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Bar News - November 17, 2006

Chasing the Gremlins: A Life Coach’s Experience with Lawyers




Like many of you Baby Boomers, I reached 50 this past year—and I have been taking stock. My introspection has brought me to the most exciting period of my life so far. After 25 years as a teacher and therapist, I have become a Life Coach—and though I work with people from all professions, fully 80 percent of the families referred to me over the past two years include at least one parent who is an attorney.  My phone has been ringing off the hook with those parents who are saying things like, “Well, Tommy’s not doing well in school, and my husband and I think he might be smoking a little pot.”


Learning to be open


Many attorneys seem to have difficulty being open, communicative and vulnerable with their partners, spouses, kids and ultimately with themselves.  Some of the reasons for this are:


  • Their professional work is demanding and often exhausting, and does not encourage the communication, attention and patience called for in the home environment.
  • The competitive marketplace has become more stressful and the work does not leave one with the energy and perspective needed for a successful personal and family life.
  • The language and life of the law are precise, organized and supremely left-brained.  The effort is to make very clear, rational sense of the world. 
  • The language and dynamics of individual, marital and family life are imprecise and unpredictable by definition—habeas corpus vs. snowboarding, briefs vs. diapers.


Recognizing the problem


For an attorney who finds him/herself (and maybe the family) struggling with these problems, the first step is acknowledgement.  “My marriage is in trouble…My daughter’s flunking college…I feel exhausted and sad…My son’s angry with us…” The possibilities are endless.  However,  the usual positive corollaries to being a lawyer—keen  intelligence, precise communication, high expectations of colleagues are the very attributes that often prevent deep feeling and introspection. Problems exist, but are not acknowledged—and when help is not sought, it cannot arrive.


During these two years, I have watched many bright, compassionate, loving attorneys bang their left-brain heads against the wall trying to make sense of the right-brain universe of personal and family life.  These people need to develop qualities of mind and heart that often run counter to their training and culture—and the first step is to recognize that it is okay to admit that there is a struggle going on, whether it’s in the individual or the family or the firm.


Step 1: Take a walk on the wild, vulnerable right ride: Ask for help!


Feeling vulnerable is quite okay and even encouraged.  Let me put it another way: Ultimately we all actually want to be vulnerable because that is the only way we can feel connected to ourselves and therefore to others.


Step 2: Write your own eulogy – now!


As frightening as this may be, use that trusty left brain (with plenty of right-side help) and write two versions of your eulogy: first, write the one they will read if you don’t change.  Be completely honest with yourself; show it to no one and allow yourself to feel while you write.  Re-read it.  Feel some more.


Now write the one you’d really like them to read, the one your kids will listen to and say, “Dad/Mom was so loving and wonderful…that eulogy was so right on and honest!  S/he was such a good person!”


Step 3: Make a decision for change.


Use the compelling energy and emotions from Step 1 and get specific.  Take a piece of blank paper and make a big circle.  Now divide the circle into a dozen pie pieces and label them as follows: Relationships, Education, Travel, Finances, Creativity, Making a Difference in the World, Family Members, Leisure, Spirituality, Health & Wellness and What You Really Want. The sky’s the limit: fantasize and then jot down what your true desires are in each category. 


Step 4: Draw up a plan for change based on the pie chart and learn about your gremlin.


Your gremlin does not want you to change.  He is the voice in your head that sells you on fear and shame.  Many lawyers have gremlins who says things like, “Take that case; the money’ll be good,” even though you’re already way too over-worked; and, “That son of yours needs to go!  He’s going to drive you nuts!” and, “You’ll never get off this treadmill, buddy.  What would your partners think if you took off early today?!”  A gremlin’s list goes on and on.


Step 5:  Commit to change—create a “Why Bother” list.


Keep this list with you and look at it often.  The lawyers I’ve worked with have made lists that say things like:


  • I’ll get divorced if I don’t change.
  • My kids already hardly talk with me.
  • I’ll end up in the hospital if I keep working so hard.
  • I’m miserable and I hate my job.


Include the most compelling reasons, the ones that weren’t even on the radar screen in law school, the ones you can hardly admit are true.  Look at the list quite often.


Step 6: Ask for more help if you need it.


Be honest with yourself through the process.  Because of our gremlins and the inherent suffering they bring, life can be very challenging.  It feels good to rely on someone else sometimes, and ultimately, it feels good to say, “I’m in trouble.”  The proverbial elephant in the kitchen begins to shrink then.  All kinds of untouchable, scary emotions may surface, but that’s called Playing a Bigger Game.  That’s called courage, connection, living a full life, dealing with the Whole Catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek put it.  It is, in my experience, the only pathway to a full, vibrant, productive and loving life.


Step 7: Procrastinate a bit.  Everyone does.

But if you have to continue procrastinating, ask for help.


A former public school teacher and dean of students at Vermont Academy and more recently a counselor with Cornerstone Family Resources in Concord, NH, Jeff Levin now has a private practice of life coaching, training and consultation.  Contact him at info@jefflevin


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