5 Lessons I Learned About Change From a Recovering Lawyer

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Y ears ago, before becoming a therapist, I was a young lawyer working in New York City. At the time, I was commuting from my apartment in Brooklyn to my office in the Bronx. The journey was especially grueling during the evening rush hour. I would break up the trip by stopping at the halfway point to take a yoga class in lower Manhattan. The difference between the crowded subway car’s chaotic environment and the serenity of the yoga studio was striking. My mid-commute yoga class was a powerful reset to my day, and I became relaxed and at ease for the remainder of my evening when before I had felt stressed and exhausted from a long workday.

“Recovering Lawyer”

One of my first yoga teachers was a self-identified “recovering lawyer.” After a long and unhappy career in the corporate world, he left his law practice to study and teach yoga full-time. At the time, the idea of my teacher walking away from his career terrified me. How did he survive financially? What about his student loans? And rent? Could he even afford to have fun? How could someone achieve so much and then walk away from all that hard work and sacrifice? And not just walk away, but choose a career fundamentally different from the law? How was he able to create such dramatic and meaningful change in his life?

therapist for lawyers
My mid-commute yoga class was a powerful reset to my day.

Eventually, I came to realize that my fear and confusion were masking an even more terrifying truth — that I too wanted powerful change in my life. However, my journey did not require that I entirely leave the practice of law, although I did eventually return to school and become a psychotherapist. My process began with a simple but powerful acknowledgment that I was unhappy as a lawyer but did not yet know which career would make me happy.

Acknowledging your unhappiness and uncertainty can free you up to make small choices that make you happy.

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Acknowledging both my unhappiness and my uncertainty freed me to make small choices that did make me happy. I traveled to see friends. I took up the guitar. I went on silent meditation retreats. I became a regular at a new favorite restaurant.

Despite an unhappy career and an uncertain future, I was becoming far better at finding joyful moments in my life. A friend’s mantra that “things have a way of working out perfectly,” no longer sounded delusional and self-indulgent to me. As my days continued to improve, I began to accept the idea that the world around me was friendly and supportive. For the first time, I was centering my life around what intuitively made me happy, instead of assumptions about what might make me happy in the future. Eventually, this simple shift had profound effects and led me to return to school, start a second career, and dramatically reinterpret how I wanted to practice as an attorney.

therapists for lawyers in nyc
Centering my life around what intuitively made me happy, instead of assumptions about what might make me happy in the future proved to be transformative.

I’d like to share some of these simple yet profound lessons that I learned and was able to apply to my own journey.

5 Lessons About Change From a Recovering Lawyer:

1. Move away from all or nothing thinking
2. Embrace the whole truth
3. Choose to be guided by pleasure instead of fear
4. Identify what’s in your control when things feel uncertain
5. Acknowledge how your experience of misfortune shifts over time

1. Move away from all-or-nothing thinking

In the world of addiction and twelve step, people often refer to hitting “rock bottom.” Life at its absolute worst is a rare opportunity for change because once life becomes unbearable, the only option is to do the challenging work of sobriety. However, most of us are not living unbearable lives, and we never hit rock bottom. Instead, we stay in our unhappy careers and relationships because we know that although our current situation isn’t great, things could always be worse. Instead of taking action, we stay where we are, and we remain unhappy in our bearable but unsatisfying lives. We stay trapped because we assume our happiness is dependent on deciding whether to stay in the career or leave, stay in the relationship or leave. However, the path toward change does not require us to make such a stark choice and only paralyzes us from moving forward.

Change only requires us to take the next small step toward something that brings us some amount of happiness, excitement, or joy.

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Change only requires us to take the next small step toward something that brings us some amount of happiness, excitement, or joy. We do ourselves a disservice when we assume change happens quickly and predictably. The recovering lawyer did not wake up one day, quit his job, and become a yoga teacher. His transformation journey began years ago with a small step toward change — enrolling in his first yoga class.

We do ourselves a disservice when we assume change happens quickly and predictably.
therapists for lawyers seeking change

2. Embrace the whole truth

How do we know where to begin? To start, it’s helpful to see the complete picture of our lives. The brain struggles with nuance or paradox. It’s challenging to acknowledge the contradictions that often fill our lives. We may value honesty and also tell white lies. We may love our spouse and also want a divorce. We may hate our jobs, and also enjoy our annual bonus.

Unless we acknowledge the contradictions in our lives, we’re not looking at the whole truth.

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Our brains evolved to make snap decisions to keep our prehistoric ancestors safe from predators and danger. However, daily life in our modern world is far more complex and nuanced. Unless we acknowledge the contradictions in our lives, we’re not looking at the whole truth. Without this fine lens, our action or inaction may be based on erroneous thinking.

