Dear anxiety, you only make me better

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For many of us unhappy attorneys, we’re feeling pretty down right now. We feel we’re locked into a legal job we don’t like. Or we feel we can’t get any job at all. We feel that our set of skills is limited only to a law practice. We feel time is flitting away. We feel overwhelmed. We feel somewhat helpless.

And even when we find a community like Leave Law Behind, and we feel encouraged that we’re not alone in our dissatisfaction as an attorney, and we finally begin to understand what it really takes to properly leave the law and we begin to think about other possibilities and opportunities in life … we still can’t help but feel that the obstacles to leaving are too many, the time to do this takes too long, our self-worth is too low, and our paralysis too strong to act.

Fortunately there is a nascent positive in the ostensibly negative. Just the fact that we’re even considering such confidence-sapping, anxiety-producing, paralysis-inducing actions is a sign that we’re doing the right thing. That’s correct. It’s a sign of budding courage, a sign of a slight shift in our outlook. It’s a necessary baby-step in and of itself.

And as we endeavor to further cultivate this courage and motivation in the face of anxiety and doubt, here are three things to keep in mind:

1.   You don’t need to be perfect: As attorneys, much of our nervousness and stress comes from not wanting to fail, not wanting to disappoint. First, we are just the type of people who expect perfection from what we do, and get really down when we don’t do well. And second, the job requirements for an attorney inherently expect us to know everything for our clients benefit, or to be able to find it quickly. This can be extremely stressful.

But as we leave law behind, the opposite is true … we don’t need to be perfect, actually, we are expected to not be perfect. We need to, and will, make mistakes. And making mistakes is actually just another way of saying “trying things”. And trying things is actually just a non-committal way (read “baby step) to see what we like and don’t like, so we can be prudent as we choose the next personal and professional paths and so we don’t dive head first into some-new-thing/some-new-degree/some-new-job/some-new-career without thinking critically about it and then have regrets about what we did.

2.   Don’t worry about what you can’t control: I’ve learned that when I get that pit in my stomach about something I’m worrying about, it’s usually about something over which I have little to no control. From business to my kids to my health to my future, all of those things I find myself really worrying about never really come to fruition.

The same goes when we think of leaving law behind. Before many of us even think of leaving the law, we consider all of the what-ifs, reasonable and otherwise. Will my supervising partner find out I want to leave? Will my reputation be ruined? Will I burn a bridge? Will I disappoint anyone? Will I throw away my career and become a pariah amongst friends and colleagues? If I do leave, will I mess everything up and lose my money and end up living in a box? Will the state bar find out and publish my name on a blimp and everyone will see it in the sky and point fingers and laugh at me? This stress and set of scenarios can rip up our insides and make us not want to take another step.

As much as we lawyers are taught and trained to be in control, in order to leave the law, we need to lessen this need and rather be comfortable in living our life without full control of our surroundings and circumstances. It doesn’t mean we lose sight of reality or sabotage ourselves. Rather, it just means that we need to focus our energy on what we can change and influence, and not on what that little “demon voice” and other negative energy in our heads wants us to believe.

3.   Remember, by taking these steps, you are building the necessary courage: It may not be the stare-down-the-enemy-in-the-battlefield-guts-and-gory courage that Hollywood makes famous, but as we move towards leaving the law, we do still develop the real life ability to do something that frightens us … to leave law behind, to change our situation for the better.

As we see the value in trying new things, and learning from our mistakes, and building on our successes, we grow courage. Just like when we lift weights, the slight tearing of our muscle actually results in building more muscle, which means we get stronger and can lift more, the same goes here: When we tear down our confidence and suffer anxiety and being low, and actually get through it and remain standing, we soon build up more courage. And with courage, comes the confidence to do more and more seemingly “scary” things. And the more things we try the better we can create new professional opportunities and networking channels and interesting ideas, which only increases our ability to find that role or job which is in alignment with what we are good at, what we enjoy, what we do well.

Face the uncomfortable. Tackle the anxiety producing. Fight through the paralysis. It’s courageous. And it’s part of the plan.

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