On the latest episode of the Former Lawyer Podcast, I asked Kara Hardin to come back on the podcast to talk about trauma as a lawyer. You may remember her previous episode where she talked about leaving the law for a career in mental health.
We’ve had several therapists on the podcast recently, like Ilona Salmons, who came on the podcast to discuss burnout in lawyers. In all of these conversations, trauma as a lawyer was a common theme.
So today, we’re going to focus on trauma and lawyers. We’re also going to talk a bit about the big influx of former lawyers seeking a new career in mental health. So, let’s get right into it!
Former Lawyers Finding A New Career In Mental Health
More and more lawyers are leaving their legal jobs to find a career in mental health. And there’s no single reason for this. It could be that the pandemic has brought mental health to the forefront.
But, on the other hand, it could be because a career in mental health has become so much more accessible. It could also be because a lot of lawyers who have experienced trauma as a lawyer have been able to totally change their lives because of therapy.
But here’s the thing. There is a difference between having gotten a lot out of therapy and actually wanting to be a therapist. There’s also a difference between wanting people to experience the benefits of therapy and actually being someone who is emotionally and mentally suited to be a therapist.
I find that while some people know what a career in mental health entails, other people haven’t necessarily given much thought to it. This is something else that I talk about with my clients a lot.
What the day-to-day of a career in mental health is actually like. What you can do is ask therapists questions like, “What is your day like? What does it look like?” This will help you to learn more, and see if it really is a good fit for you.
Trauma as a lawyer
Trauma is a highly stigmatized and intense word. Kara draws her definition of trauma from 4 different books:
- What Happened To You By Oprah Winfrey And Bruce Perry
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- The Compassion Fatigue Workbook by Françoise Mathieu
- Healing Collective Trauma by Thomas Hübl
We often think of trauma as something singular, extraordinary, and usually aggressive or violent. But, that isn’t always the case. What trauma really is, is something you don’t forget and the impact of which endures your whole life.
The 3 E’s Of Trauma
According to Perry, trauma is made up by three things that are often called the “Three E’s Of Trauma.
Trauma disrupts how your body responds to the world around you. Hübl talks about the intelligent function of your nervous system. The point is where you learn to function differently than you had previously because of the significance of the three Es.
It makes sense to imagine a singular significant event is traumatic, but you could also imagine several smaller events being traumatic as well.
Every lawyer knows of, at least, one story of a superior mistreating someone junior to them. It can be anything from being rude to screaming at them, or even worse.
In the law, there is this sense of “it’s not okay, but it’s not bad enough to mean it has to change”. Even the people who aren’t perpetuating the behavior are still not doing anything to prevent it from happening, so there aren’t consequences. This, combined with the rest of the toxic legal system, can be incredibly traumatizing.
When you are in a trauma response, your body is adapting and helping you get out, and find safety to connection.
Not only do your experiences inform your nervous system, but your body is also the product of generations of bodies before you. Part of trauma can be the alterations of absorbing things from previous generations and passing them on to the next. This is called intergenerational trauma.
Now, if you’re asking whether we’re hard-wired with trauma in our DNA, the answer to that is fuzzy. But, fear and other primal emotional responses are hereditary, which points to it being real.
Seeking Help For Your Trauma As A Lawyer
If you’re in any way unsafe, seek medical attention right away. You matter. You are valuable. There are crisis services all over Canada and the US. You can just Google “crisis service” in your area, and you will find a mobile unit that can meet you and keep you safe.
Kara’s advice is you’re the expert on yourself. What that means is you can learn more by dipping into your own wisdom. Read books, listen to podcasts like this, and TED Talks.
Kara also encourages readers to check out the TEND Academy, which is run by Françoise Mathieu. She said Françoise is incomparable in her expertise and wisdom around compassion fatigue, vicarious and secondary trauma, burnout, and moral distress.
For more on how you can leave your job as a lawyer to pursue a career in mental health or another field, check out my free guide: First Steps To Leaving The Law to get started on your path to a new career.
