I have suffered through periods of high anxiety at times in my career. I’m not sure if that’s the correct term so I’ll tell you what I mean.
It’s more than just worrying about things. I was trained to worry about things – to check and re-check my work. And sometimes the self-checking process finds mistakes, and that just reinforces the need to check and re-check. Some amount of worrying is good. This in-built self-doubt makes us do a better job. But it can be an occupational hazard too.
For me, the anxiety comes when the balance between self-doubt and self-confidence goes awry. When the healthy paranoia becomes unhealthy paranoia.
My high anxiety starts when I’m constantly thinking back on work I’ve done and worrying about any minor imperfection or irrelevant detail. I can’t stay engaged in a simple conversation at home because my mind has already wandered back to thinking about work. There’s a fear of having missed things. I’m still checking and re-checking in my head days after an email has been sent. It also comes as endlessly worrying about how future events might play out.
I can get physical discomfort in my stomach and a dry mouth. I can become tense and overly sensitive to background noises like pen clicks. It makes me very irritable. This is more than normal worrying.
Writing this here, and with my name and photo included, I worry you’ll all think I’m a nervous wreck. I’m not. I like the exhilaration of dealing with high pressure situations and doing difficult work. I quite like a bit of stress. These periods of high anxiety have happened only a handful of times in my career, and usually when I’m also worrying about some genuinely stressful things outside of work. But when they do happen, they’re a problem.
Too often I have suffered through this high anxiety, working hard to appear that I’m still in control. But suffering through it is awful. I feel exhausted and generally have a low mood. And the quality of my work probably suffers too, which makes me feel even worse.
Asking for help
It took me too long to find the simple solution that works for me: asking for help. And not just asking for help on the issue that led to the anxiety, but announcing how I’m feeling.
A while ago I was working on a high pressure project and one matter within it started to go badly. It was the sort of challenge I would normally respond well to, but this time it seemed to tip me off balance. I could feel my stomach churn just reading the subject line of each new email arriving in my inbox. My confidence was sinking and my fear was rising.
I was annoyed at myself. “I can normally handle this!” Then, after a few days of struggle, I took a proper breath. “I can normally handle this. So what’s wrong? I’m not in control anymore. Whether I like it or not, that bad anxiety is here.”
I met with the relevant manager of my client team. (This was in an in-house role. If I were in a firm, I think I’d have spoken to a supervising lawyer or peer.) I told him I felt out of control and suggested that maybe someone else could take over on the matter.
“Of course,” the manager said, and he was more concerned about me than the work anyway. I left that conversation feeling high. It’s only when you relax you realise how tense you were. I kept working on the rest of the project confidently, and probably did my best work yet. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d tried to struggle through.
It was tough for me to ask if I could step aside. I want to be a lawyer that is sought after (and I still can be). While I was trained to worry about things, I was also trained to display control and confidence, to keep worry hidden unless the client needs to know. So earlier in my career I would’ve just kept working through a period of high anxiety.
People are kind
But speaking up was so much easier than that. My pride had been holding me back. No one has thought less of me for being honest about my feelings and asking for help. People are kind, and we all know how hard it can be.
Plus, with the help of all the ‘Practising Well’ articles and great conference speakers over recent years, I realised this was all okay, and maybe even normal. Sometimes that productive worrying, which helps me be a good lawyer, can get the better of me. And when it does, I still have the strength and judgement to acknowledge I’m feeling out of control, to know the work and my health matter more, and to ask for help. I am looking after the client and looking after myself, and that’s what good lawyers do.
Maybe you’re reading this article and you don’t get it. Fair enough. There is still a message for you, and for all readers. Please help to build and maintain a culture where we let lawyers admit to their colleagues when they’re struggling. Especially for our young lawyers, who have high expectations of themselves and feel they are competing with their peers. Please value those young lawyers who show the good judgment to say when they’re not coping and have the humility to put the client’s work ahead of their own image.
We might need to display control and confidence to our clients, but not to each other.
I worry about the mental health of lawyers. We all want to be good lawyers. We all want to appear strong. But sometimes it’s just too hard and that’s okay.
We can’t be too proud, or too competitive. Especially our young lawyers.
Ask for help.
Let your colleagues know they can ask for help.
Being a good lawyer – a lawyer who cares – is hard. But it is much easier in a team.
Henry Clayton works as an in-house government lawyer in Wellington, where he has been practising law for the past 10 years. He lives in Lower Hutt with his partner and two young kids.
Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD NZ, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah: firstname.lastname@example.org