Preserving Your Happiness and Self Esteem and Avoiding Depression After Being Laid Off
The past couple of years have been an economic nightmare for the country and for lawyers. You would have to go back to the Great Depression to see today’s national jobless rate of 9.5%. Fifteen states plus Washington, D.C. have gone over 10%. What about lawyers? In 1999 our jobless rate was 0.6% During 2008 it was a whopping 2.6% I don’t have a figure for 2009, but I know things are bleak.
Law firms keep laying off lawyers because they’ve gone bust, merged to avoid bankruptcy or shed associates to salvage a profit. There have been some high profile suicides of laid off partners. There are thousands of desperate associates out of work for a year or more with mortgages to pay and children to feed. We have thousands of law school graduates who’ve never gotten a job and wonder how they’ll ever repay their huge student loans. Low paying legal work isn’t even available, because it’s been outsourced to India.
Why Lawyers Are Apt to Take Unemployment Harder Than Other Occupations
If you’ve been laid off, I assume you’re doing everything humanly possible right now to find a job that’s acceptable to you. While the clock ticks on your job search your savings are dwindling and your bills are piling up. You’re worried about how to make ends meet on drastically reduced income and you’re facing hard choices about how to downsize your family’s lifestyle without overly disappointing or upsetting your kids.
Psychologists say that being out of work is very hard on anyone’s psyche, but is especially hard on lawyers for the following reasons:
• Lawyers identify very strongly with their jobs and garner much of their self-esteem from practicing law and having the power, prestige and perks that go with it.
• Lawyers are trained to serve clients and they spend nearly all of their professional time helping clients. When they’re out of work, they have no clients to represent or advise. Psychologically this saps their sense of purpose, usefulness and value as a person.
• Lawyers are used to working exceptionally long hours and being continuously busy. When they’re out of work, they have nothing to do and no idea how to fill their time. This gives them way too much time to ruminate about why they were laid off, how they are failing their family and if they will ever work again.
• Lawyers are used to helping others. They are too proud to accept help. When you’re laid off, sometimes the only way to resume employment is by accepting the help that is offered by others. It’s time to humble yourself, and to learn to let others help you when that’s what they want to do. Don’t reject their gift.
• American culture defines success by how much money people make at their jobs and influences people to value their self-worth by their net worth. When a lawyer is employed and pulling down an impressive salary that enable him to dress well, eat at fine restaurants, drive a new car and provide well for his family (including private school for the kids and exotic vacations) his ego balloon is inflated, and any doubts about being a “winner” in this society are kept at bay.
When his big salary is suddenly taken away, his balloon is likely to pop and he is plunged into feeling like a “loser,” a terrible feeling that sparks depression. It’s devastating to the ego to cease earning enough money (for your age and education) to win the invidious financial comparisons American culture imposes.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach describes this in heart-breaking detail in his latest book The Broken American Male and How To Fix Him, a book that applies equally well to American women who evaluate their adequacy as human beings in terms of their annual income.
Framing Your Situation To Help You Adapt and Function At Your Best
Avoiding depression and staying positive while you’re laid off requires psychological resiliency. With a cushion of resiliency, people can bounce back from this and other setbacks in life, and avoid getting stuck in a depressive tailspin.
Although it’s very hard to hear that you’ve been laid off, this doesn’t mean your life, your career or your days of meaningful work and good earnings as a lawyer are over. The studies done on how people respond to the diagnosis of a painful, chronic illness make it clear that with psychological resilience you can not only survive the ordeal but continue to experience satisfaction, pleasure and joy in your life.
While some of us are born with the trait of resiliency, some of us are more brittle and we tend to break when we are severely disappointed by life. All people can use more resiliency, especially lawyers. Lawyers have a low frustration tolerance. They are perfectionists. They hate failure. They are prone to shame when they’re not the best at something. They feel most comfortable when they know what will happen next and they’re in control. Being laid off creates all kinds of uncertainties.
Lawyers are left-brained. They see situations in either/or schemas. For them being laid off is all bad, yet that kind of thinking prevents them from exploring the potential for new avenues of practicing law that could be more satisfying. Resilience is the art of accepting setbacks and being soft and flexible when you need to. Resilience embodies an ability to see the whole situation, the bad news as well as the opportunity. Resilience means being willing to engage in a trial and error process that entails risking failure, making mistakes and learning as you head off in new, uncharted territory.