Connect With Kara:
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Today, we're going to be talking about lawyers and trauma, and I have asked Kara Hardin to come back on the podcast to talk about this topic with me. You may remember her previous episode where she talked about leaving the law and becoming a therapist. We've had several therapists on the podcast recently and also, Ilona Salmons, talking about lawyer burnout and in all those conversations, the theme of trauma came up slightly and I really wanted to focus on it a little bit more because I think that it is a misunderstood topic, and a really important topic when we're talking about you and your job in the law, and things that might be affecting your well-being in ways that you may not even be aware of. Here is my conversation with Kara Hardin, all about trauma and lawyering, and the ways that those things may intersect. At the beginning, we also have a little bit of a conversation about the fact that many lawyers are drawn to the idea of becoming therapists and how to think about that as well. Thanks so much for listening. Here we go.
Hey, Kara. Welcome back to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Kara Hardin: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me again.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited about this conversation. Pretty much our biggest struggle is going to be keeping it to not being five hours long.
Kara Hardin: Wait, people don’t have five hours? I don’t know. What’s going on?
Sarah Cottrell: Oh my goodness, yeah, what better thing do they possibly think? You've been on before, so just introduce yourself again for anyone who's listening who hasn't listened to your previous episode, then we will jump right into it.
Kara Hardin: Thank you, everyone, for listening. My name is Kara Hardin. I am a registered psychotherapist. I live in Toronto, Canada. I am a former practicing corporate and securities lawyer, and mental health educator. My specialty is working in the intersection of mental health and performance. I see a lot of high achievers, and oh my gosh, this is such a pandemic moment, Sarah, I completely lost my train of thought. Oh my god, maybe the pod is going to be five hours because I'm not going to keep the thought. Oh, oh man, it's a classic case of working in the space that you're trying to grow yourself in.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, the two of us.
Kara Hardin: We have to because it's in my brain. Since I did your last podcast, I have more people than ever reaching out and talking about therapy and wanting to pursue therapy. I just had to put it in the space because I feel like if someone is listening, are you having that experience right now? Is this just me? Are more people wanting to be therapists?
Sarah Cottrell: No, 100%. One of the reasons I asked you to be on the podcast originally is because there are many lawyers who have an interest in potentially becoming a therapist, a lot of lawyers who will tell me they, in undergrad, were deciding between going the therapist route and law school, and they chose law school and now realize maybe that wasn't the best choice. But I don't know if it's the fact that mental health is just much more on the forefront now that we're two years into a pandemic or exactly what it is, but I probably hear from people almost weekly who are telling me that they're going back to school to become a therapist.
Kara Hardin: Me too, me too. I find it really curious. When I went back to school for therapy, there were a lot of people, especially lawyers, that were pursuing coaching, not a lot that were looking to actually do therapy. I wonder if there is a cultural shift that is allowing, I don't know if it's a de-stigmatization or a more accessibility that's making therapy not only seem more within reach as a client but also more accessible as a career, which is a fascinating shift when we think about what we want to talk about today.
Sarah Cottrell: I think there are a lot of lawyers who are getting on this path and deciding that becoming a therapist is what they want to do, which I think is great, to be clear. I am not saying, “Oh, I'm hearing from all these lawyers becoming therapists,” and that's necessarily a bad thing. I have had multiple conversations with people about this particular transition, going from lawyer to therapist. Part of the conversation that I have with them is that there is a difference between having gotten a lot out of therapy—I am certainly one of those people, I talk about on the podcast all the time—and recognizing the benefits of therapy and actually wanting to be a therapist. There's also a difference between wanting people to experience the benefits of therapy and actually being someone who is temperamentally suited to be a therapist.
I would love to hear you talk about that a little bit because that is a conversation that I have had, like I said, multiple times with lawyers who I'm working with because many lawyers went to law school because they wanted to help people, they find that that's not really happening, they look around at what other careers might allow them to do that, and they sometimes have had in addition, good personal experiences with therapy, therefore, they start heading into the direction of becoming a therapist. But I find that while some people really know what it entails, other people haven't necessarily given much thought to, and this is something else that I talk about with my clients a lot, what the day-to-day of the experience of being a therapist is actually like.
