February 17, 2011

The High Cost of Soldiering On: Understanding Compassion Fatigue

What is compassion fatigue and how does it affect lawyers? Certainly, it brings to mind another similar-sounding term, “battle fatigue.” This makes sense: what is understood today about compassion fatigue first began developing when the medical profession saw the effects of war on soldiers during WWI. It was then that “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” first became recognized as a psychiatric illness.

While the horrors of trench warfare are not an everyday reality for most of us, the issue of how we’re affected by the experiences of those around us is alive and well. A recent article, "A Traumatic Toll on Lawyers and Judges," published in the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program Newsletter, details how those involved in certain types of legal work are more at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. In addition, the authors cite research on empathy which has led to understanding how observing someone else’s emotional experience can cause us to experience it vicariously. This process is actually due to some complicated neural activity in the brain. The upshot is, the more empathetic we are, the more likely we are to feel someone else’s pain. As we know, handling someone else’s negative emotional experience is often a big part of what lawyers do. 

This article is helpful in summarizing not only how to become more aware of your own possible experience of compassion fatigue, but what to do about it. Understanding it and learning to recognize its symptoms is the first step in healing. In addition to awareness, other key mitigating steps include:

  • Debriefing
  • Self-care
  • Balance and relationship
  • Professional support, if needed
  • Being intentional

Providing caring, compassionate advocacy to your clients doesn’t have to hurt.  If you or someone you know is struggling with compassion fatigue, call the Lawyer Assistance Program for help at 206-727-8268.  

February 3, 2011

We Know You Have Strengths, But Are You Using Them?

Dr. Martin Seligman, a distinguished psychologist well known for his theories about positive psychology and learned helplessness, has written a chapter titled "Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?" in his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. It’s a vehicle for his theory about understanding optimal human experience, especially human strengths and positive emotions specific to the legal profession, and it raises an intriguing question: is there a way for lawyers to utilize their "signature strengths" in the course of their work, not just for the good of their clients, but for their own good as well? What if being encouraged to be your best self made you a better lawyer?

While billions have been spent over the years — and for good reason — on researching and studying the serious issue of depression, as well as understanding its causes, symptoms, treatment, etc., what has become clear to many (including Seligman) is that trying to prevent and/or avoid unhappiness is definitely not the same as creating happiness. He says fixing weaknesses won’t help. Instead, incorporating strengths into everyday interactions is a better way to achieve happiness.    

When it comes to the practice of law, Seligman "diagnoses" the problem of depression in the law as having three parts:

  • Pessimism, 
  • Low decision latitude, and 
  • Being part of a giant win-loss enterprise.

His "antidote" to the third part of the problem (being part of a win-loss game) is interesting: exercising one’s "signature strengths," as part of and during the course of doing one’s work. His argument is that using one’s individual signature strengths creates a "win-win," offsetting the damage of the "win-loss" nature of the legal profession. In addition, he argues that exercising signature strengths releases positive emotion — and who couldn’t use more of that?

Is this just wishful thinking, or is it possible for lawyers to incorporate ways to exercise their unique signature strengths during the course of their work? How would it impact your life if you were able to do it, as Seligman suggests? 

To discover the signature strengths that are most characteristic of you, take a quick thirty-minute survey for free at www.viacharacter.org/SURVEYS.aspx (a more detailed report is also available, for a fee). The Gallup organization also offers (for a fee) a different online strengths assessment at http://strengthsfinder.com