The Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to One’s Misery as a Lawyer

In today’s episode, Sarah is back again with Annie Little discussing the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. It’s part of a series of podcast discussions diving into the miseries of a bullshit job, and today, it’s time to dive into the third misery that comes with bullshit jobs. The Misery of not feeling entitled to your misery as a lawyer.

If you missed the first two, go back and catch up.

The Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to Your Misery

The third misery that Graeber covers in his book is the misery of not feeling entitled to your own misery. This is a common feeling for many lawyers. In fact, it’s one of the most common things Sarah sees among her clients, and she experienced it herself when working as a lawyer. Annie sees it with people that she works with as well.

Most commonly, you’ll hear people make a reference to the economy or the fact that so many people want their job, but they are miserable. They are trying to diminish their feelings and feel like they shouldn’t be miserable, they should be grateful that they have that job. 

The impulse isn’t totally bad. You have perspective and recognize your experiences and how others are impacted. But with lawyers, it often gets taken to the extreme. Lawyers feel they are not entitled to their feelings, so their experience doesn’t matter, and they are not entitled to feel miserable. When they feel miserable, they feel guilty for feeling that way because they think they should be happy. It’s a vicious cycle. 

Prestige and Money Only Make It Worse

Graeber elaborates on the fact that prestige, compensation, and respect do nothing to help mitigate these feelings but instead, they compound them. The further you move up the ladder, the harder it is to accept that your misery is acceptable. People feel so ungrateful. They’ve worked so hard to get where they are, so why doesn’t it feel like they hoped it would?

Lawyers have gotten through law school, passed the bar, and now they have worked their way through the firm to their current spot, yet they are miserable. Thinking about the people who tried to reach that spot but failed leaves them with a negative feeling.

There is a general sense in society that a lawyer’s job is highly respected. There are a set of perceptions and assumptions that come along with it. There is an external perception of, “Oh, you’re a lawyer, that’s a big deal, and you should be proud,” while internally, the experience is misery. It feels like a huge contradiction. It can be extremely hard for lawyers to explain their feelings to others because they are facing all those assumptions and trying to help others see past that.

Law School Earns Prestige and Respect for the Family Members

The podcast features many conversations with people who were the first in their family to go to law school. The family is proud of their accomplishments and has cheered them on and supported them throughout their education. It’s extremely hard for those people to share their true feelings with their family and friends if they aren’t happy. 

If you are the lawyer in the friend group, people might have difficulty learning that you no longer want to be a lawyer. They want what’s best for you but sometimes have a hard time picturing you in a different role. You won’t change as a person because your job title changes, but it might take your supporters and loved ones a bit to get used to that. You are the one who best understands your experiences and feelings. Even if you have the best supporters and loved ones, they aren’t weighing all the same pros and cons that you are, so you know best what you need to do.

Many lawyers are natural people pleasers and struggle to do anything that might upset someone in their circle. You need to recognize the degree to which your people-pleasing impacts your career and happiness. Ambition and career achievement are synonymous with people-pleasing to varying extents.

How to Break the Cycle of Misery

Therapy is a great way to help yourself see some blind spots. Sarah and Annie have talked about how important therapy is for lawyers. It’s good to have an unbiased sounding board that will reflect things back to you. They can help you make connections and possibly define the source of some of your feelings, whether your career or something else. 

Therapy can help you regulate your nervous system more effectively. It responds in such a quick way, and it’s not always helpful. Therapy is a great tool to help you work through these thoughts and ideas, especially when making a big decision. If you are dealing with this type of misery, it’s good to talk it through with someone and see if it’s time to make a change.

If you haven’t already downloaded the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, start there. And make sure to tune back in for the last conversation about the misery that people in bullshit jobs experience.

Complete Bullshit Jobs Series

Is Being A Lawyer A Bullshit Job?

The Misery of Ambiguity and Forced Pretense in Law Firms

The Artificial Power Structure and Feeling Helpless as a Lawyer with Annie Little

The Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to One’s Misery as a Lawyer

The Misery of Knowing That One Is Doing Harm as a Lawyer

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.