Kara Hardin: I'm nodding. There are two thoughts that I have as I listen to you. The first is that my personal experience and how I ended up in law, which we talked about last time, really makes me sensitive to, I'm not quite sure if this could be good for me but it's a direction muscle that we sometimes have, that I certainly had in relation to law. I think that sometimes, when people have struggled to find something professionally, that for them, in whatever amount or measure is adequate to their fulfillment, they want a path. If you like people and you like connecting with people—which by the way, is everyone, we're wired to belong and to be social—and law wasn't for you, sometimes, that muscle to be like, “Oh well, I could help people as a therapist,” is really strong. Again, to reiterate, it might actually be a wonderful path to you. I really resonate with the need to, like we talked about last time, take it step by step as opposed to taking a big leap without doing your due diligence.
What that can look like is doing the informationals with therapists now. What is your day like? What does it look like? Like what you're saying, I think it can also involve sidestepping and starting, finding conversations, like if it is connecting with someone, looking at a conversation you're having, is it actually how you are helping them connect with what matters to them? Is it just the way that you're conversing? There are lots of different ways to connect. You want to look at the parts of you that are being fulfilled in the context of being social. That feels so abstract. Did that make sense at all, Sarah?
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, it definitely makes sense. I think part of the thing is that for lawyers, especially if you're in a job that is very demanding on your time, you sometimes, and this is part of what you're getting at, you forget that if you're in a job that doesn't take up as much time, that some of that ability to connect with people, support people, and those sorts of things can be part of just your life, your circle of friends, and your wider community. It doesn't necessarily need to be your career.
Kara Hardin: Your profession.
Sarah Cottrell: Not to say that you definitely shouldn't pursue that career but I think that sometimes, there's this sense of like, “This is the only way that I can get access to this meaningful human interaction.” It's really not the only way.
Kara Hardin: To couple it with the idea I had, sometimes, we finish that sentence, “This is the only way I know how to get that,” because we don't have access to different models of connection and different ways of existing. It doesn't have to just be therapy or coaching. It can be writing, for example. It can be pottery. There's a number of ways that you can put your soul into the world and we lack imagination about it. Now, with that said, to be very practical, things that I think about in terms of therapy and why I think I'm suited to it, and the day-to-day parts of it, I really like the range of the parts of myself that I get to draw on when I am working with my clients.
What does that mean in particular? It means that the way I practice feminist relational anti-racist is I meet people where they are. I think that you are the expert on you. You make sense and I believe you. I just have a lot of curiosity and also a willingness to use my own emotional experience of you to engage meaningfully with you. With some people, that can be as simple as sarcasm and with others, it can be silence for an hour, and with others, it can be psycho-education. There's a range of ways that I get to pull on parts of myself. For lack of a better word, it's really athletic. Like one hour, you're in silence, the next hour, you're making jokes, the next hour, you're talking about existential stuff. It's a really elastic athletic way to live. I find it creative and I find it vibrant, and it also can leave you with nothing for the people you love the most.
When I've had a really big therapy day, my sweet, sweet family will want me to engage and I have zero range left. One of the things we have to think about is where are you in your life? Does that type of range feel like it would make you come alive? Are you able to have the space and time, and give yourself the grace to relationally come differently to your family than perhaps you do your clients as a result of things? Now, someone listening is going to be a therapist and they're going to say, “Kara, if you are not coming to your family the way that you'd like, you're doing too much work.” The reality for me is that the balance is on the whole, of course, I'm showing up to my family the ways I want but I want to be really real with listeners that are thinking about pursuing therapy. It's not just connecting and helping people feel good. It's really being willing to work with relationships in all of its forms, in all of its messiness, and those relationships are genuine and real in your life.
Sarah Cottrell: I'm nodding my head. Sorry. I think what we're driving at here is that it makes total sense why many people who went to law school ultimately decide that they want to pursue a career as a therapist. There are many valid reasons for that, there are many good reasons for that, and there are many great therapists who are former lawyers. However, as a lawyer and as someone who often has been conditioned to make decisions a certain way, it can be easy, I think in particular, with respect to pursuing a career as a therapist to almost latch onto it for many of the same reasons that someone decided to go into law in the first place.
