Needing to Find the Balance Again

  • October 04, 2022

Dear Advy,

I am a family lawyer working at a small practice.  With everything going on with what seems like a never-ending pandemic, my practice has no shortage of clients, which is great from a business standpoint, but extremely depressing when it comes to the amount of trauma I am seeing my clients facing on a daily basis.I normally have always been good at separating myself from these cases but lately I am having a really hard time.I find myself waking up in the middle of the night with conversations from the previous day going around and around in my head. I am starting to feel a bit like a zombie when I get into the office.My colleagues do not seem to be struggling at all and they are dealing with the same type of clients and workload that I am.I am not sure quite how to deal with this and it is not like a can discuss my cases with anyone outside of the office.I am worried if I bring this up to my colleagues that it will affect my career in some negative way. 


Needing to Find the Balance Again

Dear Needing to Find the Balance Again,

I can be fairly certain that the worst advice you’ve received so far is some variant on “Just don’t think about it”. Trying to will yourself to stop thinking about work or the trauma your clients share with you is self-defeating. In fact, as a general comment relying on what we call “willpower” to solve this kind of problem isn’t just unhelpful; it’s counterproductive.  Dostoyevsky observed in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

"Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."

Tell yourself not to think about the conversations you have had with clients earlier in the day and, just like that darned polar bear, they will come right in your head. 

We can divide those intrusive polar bears into two sub-species: 

  1. Helpful
  2. Unhelpful

By the way, before we get further into our intrusive polar bear discussion, don’t beat yourself up that your colleagues appear not to have this problem. Either your co-workers are not letting on that they are having it, or they have already consciously or unconsciously incorporated some of the strategies I am going to explain here.

The CBA’s Well-Being Hour has an entire episode on the same question you are raising. At the very least watching it can help you remember you’re not the only one going through this. 

1. Helpful If Annoying Intrusions

One of the reasons why the conversations are in your mind at an inconvenient time is that there may be something about those thoughts that you want to keep in active memory for fear of forgetting them. In ruminating about a conversation earlier in the day, you may have come across some insight that you want to be able to pick up on when you are back at work. If that is the case, make use of a journal or pad of paper - or even make a voice note on your phone - to jot down the thought you had rolling through your head. You may have a conscious or unconscious reluctance to let the thought leave your active memory and you are doing the only thing that works to keep it in active memory – repetition. 

Importantly, make a habit of reviewing those notes when you are at the office. If you don’t trust yourself to review the note at work, your active memory will not let go of that thought. You will often find that once you have relieved yourself of the anxiety of losing that insight you can much more easily let the conversation slip out of active memory.

You can also make use of your calendar to help manage these kinds of thoughts. Ruminating about a problem at the appropriate time can be very useful. Make an appointment with yourself to “Worry About Problem X” during the workday. Not only does that allow you to harness the power of what you are experiencing for a positive purpose, it has a neat side-effect. Telling your unconscious mind not to think of the polar bear doesn’t work. However, your odds of success are much higher if you can tell your unconscious mind “Think about the polar bear on Tuesday at 10:30.” We tend to dismiss “worry” or “rumination” as simply bad things.  They’re not.  Deployed at times and in ways that don’t harm you they can be extremely useful thought patterns. It’s only when they interfere with other essential activities like sleeping or enjoying life that they become a problem.

A good book to read on managing this kind of helpful, if ill-timed, thought is Daniel Levitan’s The Organized Mind.

2. Unhelpful Thoughts

Of course, some or maybe even most of these ruminations may be nothing more than your workday on repeat.This sub-species has none of the redeeming qualities of the helpful thoughts and serves only to keep you awake at night and feeling like a zombie in the morning.

Think about what you do between the time you leave work and the time you arrive at home.What habits could you build into that time that would help you separate your mindset at home from the mindset you have at work? Could you get some gentle exercise by walking or biking home, or perhaps stopping at a gym? Could you designate some landmark on the route home where you imagine leaving your work worries behind until the next day? Is there music you could play in your car or in earbuds on the subway/bus that would help alter what you think about? Find something or some combination of somethings that put your body and mind in a different state than they are at work.

Pay attention to your body. We tend to think of our minds as being distinct from our bodies. The reality is that your brain is very much tied into what is going on below your neck. One neurologist commented that the brain has a “resolute aboutness” to it. Your body may be feeding it signals that indicate stress, hunger, an urgent need to sleep or any number of other things. Your brain converts those signals into thoughts about something because that’s what it does all the time. In your case, those thoughts are about issues at work. However, if you didn’t have work to think about and you were nonetheless chronically sleep-deprived and ate poorly you would have anxious thoughts about something else. Trying to understand your distress by focusing only on the thoughts themselves is a little like trying to appreciate Miles Davis by reading sheet music. The notes on the page are a representation of what is going on, yes, but you are missing a great deal. 

Drink water, get rest, turn off blue light in the evenings, lay off the caffeine after noon, avoid alcohol near bedtime, exercise, eat healthy nutritious food and make social connections with other people. Doing those things might seem completely irrelevant to the problem but by taking care of your underlying health needs you are in a better position to manage those anxious thoughts. Pay extra attention to those bodily needs right around the time you are transitioning from work to rest and develop habits or specific patterns of behaviour that let you take care of yourself without really having to think about it.

By building some kind of ritual around letting go of work thoughts you can help yourself in separating work from home. Call it “commute hygiene”. Will some of that feel artificial or even weird at first? You bet it will. However, if you stick to it, you will find yourself doing it without even having to think about it after a few weeks.

A trained counsellor may be able to help you build these transition rituals in a way that suits your specific needs. A counsellor may also be able to help you with the distress you are feeling on experiencing your clients’ trauma vicariously. Make use of the help you can get through your local lawyer assistance program to get started.

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