This week, Annie Little and I are back to talk more about the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, and specifically, we are talking through the different reasons that he gives for why people who are in bullsh*t jobs find them to be so miserable. This week is one that we see all the time in our lawyer clients and you'll hear us talk about that. This is the misery of not feeling entitled to one's misery. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

Honestly, if you're a lawyer who's listening to this, I'm guessing you've probably experienced some of this phenomenon of feeling like you are not entitled to feel the way that you feel about your job if it makes you miserable. Annie and I have lots to say about this topic so let's get right to the conversation.

We're recording this episode talking about the third misery right after we talked about the second misery of not being a cause and I'm still enraged.

Annie Little: We're a little heated, everyone.

Sarah Cottrell: We're just a little incensed on your behalf. This third misery that he identified that people experience in bullsh*t jobs is one of the most common things that I see with my clients and also that I experienced myself when I was working as a lawyer. What he calls it is on the misery of not feeling entitled to one's misery.

Annie, I know that you have seen a ton of this so do you want to talk a little bit about how you've seen this play out with lawyers?

Annie Little: Yeah. The thing is for me, I'm incensed but it's very heartbreaking to me to hear it expressed this way because I definitely felt this way but as we know by now, I'm very oppositional so I'm like, “This isn't me, this is you.”

Especially when somebody has what by objective standards would be considered a very prestigious or good job or if we're in an economy say where people are getting laid off or jobs or scarce, this is where I see this really amplified where people come to me and they're like, “Listen, I hate my job but I also know that people would kill to have my job and I'm really lucky. It could be so much worse and I should be just grateful to have a job right now. I am grateful but also…”

There's just this trying to diminish their feelings where you feel like “I'm actually not allowed to feel this job is terrible and that I deserve better because everybody else has it so much worse.” Like I said, it's just absolutely heartbreaking to me because it may not necessarily be true but what comes out of that is this underlying assumption that you as a lawyer, you as a person are not worthy of better treatment because everyone says this should be good enough for you.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think there's this impulse which is not a bad one to have perspective and recognize your experiences and the only experience in all of the world and all of these things which are good, but for so many lawyers, it immediately gets taken to the extreme of “And therefore, I'm not entitled to my feelings and therefore my experience doesn't matter, and therefore, I'm not entitled to feel miserable. On top of experiencing misery in my job, I also feel guilty about experiencing this because actually, I should feel happy and I should enjoy it.”

It's just one more layer on top of everything else that I think makes it so hard for lawyers who really don't want to be practicing law to actually say, “Oh, I don't want to do this. I shouldn't be doing this. It's not good for me, or whatever the situation is and I need to think about doing something else,” it's really hard to do that if anytime you encounter your real feelings about the situation, you tell yourself you shouldn't have those feelings.

Annie Little: Yes. The invalidation, huge.

Sarah Cottrell: And in particular, there's this one sentence in this part of the chapter where he said that these feelings of feeling miserable but then not feeling entitled to be miserable, these feelings are typically in no sense mitigated but actually compounded by the prestige, respect, and generous compensation that some positions offer. Like you were saying, in many ways, it's for lawyers who are in jobs that are seen as prestigious, etc., which of course, they've been pushed towards because the entire legal industry orbits around the idea of prestige, it actually makes it worse.

It actually makes it that much harder for them to feel they're actually allowed to feel the reality of their experience because there are so many external markers that they can point to and be like, “Well, I shouldn't feel that way because of that.”

Annie Little: Also, I feel like, at least for me, I had this sense of, “Well, isn't this what you wanted? Isn't this why you put in all that hard work and invested all that time? This is what you wanted and you got it so here you are. This is what you get.”

Sarah Cottrell: So many people feel like they're ungrateful. They've worked really hard for this thing, they achieved this thing that lots of people have worked for and haven't achieved, and if they feel something negative around that, their immediate interpretation of that is, “Oh, I'm bad. I'm ungrateful.

Annie Little: But wait, lawyers extra hard on themselves is revolutionary.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, it’s a shocking turn of events. The other thing is just the fact that societally, there are lots of jokes about lawyers being terrible, there's that but there's also this general sense of a lawyer is one of those jobs that everyone, lawyer, doctor, or firefighter, everyone knows is a particular type of job and there's a particular set of assumptions and perceptions associated with it and there is this level of respect, this assumption that you're smart.