This is something that we talk about in my program all the time, but one of the things that is so important is figuring out what process brought you to becoming a lawyer. Do you want to duplicate that process? Did that process serve you? If it didn't, how can you follow a different process? I think sometimes, it's not clear that the process is what needs to change because people see, “Oh well, the career is changing, therefore, I'm doing something different,” but sometimes, it's actually the same thing.
Kara Hardin: Now, it's my turn to nod. It's actually extremely well identified and articulated, and it leads in some ways to how I think Sarah and I had intended to talk about trauma today, y'all, we'll get there, we're getting there. We are now, especially because it actually leads me to, I call them, the tendernesses or the vulnerabilities or the parts of self that sometimes show up in these processes. We see the content in our lives of dissatisfaction or guilt or high emotional valence, like really big intense experiences, the roller coaster of practice in high achievement and sometimes, that can sit right next to what in the industry we would call little t traumas. I feel like we're segueing.
Sarah Cottrell: For the listeners, I just want to say the reason I asked Kara to come back on is that I have really become aware, even before I work with Former Lawyer but especially in the past couple of years, of the degree to which many lawyers, many, many lawyers, many more lawyers than I think realize it, have experienced some amount of of trauma. Many times, it is the little t trauma. We're talking either childhood, family of origin type stuff, or even sometimes, we're talking about workplace trauma. Kara, can you just talk briefly for people about big T versus little t and why, in many ways, it might be more likely one that they have little t and that they aren't aware of it.
Kara Hardin: Totally. You know I love to define terms. There's certain parts that maybe I can't avoid. If you've been listening to the last two minutes and you're lost because we're talking lowercase, capital, I just want to start at the very top. Trauma is a really highly stigmatized and intense word. I want to be clear at the outset that I have a really particular approach to my work as both a therapist and mental health educator that's really informed by the people I work with. Why is that important? I promise, I'm going to get to the definition. Why is that important? As always, I want anybody listening to know that if what I'm saying doesn't fit into the rubrics definitions, concepts, or experiences that they have, I could be wrong. It's not that I'm getting the terms wrong or the concepts wrong, it's that I truly believe and I'm oriented around how you are the expert on you. To the extent that I can, I'm going to need to reach into generalizations.
I'm also informed of my advantages, my intersections, and my experiences, so as you listen, the first and biggest principle I want us to hold together is that you make sense. I gotta give a shout out to some ladies out of the midwest, Patty Meyer, [inaudible], and John McClellan. They teach a wonderful theoretical orientation around trauma. You make sense. If you are listening and you are getting squiggly or you're feeling really seen or you're getting angry or having any kind of reaction, try and assume you make sense. “Maybe I have more to learn, maybe there's something else present.” Also, be aware if you need to take breaks, if you need to move. That's fine. I encourage you to listen in the way that makes sense.
Now, I know some of you are like, “Kara, you have not defined trauma and right now, how you were talking, this is why society feels it's so precious and fragile. You just gave us a huge disclaimer. The preamble makes it seem all so serious.” Let me just get into it a little bit more. As we're talking, I have four books on my desk. I always like to share resources. I have one by the one and only, Oprah Winfrey, co-authored by Bruce Perry. It's called What Happened to You? I have The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, I have The Compassion Fatigue Workbook by Françoise Mathieu, and I have Healing Collective Trauma by Thomas Hübl. Everything I'm about to talk about is going to be drawn from these four books.
In common vernacular, we think of trauma as something singular, extraordinary, and usually aggressive or violent. Our brains go deeply disturbing. It can be like a natural disaster, an unexpected death, a war. We think of it as this really bad singular event or experience that sticks with you, influences you. It's something you don't forget and the impact of which endures your whole life. According to Perry, trauma is actually three things. It's either an event or series of events. It's something that happens. It can be big or small, repetitive or not. It could be like a natural disaster. It could be something more small and cumulative, like always being passed over for a promotion at work. It could be something big and cumulative, like growing out without having your basic needs met.