In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, we practice embracing contradiction as a helpful starting place for change. By acknowledging that we may both hate our jobs and want our bonus, we learn that staying in the position or leaving will not lead to happiness. Leaving the job satisfies the part of us that hates our job, but staying satisfies the part that wants the bonus. Therefore, we begin to understand that we must start by looking elsewhere for opportunities for positive change.

3. Choose to be guided by pleasure instead of fear

Albert Einstein reportedly said the first and most basic question we must answer for ourselves is whether we live in a friendly universe. Does our world support us in exploring life and our creative pursuits? Or do we live in a hostile universe where safety requires our constant vigilance? Without realizing it, many of us were taught from a young age that the world is far more dangerous than supportive. Not surprisingly, we base our decisions (what we do for a living, who we date, how we parent) on assumptions about what keeps us safe and protected from harm and not on what maximizes our pleasure and joy.

Unfortunately, this often leads to anxiety and depression, and our attempts to guarantee safety come at the direct cost of our freedom. Avoiding a broken heart limits our ability to be vulnerable and deepen our relationships. Avoiding the discomfort that comes with a job interview limits our ability to advance professionally.

What type of universe do you live in? Do you fill your days with pleasure-seeking or risk-avoidant activities?

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What type of universe do you live in? Do you fill your days with pleasure-seeking or risk-avoidant activities? If you’re unsure, a helpful question to ask is, “Am I having fun?” For example, when you eat delicious food, do you tend to think about the calories and health consequences (fear-based), or do you savor each flavorful bite (pleasure-based)? During your morning shower, do you spend the time anxiously reviewing your daily to-do list, or do you take a few minutes to appreciate a good scalp massage? While it may seem overly simplistic, don’t discount the power of aligning your focus with pleasure. After all, Marie Kondo has built a multi-million dollar business helping others make decisions based on what sparks joy.

During your morning shower, do you spend the time anxiously reviewing your daily to-do list, or do you take a few minutes to appreciate a good scalp massage?
coping with anxiety

4. Identify what’s in your control when things feel uncertain

Although the tradeoff of sacrificing our pleasure for our safety might seem rational, guaranteed safety is an illusion. We may feel immediately better after choosing the “safe” option, but the long-term effect is often detrimental to our happiness and joy.

Although the tradeoff of sacrificing our pleasure for our safety might seem rational, guaranteed safety is an illusion. We may feel immediately better after choosing the ‘safe’ option, but the long-term effect is often detrimental to our happiness and joy.

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Moreover, the pandemic showed us that it’s not possible to predict the future. Despite our best-laid plans, the world and our lives were turned upside down in an instant. For many of us, the global pandemic revealed that we have far less control over our lives, our plans, others, and our safety than we thought we did. Interestingly enough, the pandemic seemed to permit us to begin to live more authentically. People left unhappy relationships and unsatisfying careers for new paths they’d only daydreamt about.

 For many, it was a welcomed relief to turn down social or family obligations without much guilt or afterthought. Perhaps the perspective of realizing life is often too short and unpredictable forced people to evaluate what they truly wanted. As a result, many people were emboldened to make profound changes. If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that we cannot control the future, but we can make small daily choices to live more joyfully in the present moment. 

We cannot control the future, but we can make small daily choices to live more joyfully in the present moment. 

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5. Acknowledge how your experience of misfortune shifts over time

Many of us have experienced negative life events that, in hindsight, were blessings in disguise. Years after a messy breakup with an ex who broke your heart, you may realize that ending the relationship was the best thing you ever did. Or a missed job opportunity that caused you so much shame and self-doubt was a blessing in disguise due to the lack of support, a dysfunctional team, or any number of reasons.

Often procrastination in writing a paper or working on a project leads to days or even weeks of stress. Yet in the eleventh hour, we may be struck with inspiration where everything falls into place, making the final product far better. This isn’t to discount negative life experiences, but rather a reminder that we often gain a fresh perspective with distance from our problems, and helpful to keep in mind when we’re feeling paralyzed to make a change that feels life-altering. 

The bottom line on change

As humans, we intuitively know what brings us pleasure and joy. By consciously choosing to prioritize happiness, we can live more authentically and strengthen our intuition and creativity. By recognizing what gives us pleasure, we become consciously aware of what is currently causing us displeasure in our lives. Only then do we begin to move toward joy, aligned with our true selves and away from self-doubt, pain, and living a life for others.

Your Turn: What ways have you created meaningful change in your own life? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

Josh Watson

Josh Watson is a Licensed Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. He specializes in counseling for entrepreneurs, creatives, and high-achievers who are feeling stuck and unfulfilled. Josh helps individuals reclaim their sense of purpose and passion for life.

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