Most professional groups consist of disparate individuals with no one psychological trait in common. In a famous study by psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D. (former head of the American Psychological Association and the father of the new field of positive psychology), Dr. Seligman’s group found that lawyers do share one trait in common, pessimism. Because lawyers focus on the dark side of situations, it’s especially important for them to boost their resiliency during a lay off.
When you’re resilient you retain zest, optimism, hopefulness and trust in your own goodness, intelligence and creativity. You refuse to endorse doubts about your competence or think in terms of worst case scenarios. You keep your mind open to new possibilities and new options, and you look for signs of them on the horizon. You keep working mentally to develop a vision of what you want to do when you re-enter the work world, and you develop your own spiritual/energetic rituals to help manifest this vision. You eat healthy, exercise every day, take walks in nature, socialize with friends and find ways to laugh, such as seeing funny movies.
Psychological Keys to Boosting Resilience During a Job Layoff
• Remember that a period of unemployment is just a snapshot of one moment in time and that life is a long, changeable and unpredictable thing. You will have many new opportunities, just as some people who are now employed will be terminated or laid off in the future. We’re always changing places on life’s merry-go-round.
• Be patient. Take small steps towards resuming employment. Celebrate each successful small step. You can pat yourself on the back. Better yet mark the occasion with a nice dinner with your spouse to re-enforce your togetherness.
• Reconnect with yourself. You’ve been crazy busy since law school. Take advantage of this break in your ceaseless stream of activity. Use this gift of free time to grow your self-awareness and gain wisdom about the purpose of your life. Restore balance to your life. Take time to connect deeply with yourself. Learn that you have much value as a person wholly apart from what you do at the law office. When you resume employment, bring this new awareness with you.
• Accept what you cannot change and make the best of it. The Buddha said the law of the universe is constant change. All situations dissolve in time. Therefore it was never realistic to assume your job would last. The loss of your job is nobody’s fault, and certainly not your own. It is the nature of life. Please do not be ashamed of yourself and avoid spending time with your spouse and children because of shame. With all of your new found time, you have an opportunity to heal and improve your relationships with your spouse and children.
You now have the time to show your spouse the admiration, appreciation and affection that he or she deserves. You now have the time to re-start and re-spark the romance, sexuality and intimacy that has suffered from all your time at the office and your constant focus on work. You also have the time to get involved in your childrens’ lives. Whether it’s helping with homework, coaching sports, volunteering in the classroom, seeing a movie, going to the zoo or asking them to talk about their lives, it’s all wonderful.
• Be honest. Don’t be like the father I knew who pretended he was going to work every morning of his layoff to his adolescent child so she wouldn’t feel stress! Your kids may ask you, “why are you home so much?” “why don’t you work anymore?” or “are we poor now?” These questions are natural. Please don’t get mad at them or mad at yourself. Explain honestly that our economy has faltered, law firms are struggling and can’t afford to keep lawyers on and lawyer jobs are scarce. Reassure them things will be OK. Tell them you love them. Tell them you are glad to have some free time to be with them.
What You Can Do Now to Lift Your Mood and Keep It Up
There are a variety of activities that have been shown scientifically to act as mood boosters. These activities are free or involve minimal costs. They are easy to do. Unlike prescription drugs they have no unwanted side effects!
• Surround yourself with positive family members and friends who are supportive of you. Do not isolate yourself or spend time with people who are critical of you or pessimistic about your situation.
• Exercise at least 20-30 minutes every day. Whatever the activity (running, walking, swimming, cycling, weight lifting, pilates) push it to the point where you raise your heart rate and break a sweat.
• If it’s not raining, get outside every day for at least one hour to get fresh air and Vitamin D from sunshine. Take a walk on a park trail. Smell the flowers. Visually take in the scenery, the changing cloud patterns and the birds. Trees bring great comfort. If no one’s looking consider hugging a tree. If that’s too much of a stretch, how about sitting below the tree with your back against its trunk and relaxing or reading a book (perhaps one by Whitman or Thoreau).