The first is an event, the next is the experience. This is what it was subjectively like for the person living through the event. It’s not, for example, if it was a natural disaster, how everyone or how a reasonable person, lawyers, would respond to a natural disaster, it's how that person in that moment of time responds. Their tendencies, predilections, preferences, tendernesses, and how that shows up, then it's the effects. If I were to put it into a sentence, trauma is any pattern of activating your stress response system through the event experience and effects that leads to an alteration in how that system is functioning. More specifically, it leads to either an overactivity or over reactivity in your physiology. It's basically something that disrupts how your body responds to the world around you.
Here's the thing. This is why the stigma makes no sense to me. Of course, it makes sense, you make sense. It is fundamentally adaptive. The changes that happen to you as a result of events, experiences, and effects are meant to help your body respond to the world as the world has engaged with it. Hübl talks about the intelligent function of your nervous system. The point is where you learn perhaps to function differently than you had previously because of the significance of the three Es. There's a couple things I want to pull apart, then I promise, Sarah, I'll let you get something edgewise. The first is, of course, it makes sense to imagine a singular significant event is traumatic but you could also imagine a number of smaller events being traumatic as well.
I think of a paper cut. The analogy is like a singular paper cut not likely to impact how you function in the world, how you perceive, understand, and interact with the world around you but a thousand papercut is definitely going to have you avoiding paper, nervous around trees. It's a joke but there are ways it is going to act. Let's say that the paper cut happened to happen over a part of your skin that was burned, maybe it would impact you. The size, the catastrophe of the so-called event or events does not have to be significant in order for it to be traumatic. I can think in terms of food security. If you miss lunch a day in your life growing up, it's likely not a traumatic event. If you are missing it every day for years, yeah, that's probably traumatic. I want to pause, Sarah.
Sarah Cottrell: One of the things that I wanted to pull out from what you said is that the point is not, for example, with the lunch example, you had many days when you were a child where you didn't have lunch, so you feel badly about it in some emotional feeling like you feel sad or something. It's that your nervous system encodes these experiences of, in that case, food insecurity and adapts in such a way that when you interact with something, it could be like food in the future, it could also be just like an experience of insecurity, your nervous system is wired in such a way that it will respond or it may respond in a very different way than someone who didn't have that experience with food insecurity.
The reason that matters is that often, I think when lawyers, and just people in general, hear about the concept of trauma, they think of it as like, “Oh well, someone feels bad about something that happened in the past to them,” or sad or is afraid of something now because a very specific event in the past happened that was similar. But the reality is that what is much more relevant and what basically everyone is experiencing on some level is the impact that it has on your nervous system, and those are not necessarily things that you are going to be immediately aware of, especially depending on what those traumatic events were.
Kara Hardin: I can give an example because I think that's such a helpful clarification. I practiced law in the days of BlackBerry, I'll just name it. What that meant is when an email came through, there was a little red light on the corner of the phone and it was like, “Oop,” and you had to type out your keyboard. Right after I left my practice, I found myself in a yoga class—and I'm very nostalgic thinking about going to yoga at this moment in our context—but I found myself in a yoga class, and I didn't have a BlackBerry because I wasn't practicing anymore, but the person on the mat in front of me had their BlackBerry on the top of their mat, and the red light started to go off. I didn't make the connection at first, but I noticed my heart started beating really quickly and I immediately started to feel physically quite distressed.
My breathing started to shorten. I found it really somatically compelling. All of a sudden, my brain started to spin with to-do lists like here, I was having this lovely yoga class. I was distressed. It wasn't until later that I was like, “Oh, my body just responded to the need to be accessible and reliable.” I didn't realize that BlackBerry wasn't for me. There's nothing in itself traumatic about a red BlackBerry light going off. Not big t trauma in the way that we would think about it or characterize it, and it is also true that having thousands of experiences with that BlackBerry, over time, my nervous system evolved to kick into gear when it saw it. This thing like, “Time to get energy, time to get attention. Somebody needs you.”
Sarah Cottrell: I'm also thinking, often, lawyers are told, “Well, you just need to set better boundaries. You're working too much,” or etc. Generally, the message is like, “Well, you need to put up better boundaries,” which there's a whole separate conversation there to be had. But I think one of the important things that people need to know is that if you have past experiences where you adaptively, like you said, because the response to trauma is an adaptation, if you had past experiences where you learned you need to over function, you need to please someone outside of yourself in an external authority in order to be okay, to say to a person who has that kind of past experience, which can be taken into their nervous system as a type of trauma, “Oh well, just put up boundaries. Just say no to your boss who has an external authority. Tell them that you aren't going to do the thing they're asking you to do.”