One of the things he talks about when he's talking about people in bullsh*t jobs who experience the misery of feeling like they shouldn't be miserable is compounded even additionally by the contrast between the external perception of “Oh, you're a lawyer, that's a big deal. That's something to be proud of,” and the internal experience of “I am completely miserable.”

This is something I hear about from many of my clients, especially when they're trying to communicate with people in their lives who love them and want the best for them, a lot of those people see their loved one having gone through all of this work to go to law school, pass the bar, practice law, and understandably often really want to encourage the person to continue practicing law because of some of these external perceptions of “This is a respected profession,” the ideas about what it is to be a lawyer as opposed to the experience of what it is to be a lawyer and in particular, the lived experience of their particular loved one.

That additional level of knowing that their position is respected when it feels so terrible to be doing that job I think creates an additional level of pain and also obstacle to really thinking about what they want to do next.

Annie Little: Absolutely. I don't think Graeber gets into this in the book but something that I have found goes along with this like with my clients, less myself but just because we all know I'm weird so my experience isn't usually difficult, but there's also this sense for a lot of us who go become lawyers, some of us come from families of lawyers but a lot of us are like, “We're the first ones to go to law school,” and it was a thing like, “You should be a doctor or a lawyer because you're a smart kid,” and so we're in that mold and so for the people in our lives who genuinely love us and want the best for us, we have filled this spot for them as like we are that person in their lives, in their families, or in their friend group, you are the high achiever, you are the lawyer, you are the successful one.

What we don't often think about is how yes, they generally want us to succeed and we've put in all this work, all that stuff, but it's also very hard for them to let go of the idea of you as that kind of person in your life. My biggest realization with this was when there was someone in my life who wanted to make a career change who wasn't a lawyer. They were an educator.

They had basically explored every different type of role within the education profession and they were just like, “Yeah, I'm out,” and I was like, “Wow, are you sure? Oh, my God. I'm doing it. Why am I doing this?” Because I really do want what's best for them. They're the person I think of when I think about educators. They're the person I think of when I think about someone who's caring and good with kids. That's not going to change because their job title changes or their profession changes.

It helped me to understand a bit better how people who are in lawyers' lives and who I genuinely believe are coming from a place of love and want people to do well, they're also coming from this place of themselves not realizing it where it's like, “Well, you're this person in my life and my life is going to change when your life changes and you do something totally different that I haven't considered.” I was like, “Wow, well there's another layer, great.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think it's so important for people to think about in situations where the opinion of someone else is coming into play, essentially as to whether their misery is sufficient such that they should actually think about doing something else. I think even in situations where you do have extremely well-intentioned, well-meaning genuine loved ones who, to your point, do want the best for you, because no one else knows your experience, they are not actually measuring all of the costs of you continuing to do that job that you are.

Even if they are very close to you and see a lot of the experience, you ultimately are the one who is best positioned to actually know what it is costing you to continue in that job. So often, I think there is this, and it's completely understandable to your point, this knee-jerk change. Change is scary and then they do this mental balancing of the pros and cons just in a flash.

When you think about pros and cons and the weight of each thing, they're not thinking about the same set of things, again, not because they don't care about you but because it's colored by their experience and not yours. I think that a lot of people have their misery invalidated by people who care about them not because they're trying to be invalidated, certainly, there are also those situations, but instead, because the calculation that's being made by the other person includes things like, “Oh, this person changing from this known thing to something else feels scary to me as the other person,” and that's part of what's being weighed in the balance.

Annie Little: And, this isn't everyone, but a lot of lawyers have this default MO of being a people pleaser. When we're confronted by someone in our life who we love and respect in those situations, excluding the others, and we don't want to disappoint anyone but we lump in this experience with one where we're like, “Okay, it's important for us not to disappoint people in this arena as well,” whereas it's like, “No, this isn't something where you need to worry about disappointing your loved ones. This isn't a people-pleasing situation.”

I think that's just really hard because I have clients that really, really struggle with that. Even when in terms of there's family, friends, and that sort of thing but even when it comes to leaving a job and they're like, “Yeah, but it's really going to disappoint my boss,” or “I'm really going to leave them in the lurch,” and I'm like, “Yeah, you know what, they're grown-ups, they can manage it. That's not your job to manage that. If they're disappointed, it's not because you did anything wrong.”

