Today, we’re going to be talking about a topic I feel very strongly about, cognitive behavioral therapy for lawyers. It’s also something that I’ve been seeing more and more in the legal profession. There is a school of thought that your thoughts cause your feelings. This idea is derived from a well-established and evidence-based type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy.
As you know, I frequently advocate for people in the legal profession to go to therapy. But, in this article, you’ll learn about the reality of CBT for lawyers and how it can be more harmful than helpful.
The Nuance of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Lawyers
The nuance in this whole concept of cognitive-behavioral therapy is that, indeed, we can sometimes engage in unhelpful thinking. There are unhealthy thinking patterns we engage in that need to be interrupted, and cognitive behavioral therapy does introduce strategies that can help you do that to promote your own wellness. However, there is a limit to all of these things.
Here’s what frustrates me, when I see advice being given to lawyers to simply “think differently to change how they feel.” That’s just not how we work as human beings. That’s not how our minds actually work. If someone tells you that your thoughts cause your feelings, then it’s generally and physiologically inaccurate.
The Inaccuracy Of The CBT Thought Process When Misapplied:
Can some thoughts contribute to some types of feelings? Yes. But during the cycle of thoughts and feelings, feelings come first, not thoughts. Negative feelings are what cause negative thinking.
What happens if you believe that your thoughts cause your feelings and that you have control over all of your thoughts and emotions? Well, when you feel something negative, your nervous system will react to whatever is going on.
You may believe that it’s your thoughts that are controlling your feelings, but it’s really your nervous system. Your body responds to the situation, the feeling you have. When you try and attach thoughts to that, it’s not going to work. Your body is not designed to work that way.
Why Cognative Behavioral Therapy For Lawyers Can Be More Harmful Than Helpful:
The reason I think these matters for people in the legal profession is the language that surrounds CBT for lawyers. It’s really troubling to me because many people in the legal profession have significant workplace trauma and potentially other types of trauma.
We know with 100% certainty that lawyers have a very high rate of mental illness. To approach someone who is struggling with mental illness or who has experienced trauma and tell them that the suffering that they’re experiencing is entirely within their control or their fault is completely harmful. It gives lawyers this false sense of responsibility for the suffering that they experience.
I think it’s important for those in the legal profession to hear that your body has wisdom. Your nervous system has a wisdom that is separate from your thinking mind. Trying to govern your entire life with only your thinking mind is why you’re having problems around mental health.
People can’t just be “mind over matter” or simply think a different thought and have a different feeling. I cannot overstate how damaging some of these messages can be and frankly dangerous for people’s mental health, for their ultimate well-being.
Thinking About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Here’s Some Advice:
If you see people giving advice about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for lawyers, consider what they’re saying with a critical lens and remember that you are human and you are not just a walking brain, and that is a good thing.
I highly recommend reading Try Softer by Aundi Kolber. It comes from a faith-based perspective which is important to me, but it can be a helpful primer regardless of whether or not you actually decide to practice cognitive behavioral therapy.
This book talks through a lot of the things that have come up in some recent episodes in the Former Lawyer Podcast around trauma, fight or flight instincts, and how our nervous systems work.
The more that we can understand these things, the more that we can look out for ourselves and make sure that we are getting safe, kind, humane, ethical advice and treatment that honors who we are as whole people and that allows us to truly heal and flourish in the world and in the legal profession.
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Mentioned In This Article:
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.
Hello, everyone. This is really important. This episode is releasing on Monday, December 6th. On Friday of this week, if you're listening to the episode the week that it releases, on Friday, the 10th at 5:00 PM, the price to join my program, The Former Lawyer Collaborative, is going up. Currently, it costs $1,500 to join. On Friday, after 5:00 PM, it will cost $1,950. When you join the Collaborative, you do get lifetime access for the lifetime of the program. The Collaborative is my program where I work with lawyers to help them figure out what it is that they want to do and how to get that other job that is not a legal job. There are tons more details, obviously, I won't go into here but go to formerlawyer.com/collab. You want to go there to see all the information and you can enroll there. Again, the price is going up on Friday, December 10th, at 5:00 PM Eastern.
Now, let's talk about the topic of this week's episode, which is a topic that I feel very strongly about and I'm going to try not to get ranty, but it's something that I've been seeing more and more of. I just want you to know, the reason that I want to talk about this topic is that I see lawyers being harmed by some types of advice out there. Let's get into this.