People often feel like, “Why can't I do this that people are saying is so easy to do? Why does it feel impossible?” The reality is that one of the things that can be at play there is you have a past experience, a history that tells your body, your nervous system, “Doing that is not safe. I cannot do that and be safe.” You can intellectually tell yourself, “I need to put up boundaries,” but if your nervous system is like, “But doing that is not safe,” it's going to be very hard to do that. You can't just “fix it” by knowing that might be at play.
Kara Hardin: I'm nodding. I actually think it goes a step further and can be far more insidious, and hard to identify because what I see in high achievers is oftentimes, you don't even need the external authority telling you they need something. The BlackBerry light just had to go off and my programming, not because anything did anything wrong, anything wrong, in some cases, there are some people who make sense in their context but they didn't make choices that were right for you or they didn't help you grow and develop in ways that were nourishing to you. For whatever reason, you feel like your value and your worth is connected to that accessibility. The voice of like, “I have to be available,” isn't coming from the client, the partner, the colleague, or the junior. It's coming from you. When people are saying you just need to set up a boundary, it's like, “Well, how do I divide these parts of me that desperately do want the break but also can't fathom it, can't fathom being okay with it?”
The other place I see it often, and again, it's not necessarily a traumatic response but it is this shift in the nervous system is when things aren't busy and there isn't a reset. For whatever reason, if you find in your day that you, in the present moment, could be restoring in some way but you're elevated, like you're either overactive or hypersensitive, not just in your emotion but in your body, your physiology is up at a six or a seven when what's happening around you is a two or a three, you're shifting. We can't just down gear by telling ourselves, “Relax,” then we feel really guilty because we're like, “Well, I've been looking forward to this Saturday all week and I've spent the whole day in such a grumpy mood because I can't stop being anxious.” I’m just like, “You make sense.” Of course, you can't stop being anxious. Your body is intelligently adapting to needing to be on call at any given moment of the day. Even when you logically know, in the present moment, you don't need to be on call, your body doesn't know that because its historical experience has not been able to put things down or safe to put things down. It's complicated. You make sense. No one's doing anything wrong.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is so important for people to hear. I think specifically, and you can tell me what you think, Kara, but with respect to workplace trauma, pretty much every lawyer knows of, at least, one story of some superior mistreating someone more junior to them. It can be anything from just being rude, just extremely rude to actually screaming at them to things that are even worse. There are stories of people throwing things, like staplers. There's this weird sense in many environments, specifically, I'm thinking of in big firms where a lot of this behavior is allowed to continue because of the fact that the person has a book of business, a large book of business, there is this sense of like we're just all going to not necessarily say it's okay but it's not bad enough to actually mean that anything has to change.
Even the people who aren't perpetrating the behavior are still not doing anything to prevent it from happening, there aren't really consequences. In many cases, you have the more junior people in this position where they don't feel that they can respond or even fight back if we're talking about fight, flight, freeze, etc. I would love for you to talk a little bit about the role that trauma may be playing in that situation and also why something like that can be so traumatizing. Again, by traumatizing, when I say that, I'm talking mostly about impacts that it could have on someone's nervous system.
Kara Hardin: Right off the top, I think it's important to hold, like I have this really exceptional front row seat, sometimes, it feels strangely different experience because the people who find their way to me, not just as individual clients but as organizational partners, are very serious about committing to not allow, engage in what you just described. There is work and people committed to the industry in very meaningful ways. It's such that they are hiring external consultants like me to shift what does happen and what you accurately describe. Sometimes, in this adjunct to law space, it becomes really like, “Here are all the things about the system.” I'm always mindful to share. I don't see that everywhere. In fact, I work with people who are committed to shifting those old experiences.