• Use your hands to create something tangible that contributes to your family’s survival or pleasure. Plant and care for a vegetable garden. Carve and paint a toy for your child. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Set the table, put out flowers
and prepare a delicious dinner using simple ingredients. Kelly Lambert, Ph.D. has called using your hands to do useful chores “prehistoric Prozac.”
• Do volunteer work in your community to help those less fortunate, gain perspective and cheer yourself up. Do it at a literacy project site, a homeless shelter, a food distribution center or Habitat for Humanity project site. If your schedule does not permit scheduled kindness, then perform one random act of kindness for a total stranger every day. Either form of kindness will warm up your world and make you feel better.
• Remind yourself what you’re grateful about. This could be a positive like being alive, being healthy, living in comfortable home, having tasty meals on the table 3 times a day, having a loving spouse and children, having a great resume that will eventually land you a job or having had a great job that enabled you to put away substantial savings for this rainy day. It could be the absence of a negative like not having cancer, not being bankrupt or not having your home in foreclosure. There are two ways of staying in touch with gratitude. One way is to keep a written gratitude journal. Another way is to remind yourself verbally of five things you’re grateful for each night as you’re lying in bed just before you drift off to sleep.
• Listen to uplifting music or read inspiring poetry.
• Laugh. It brings oxygen deep into your lungs and releases endorphins. An easy way to start laughing is to watch funny movies on DVDs. If you can watch funny movies with family members or friends who have the same sense of humor that’s still better.
• Avoid commercial TV with its ads reminding you how deficient you are and avoid mass media news broadcasts filled with depressing stories of war, death, famine and epidemic disease.
• Keep your mind as active, fresh and creative as possible. Take books out of the library for free and enjoy them. You could even form a book club.
• Meditate. Meditation will quiet and calm your restless, anxious mind. This is important, because it’s so common to feel anxiety when you’re unemployed. Anxiety is not an inherent property of events, but a pattern of thought we learn to associate with certain kinds of events. The anxious thought triggers the hormonal fight-flight response which triggers shallow chest breathing, muscle tension and a sickly feeling. These bodily changes trigger more anxious thoughts which perpetuate secretion of stress hormones. You wind up in a mental-emotional-physical knot.
Meditation will help you cut the knot. You can learn how to breathe deeply into your belly, relax and see your worries about money with detachment. As you progress in meditation, feelings of peace, ease and self-compassion will take root. Yoga can also help by getting you to stretch and lengthen your muscles while breathing deeply. A combination of mediation and yoga is still more effective as a means to release stress and promote wellbeing.
When you’re laid off it seems as if you have dropped out of the world. You spend much more time alone and you experience a sense of loneliness. A great way to learn and to practice meditation and yoga is in a group class. Group energy is healing. Being in a group can also lead to social bonding, friendships and business contacts. Go on the Internet and find group classes in your community. Save gas. Save money. Get there by bicycle and benefit from the cardiovascular exercise.
• Group therapy. In every community there are therapy groups for adults with life issues they need to work on. There are groups to help people overcome addictions, to grieve the death of a loved one, to come out of an episode of depression or handle a life transition such as divorce or retirement. Most groups meet in the evening but with effort you can find a daytime group. Some are just for men, some just for women and some are coed.
Joining and participating in a peer group is hugely beneficial. You discover you’re not alone, not the only person on the planet who is suffering psychologically because he or she has been laid off. Your peers listen to you, understand you, mirror your feelings and validate your feelings. They give you advice, encouragement and support.
Some Advice and A Word of Warning About Depression
These techniques for cultivating resiliency and boosting your mood can enrich the rest of your life if you keep doing them after you go back to work. What if you’re too depressed to use these techniques? That would not be terribly surprising since depression is common in our society and is the number one cause of disability in people aged 15-44. Right now approximately 6.5% of all Americans have Major Depression. The traditional estimate in the psychiatric literature is that 12% of men and 21% of women will suffer one episode of major depression in their lifetime. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has just come out with a new estimate that as much as half of all people in westernized countries will experience an episode of major depression in their lifetime!
The base rate of depression is higher for lawyers than other people. A series of research papers published in the 1990s (which I can direct you to upon request) established that the rate of major depression among lawyers hold steady at 19%, which is nearly three times the rate of the general population. In a landmark study by William W. Eaton, Ph.D. et al. funded by the Johns Hopkins University and published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine (volume 32, issue 11, pp. 1079-87), it was established that lawyers had the highest rate of major depression amongst all other full time workers in over 100 occupations, including all the other professions.