There is a school of thought that your thoughts cause your feelings. This idea is derived from a well-established and evidence-based type of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy. I personally have worked with a therapist who uses cognitive behavioral therapy methods in the past and they were very helpful. But the challenge with cognitive behavioral therapy is that some of the principles can be taken and extrapolated in ways that are extremely harmful, and in particular, ways that I find to be extremely harmful for lawyers because of how we have been trained. If you hear someone talking about, for example, changing your thoughts to change your feelings or some variation of the importance of managing your mind, sometimes, those people are talking about this phenomenon that I am describing.
Here's the thing, again, I am not someone who wants to take an extreme position on this because I think that there is nuance. There is nuance in the sense that it's absolutely true that we can sometimes engage in unhelpful thinking, in thinking patterns that we need to interrupt, in thinking patterns that are not healthy for us, and there are strategies that can help you to manage the way that you're thinking in a way that can be more promoting of your own wellness. However, there is a limit to all of these things. Even more importantly, the thing that I find to be so frustrating—when I see advice being given to lawyers to just think differently about a particular topic because that will change how they feel—is that literally is not physiologically how we work as humans.
The basic assertion that your thoughts cause your feelings, on a practical level, on a factual level, is generally speaking, incorrect. In fact, it's the opposite. For the most part, your feelings are caused by your nervous system, your body responding to your environment, a stimulus, whatever, and then you attach a thought of some type to that feeling. Often, especially if you're someone like a lawyer who has been trained to think about mind over matter and to think of your brain as the most powerful thing about you, often we don't even recognize when we are experiencing a feeling because we are so in our heads and so little in our bodies.
If someone tells you that your thoughts cause your feelings, physiologically, that is, in general, not accurate. Now, can some thoughts contribute to some types of feelings? Yes. But in general, when we're talking about the cycle of thoughts and feelings, feelings come first, not thoughts because we're embodied creatures, we're embodied people. Why does this matter? If you believe that your thoughts cause your feelings and that you have control over all of your thoughts, and then you feel something that is negative because your body, your nervous system is reacting to your environment, to the stimulus in your environment, to whatever is going on, to a particular occurrence, if you have that happen but you think that the way you're feeling should be able to be controlled by how you think when in fact it's your nervous system, your body responding and then your mind attaching something to it, to try to change how you feel by changing how you think is not going to work. Literally, it's not going to work because that is not how your body is designed to work.
The reason I think this matters for lawyers is that I see language around these ideas, some of which have come out of CBT, talked about more and more amongst people who work with lawyers, whether we're talking like career coaching, life coaching, or just various other people who are working with lawyers in an advisory or coaching capacity. It's really troubling to me because it's my opinion that many lawyers have significant trauma—workplace trauma, potentially other trauma—we know with 100% certainty that lawyers have a very high rate of mental illness, and to approach someone who is struggling with mental illness or who has experienced trauma, and to communicate to them that essentially, the suffering that they're experiencing is entirely within their control—which means it's their fault—is harmful. It's incorrect. It's not particularly informed. It's one of those things that I think can give people a sense of control for a time but ultimately, it's not addressing the deeper issues that are at play. It's not addressing the fact that lawyers and human beings are embodied people and not just floating brains. It gives lawyers this false sense of responsibility for the suffering that they experience.
It is certainly true, again, I think nuance is incredibly important, it is certainly true that we can contribute to our own suffering in all sorts of ways. But I think it's really important for lawyers, in particular, to hear that your body has wisdom, your nervous system has wisdom that is separate from your thinking mind. If you are trying to govern your entire life with only your thinking mind, this is why we see some of the extreme problems that we see in the legal profession around mental health and these sorts of things, because people believe that they should be able to just mind over matter it, they should just be able to think a different thought and have a different feeling. As someone in particular who has experience with clinical anxiety and panic, who has experience with trauma—which frankly many of us do at least have some experience with little “t” trauma even if we're not aware of it—I cannot overstate how damaging some of these messages can be and frankly dangerous for people's mental health, for their ultimate well-being.
I would encourage you that if you see people giving advice about this type of thing, consider what they're saying with a critical lens and remember that you are human and you are not just a walking brain, and that is a good thing. I will drop a couple of links in the show notes to books and other things that I think are really helpful on this topic. One in particular that I read in the last year or so that was really helpful—it comes from a faith-based perspective which is something that is important to me, but it can be a helpful primer regardless—is the book Try Softer by Aundi Kolber. I highly recommend it. It talks through a lot of the things that have come up in some recent episodes in the podcast around trauma, fight or flight, the vagus nerve, and how our nervous systems work. I think the more that we can understand these things, the more that we can look out for ourselves and make sure that we are getting safe, kind, humane, ethical advice and treatment that honors who we are as whole people and that allows us to truly heal and flourish in the world. Thank you so much for listening today. I will talk to you next week.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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