What you say does happen. From a physiological place, when someone is in a stressful situation that kicks their nervous system into gear, which by the way, happens throughout the day, every day. If you're interested in learning more about your nervous system, I highly recommend you engage with the writing of Deb Dana. She's phenomenal. She has a really accessible, don't have to be a clinician to enjoy book called Anchored. The body is constantly moving from connective and engaged to mobilized to shut down. It does that throughout the day and the goal is for your nervous system to be able to flexibly move throughout those states. When we're being yelled at, when people are throwing things at us, when the power dynamics, especially among different intersecting identities where there are advantages, disadvantages, and different powers, like a big book of business in the room, when they are at play, what happens is it can kick you into a more mobilized fight, flight, freeze response.
The context could be familiar, as in you could be not oriented to what's just happening in the moment. You could be remembering and experiencing things that have historically happened to you. I'm going to put an asterisk because I want to talk about intergenerational trauma. You could be having someone yell at you and knowing in your head it was so not right but not having words or having words, and not being able to articulate them, you may start losing time, your nervous system could be responding to get you out of there so to speak. That might be everything from physically leaving the room to freezing to starting an argument. It depends on what your core survival networks have done historically.
When you are in those responses, your body is adapting and helping you get out, and find safety to connection. Not only do your experiences, for example, you, Sarah, as a human being X number of years on the planet, inform your nervous system, your body is the product of generations of bodies before you. Part of trauma can be the alterations of absorbing things from previous generations and passing them on to the next. Strictly speaking, if the question is, “Does trauma impact getting coded into our genetics?” Bruce Perry talks about how the answer is really fuzzy. However, there is some evidence to show that possibility is on the table in a real way. If we ask, however, if fear or hyper or hypo emotional arousal or emotional responses is transmissible between generations, then the answer is absolutely yes. Remember, we are wired to belong and to look around as we develop for clues related to safety and danger. It's so easy to see how that information can be socially transmitted between generations and become a part of communities.
There's a beautiful articulation by Thomas Hübl. He says, “No matter how private or personal, trauma cannot belong solely to a family, or even to that family's intricate ancestral tree. The consequences of trauma seep across families, communities, regions, lands and nations.” The message here is not, “Oh my god, we're all so messed up. We don't have any agency and no autonomy, and there's no choice at the moment. Our nervous system is going to take over.” No, no. It's that being human is messy and complicated. Sometimes, as adults, we recreate situations that are familiar to us and familiar to our bodies, even if intellectually, we know those situations are not really good for us or helpful for us. We are allowed to make sense. What if we lived in a world where the events, experiences, and effects of time and days were also allowed to make sense in how we showed up?
Sarah Cottrell: You just touched on this but I think at the very meta level, the thing that I want lawyers to hear and know is not, “Oh, you probably have trauma. You're fundamentally broken. That sucks for you,” or whatever, but instead, to see that one, like you said, as human beings, we are in fact created for community and connection. A lot of lawyers have been trained to think that they can just function as a robot to do their job regardless of how bad it is and have no ill effects. Understanding the fact that one, we are designed for community and also that we are complex human beings, we're not just brains floating around, our bodies and nervous systems, and all of these things, that's not bad. I think many lawyers feel like, “Well, I should just be able to transcend all of my human limitations and not be affected by anything around me.” I just want people to hear that is not something that you need to aspire to because that's what people, who really work hard, do. You're a human being and that is a good thing.
Kara Hardin: It's interesting because I actually think that the drive is not about transcendence. It's about wanting to not feel broken and feeling off, and not good enough or not adequate or like you're doing something wrong, then trying to solve for X as opposed to realizing that sometimes, nothing's wrong. Your body is really adaptive. Your brain is really adaptive. Remember your intelligent nervous system. The very thing that makes you so successful might also be your ability to anticipate problems and worry, and think for what people need before they even ask. It might make you susceptible to having a mini panic attack in a yoga class when a BlackBerry light goes off. The very things that make us strong also challenge us.
The other thing that I hold is there are going to be people listening to this call that are actually in the course of their work also exposed, either firsthand or second-hand, to trauma. I think of the lawyers out there working on long-term care facility cases, immigration rights, human rights, who represent mental, medical people, health law. There are ways in which we touch people's traumatic material, even ourselves. It's not just systems. Now you've got me really going tangentially because systems themselves, like what we're talking about, can be traumatizing.