Unemployment is one of the most frequent triggers of major depression. Since 1 out of every 5 lawyers working full time is depressed, one must assume that when a lawyer is laid off, he’s at even higher risk for depression. When you’re not happy at work, at least you can console yourself with the fact that you’re making a lot of money. That rationalization is taken away when you’re laid off.
If you’re feeling depressed right now, please go see a psychologist for assessment and treatment right now. Approximately 90% of all cases of depression that get treated improve, yet one nationally known psychologist (Terrance Real) believes that 60 to 80% of people who are depressed don’t seek treatment. The primary reason people avoid treatment is to avoid the shame and stigma that goes with admitting you feel bad and need help. But some depressed people have cognitive distortions. Some refuse to believe anyone can help them. Others believe they are bad people who deserve to stay depressed, so they forego treatment that could help them feel better.
While you’re depressed you’re not in a position to help yourself. You can’t climb out of the hole and secure re-employment because the very symptoms of your depression stop you.
The chief symptoms of major depression are: marked inability to take interest in or experience pleasure in normal activities; significant increase or decrease in appetite with significant increase or decrease in weight; insomnia with daytime fatigue and lethargy; feelings of sadness, inadequacy, worthlessness and hopelessness; blaming oneself for everything that goes wrong; irritability; social withdrawal; pains all over the body with no objective signs of illness or injury; slowing of thinking, speech or movement; diminished ability to concentrate, think, remember or multi-task; and having recurrent thoughts of self-harm, even suicide. Some people lose their emotional expressiveness and develop frozen facial features called “the mask of depression.”
No one can will himself or herself out of depression. You need treatment. The sooner the better. Untreated depression can lead you down the road to alcoholism or shove a sober alcoholic off the wagon and back to drinking. Untreated depression triples the risk of developing coronary artery disease and ups the chance of having a heart attack or stroke by 60%. In people who’ve already had one heart attack, becoming depressed increases the risk of a fatal heart attack by 3.6 times. Untreated depression is the single most common cause of suicide.
While depression can remit on its own, treatment will greatly speed up improvement and significantly cut the time that you and your family suffer. The psychologist will not only counsel you, but will refer you to a psychiatrist to prescribe anti-depressants to help you through your crisis. If you are seriously depressed, then please do not delay visiting the psychologist any longer.
Even if you’re not seriously depressed, you may be having a difficult time with your “inner critic,” that voice in your head that evaluates and comments on your performance as a human being. During unemployment your inner critic can become stronger and start relentlessly bashing you. This is not helpful. This is the time you need to stay positive and remind yourself what a great person you are despite not having a job. If this is happening then buy a copy of Happy 4 Ever by Bob Nozik. M.D. He’s a very good source of advice on how to permanently deflate an over-sized inner critic who has run amok.
A Word of Encouragement
Whether or not you become depressed, being laid off is an ordeal for any lawyer, and the longer it lasts the tougher the ordeal. Unemployment is humbling but it doesn’t have to destroy us. It can strengthen us if we resume employment by approaching our layoff with a strategy. That strategy should include using techniques to increase resilience and manage stress, to stay positive and to get treatment promptly if you become depressed, alcoholic or both. Don’t avoid people. This is the time you most need your friends. This is the time you most need counseling.
Nearly every state bar in the U.S. has a Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) that offers confidential services of some type to lawyers who are laid off such as group therapy, employment counseling and credit counseling. You paid your annual state bar dues which funded your LAP. You might as well contact your LAP and get some help.
My best wishes to you for making it through your lay off.
When you make it the other side you will have grown as a person and you will justly feel stronger, wiser and more self-confident. Hopefully, you will also have more compassion for the many other people in our economy who are not working because of mental or physical disability, corporate bankruptcy, corporate downsizing and a host of other reasons.
Life can pull the proverbial rug out from any of us at any time. It’s hard to learn compassion in a classroom. When you learn compassion for yourself and others from the experience of being laid off and being out of work a long time, you really learn it. I hope you will keep your compassion and infuse your law practice with it when you return to work. Our system desperately needs it.