There are times where we can do things that will cause people to be disappointed and we don't care but in this situation, we have no control over that and it really shouldn't factor into our calculation because their disappointment over our career choices is minimal compared to the impact on us for our career choices. It's not even close.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I also think to the point about people pleasing, there are a lot of lawyers who might not recognize the degree to which their people pleasing is affecting their decisions around their career because they might not be as much of a people pleaser in other arenas, but because so many of us who became lawyers were smart kids who did well in school, etc., career achievement can be couched in lots of ways. It's generally not going to be couched as, “Well, I'm just trying to make the people around me happy,” it's typically going to be couched as ambition or caring about doing work at a really high level.

It's very easy to not see that what you're doing is being driven by how you want other people to perceive you in a people-pleasing way because there are a lot of ways to impress people, be prestigious, or whatever in law that are not defined in “Oh, this is a people-pleasing phenomenon.” They're defined as professional ambition.

Annie Little: Right. It's like how do you say people pleasing in corporate, it's ambition, achievement. That's synonymous with people pleasing to varying extents.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Okay, I also just want to say I am not sitting here being like, “Oh, my goodness, all you people listening, you're such a people pleaser and I totally am not and I've never had an issue with that,” because as we all know, we have not talked about this enough I think yet in this series but I've been in therapy for 10 years and I think every lawyer should be in therapy.

This is one of the many, many, many reasons why I think therapy for all lawyers is extremely helpful because these types of dynamics really have a significant impact on your ability to think about your career in a way that will be helpful and healthy for you.

Annie Little: Yeah. If therapy is something that sounds weird to you or you haven’t done it before, you're like, “Hmm, this is just work stuff. How does therapy factor in?” I think one way that has been helpful for some people I work with to understand it is therapy is really good at helping you to recognize blind spots.

Therapy and coaching are very different but both a therapist and a coach can act as a sounding board and reflect things back to you as well. My experience in therapy, whether it's work or other things has been when I'm just talking and the therapist is like, “Whoa, you just said this. Do you think that could be connected to this other thing?” They're like, “I don't know, what do you think?” and I'm like, “Oh, my God, how did I not see that before? Of course, that makes sense.”

It's not just all talking about your childhood and things being really sad, yeah, I do a lot of that too, but it's making those connections to things that seem really obvious to some people but literally never occurred to me or wouldn't have occurred to you. That's a real value ad in the career context I think.

Sarah Cottrell: 100%. Also recognizing when, in all of that, your nervous system is playing a role. Because I think many lawyers think, “Oh, I'm just making decisions in a vacuum in my mind and if something is not going well, it's because I am, in some way, a moral failure,” and the reality is that one of the things that therapy can help you do is recognize like, “Oh, maybe some of my responses are not just coming from my rational brain. Maybe some of the ways I experience the world, my job, etc., and the capacity that I have, all of those things relate to my nervous system and the way my nervous system is responding,” which is not necessarily something that we have been taught to see ourselves.

Annie Little: Yeah, to recognize and to also understand that we don't have as much control over our nervous system. That's something that you go to therapy to learn how to regulate better. But our nervous systems are very quick to respond in an automatic way and as lawyers, we tend to rely very heavily on the rational side and think that we can control a situation through that and that alone.

I wish that were true, people. I really do. I think my life would be a lot easier if that were true but, like you said, Sarah, it's not a moral feeling, it's not that you're doing something wrong, it's just human nature, and sometimes having somebody who can sift through that for you and help you to understand what's going on is so illuminating.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's part of what it is to be human. Do you have any other thoughts, Annie, about the experience of people not feeling entitled to their misery?

Annie Little: No, I think it's something that comes up quite a bit. Whereas most of these topics that we talk about, Sarah, I get really fired up but this is the one where I feel a little heartbroken about it when it comes up. That's why I think it's really important for us to be talking about it and the different ways that people can approach not overcoming it but recognizing how it shows up and how you're allowed to feel your feelings, folks.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. In fact, the day we're recording this, the episode that's coming out next week is a conversation that I had with someone much of which is around feeling your feelings. That's actually a thing that is helpful if you're a lawyer who's not happy in your job. So get excited, people. I know you are.

Okay, well, so this is the third of our four conversations about these different miseries that he identifies in the book Bullshit Jobs. Next week will be our last conversation about the last misery that people experience and we will talk to you then.

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 Until next time, have a great week.