Again, like Sarah and I were talking, it's about the democratization of how context, aka trauma and experiences that engage with our nervous system, shows up in life. We don't want to, all or nothing, think this. It's not really huge, significant, serious, and scary and it's also not nothing. Those two things can co-exist at the same time. Just like you can be an achiever and flourishing, you can also feel awful. Isn't that so complicated? This is full circle, could the skills we really need to develop not be the wholesale throw the baby out with the bathwater, start all over again, something's fundamentally wrong with me. I'm going to quit and become a writer or a therapist or a potter, or whatever, just be step by step, what now? How can I support my physiology? How can I regulate? How can I learn more?” What if we really lean into making sense first?
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. I think for me, the thing that is important for lawyers to hear is, like you said, this isn't a conversation of, “Hey, you probably have trauma,” and that's just bad, and it means you're broken. It's, “Hey, be curious about the possibilities of how this is showing up for you and what you might need in order to support you.” Whether it's finding the connections that you need, whether it's, like you said, learning how to regulate all sorts of things but I think the most important thing for me is that people know, in my experience and I will speak just from my experience, knowing that this dynamic is at play and being able to have a sense of agency in terms of choosing what you want to do with that information is so much better than having it driving the bus without you even knowing.
Kara Hardin: I'm nodding. I think in that very actionable way, one of the things I'm holding is if you're listening and there are things that you wish were different, and you don't understand why you're not able to change, a question I have is like, “What if you make sense?” What if that means needing to unpack, perhaps ideas, narrative stories, maybe trauma, maybe not, that you are just not exposed to and aware of? If you're in any way unsafe, seek medical attention right away. You matter. You are valuable. There are crisis services all over Canada and the US. You can just Google crisis service in your area and you will find a mobile unit that can meet you and keep you safe. As always, you're the expert on you.
What that means is you can learn more by dipping into your own wisdom. Read books, listen to podcasts like this, and TED Talks. Sometimes, therapy is the right path as well and sometimes, it's not, so part of this skill is really just developing, “Aha, I need to gather a little bit more information about that.” I really want to encourage people, if they are looking up online, to check out TEND Academy. It's run by Françoise Mathieu. She's incomparable in her expertise and wisdom around, in particular, compassion fatigue, vicarious and secondary trauma, and burnout and moral distress. I also, from just a pure trauma lens, encourage you to check out those books I mentioned at the top of the show, What Happened to You?, The Body Keeps the Score, Anchored, I mentioned, the Healing Collective Trauma and again, The Compassion Fatigue Workbook.
I also want you to consider how you work with your body. If your physiology is being impacted, you can find ways to move and engage. That can help recalibrate you. I know that sounds super woo-woo. There's EMDR in the therapy world, on somatosensory work, that can be really helpful. For some people, it's yoga, for some people, it's meditation. Really, again, you're the expert on you. The question that might be guiding you is, “What if no one, including me, was doing anything wrong? What would I know to be my strengths, my needs, and how could I, in these experiences that I'm finding challenging, take a tiny step towards myself and my knowing rather than turning my back to it?”
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is so good. I will also say a plug for EMDR.
Kara Hardin: It’s great.
Sarah Cottrell: I've been doing the EMDR for about a year. It's great. Whenever people ask me to describe or explain it, I'm like, “Well, it's going to sound a little bit weird.”
Kara Hardin: A little bit woo-woo.
Sarah Cottrell: But nonetheless, I think just coming to understand ourselves as whole people, whether we continue as lawyers or decide to do something else, is a huge part of the process. Kara, is there anything else that you would like people to know about any of the things that we've talked about today?
Kara Hardin: Thank you for asking. I love a scoop. I think I said that last time. I do have a scoop. It's just that this is complicated and it's okay if listening to this was confusing. Really just making space, or if it was really affirming, like really reiterating that top note, however you found us, that's great. Can we start practicing taking steps towards ourselves in even the experience of this podcast and discussion? I appreciate everyone trying to follow along and giving me the benefit of the doubt, and also to you for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: Thank you so much, Kara. I really appreciate you joining me today to talk about this topic, which I just think is so important.
Kara Hardin: Thanks for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: 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.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.