructive thinking takes practice, and it is a skill worth building.
The beginning of gaining a deeper knowledge of my own mind, the thoughts that permeate it, and its effects on me have really freed me from habitual negativity. Here are just a few such thoughts: I can never go wrong. I have to work around the clock to be a good lawyer. I always have to be available to my customers. I’m a bad mom if I ever snap on my daughter. Something is wrong with me. I’m not personable I can’t ask for help. You may see some of your own unproductive thought patterns in this list.
Other lawyers I interviewed for this story also believed they were on the path of self-criticism. A common struggle was perfectionism. As a lawyer, the pressure to win at high stakes can be very high, and that perfectionism can easily spill over into other areas of your life. Claire E. Parsons, a member of Adams, Stepner, Woltermann & Dusing in Covington, Kentucky, realized that she needed to adjust her expectations and how she dealt with her life after the quarantine.
“My experience with meditation retreats was invaluable when the quarantine began. Just as nobody “wins” a meditation retreat, I knew that I couldn’t “win” the quarantine, ”says Parsons.
Instead of trying to balance work and family perfectly, she instead focused on maintaining her mood and practicing self-care. “It helped me not only to stay afloat in dark times, but also to make progress in my career.”
Megan Peterson, partner at Simon Peragine Smith & Redfearn, realized in the wake of the pandemic that she needed to redefine productivity and what it looked like a successful day. “This requires a mindfulness approach as I would identify one major and two to four minor things to be done in a day, and while I was doing each task, I would try not to be distracted by emails or something Getting pulled away from social media and really focus on getting that one job done well. “After completing her one big task of the day, she would tick it off her list, check email, and take a short break. She found that she felt more productive by setting more structured and realistic goals for her day.
The metacognition that begins to reveal the inner narrative we have about how we should be as lawyers doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. For me, mindfulness, meditation, and therapy were critical to gently changing the narrative and stopping the cycle in which I constantly abuse myself.
A helpful technique is RAIN – coined by Tara Brach, psychotherapist, meditation teacher and author of several books on self-compassion. RAIN stands for recognize, allow, examine, maintain. Next time you get caught in the cycle of negative thoughts, feelings of insecurity, or self-doubt, try this practice.
First, realize what is happening. Often we react to our thoughts or internal dialogue, but are not even aware of it. Just confirm and label the current experience of the moment. For example, you can keep checking your phone without even realizing it. This behavior can negatively affect you, disrupt your sleep, or prevent you from spending time with your family. The process of realizing the experience creates a brief pause in the automatic thoughts or behaviors. You can flag what’s happening by telling yourself, I’ll check my business email again if I don’t have to. The second step is to allow. This is the process of allowing anything that arises – including feelings, emotions, physical sensations, or thoughts. In this step, you will practice dealing with the discomfort of the moment rather than turning to distractions, avoidant behaviors, or other coping strategies. Returning to our example, you may notice feelings of irritation, shame, frustration, or other emotions resulting from how much connected you are to your smartphone, how poorly balanced you are, or how often you check your business emails recall.
Third, examine what happens to gentle attention and kindness without continuing the negative thought patterns or self-judgment. There may be an inner dialogue about how you are always tied to your phone, how you are not present for your family, how you are not in control of yourself, and so on. Approach you with curiosity and compassion. You may think that your boss, colleague, or client will think you’re a bad lawyer if you don’t reply to their emails right away. Perhaps you are compulsively checking out social media to avoid difficult conversations or uncomfortable feelings.
Fourth, maintain. Self-compassion is not about indulging yourself, getting off the hook, or being selfish. It’s about realizing your suffering and practicing self-care. Perhaps through this investigation you will realize that there is an ingrained belief that you are not good enough, that you are inappropriate, or some other painful thought. What does this painful part of you need? How can you treat each other with kindness?
Finally, after the RAIN comes the practice of realizing that these thoughts, beliefs, or feelings don’t define you. As Brach writes, “The fruit of RAIN realizes that you are no longer trapped in a trance of unworthiness or a limiting sense of self.”
Overcoming self-criticism or negative beliefs is a gradual process and takes practice. You probably have many decades to ponder these thoughts and it will be some time before the narrative changes. Fortunately, what we practice becomes easier over time. So remember to be gentle with yourself, especially during these challenging times, and try to get out of the dark with RAIN.
This story was originally published in the February / March 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the heading “Cultivating Optimism: How to Unleash Self-Destructive Thoughts”.
Jeena Cho consults with law firms on stress management and mindfulness. She co-wrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.