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Mental Health in the Law: Know Your Psychological Superpower

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Mental Health Awareness Week always presents a chance to reflect on our wellbeing. The theme this year was anxiety. According to LawCare, the mental health and well-being charity for the legal profession, anxiety is one of the top three reasons people working in the law reached out for their support in 2022. To get involved and get more people talking about anxiety, we ran an ObeliskLive webinar for our consultant community focused on how to ‘Know Your Psychological Superpower’.

Being a lawyer can be immensely rewarding, but it’s also a profession that creates more than its fair share of stress. Balancing client expectations with life commitments, and meeting deadlines while optimising billable hours create a constant juggling act. Our webinar highlighted common mental hurdles that elevate stress and trigger anxiety in our profession, including impostor syndrome and our dear yet false friend, perfectionism.

We were fortunate to have Sarah Lyons and Hannah Bradshaw, the co-founders of Blue Sky, joining our conversation and sharing their expert advice. Blue Sky focuses on empowering and connecting female lawyers, offering tailored coaching designed to navigate the unique challenges of a legal career, including the ‘professional penalty of parenthood’. As qualified lawyers and executive coaches, their insights are deeply rooted in personal experiences gained throughout their legal careers.

In case you missed it, here are some takeaways from this enlightening session. We’ve also included some exercises that were introduced during the webinar to help you reflect on your own stress triggers and harness your unique psychological superpower!   

The perfectionism trap

We lawyers tend to be a bunch of perfectionists, striving to get it right the first time, every single time. On the surface, perfectionism may seem like a positive trait, driving us to produce excellent work for our clients. However, it can also quickly swing into troubling territory – leading to excessive self-criticism, fear of failure and unrealistic expectations, all of which can cause significant stress and anxiety.

Social media contributes to the issue. As much as we enjoy the occasional mindless scrolling, we’re constantly bombarded with images of perfectionism: the healthy eating plans, 4:00am wild swims, and 10km runs before the morning meeting. While it’s great that some people can manage this, it does set an impossibly high bar for the rest of us. This struggle between our real lives and these so-called ‘perfect’ lives can add to our perfectionist tendencies.

Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. It can motivate us to deliver top-quality work. But it can also trip us up, causing anxiety and slowing our progress. We have to be aware of the fact that striving for perfection can trap us in an endless cycle of chasing unattainable goals and constantly second-guessing ourselves.

There’s a fine line between healthy perfectionism and what’s called ‘neurotic perfectionism’. Wanting to do good work for our clients and organisations is a wonderful thing, but when this desire starts stirring fear or anxiety within us, it’s a sign that we might be tipping into neurotic perfectionism.

Breaking the perfectionism cycle

Mental health professionals say, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” However, a perfectionist lawyer will say, “What other people think of me is my only business.” This means we’re taking validation from what other people think of us.

Perfectionism traps us in a cycle: we strive for perfection to feel validated, set unrealistic standards, inevitably fail to meet them, focus on our flaws, and end up judging ourselves harshly, causing shame, fear, and anxiety.

One way to break this cycle, is to shift your focus from outcomes to progress. As lawyers, we often obsess over crafting the perfect contract or email, but it’s more important to focus on the ultimate goal, which is completing the task on time, to the best of our ability. Our time is valuable, so we should consider the cost-benefit ratio of spending excessive amounts of time on tasks due to perfectionist thinking. By getting lost in the minute details, we risk missing deadlines and stalling progress.

Exercise #1

Take note of the times you’re expecting perfectionism from yourself or others, at work or at home. And then try to shift your focus from perfection to progress. A 20-minute walk you manage to fit in beats a 5-mile run you never take. Good is good enough!

Also, it’s time to recognise that failure is not a personal trait, but rather an event from which you can learn and grow. As the well-known saying goes: “You either win or you learn”. This mantra underscores the importance of reflecting on failures or mistakes, and using them as stepping stones towards success.

Exercise #2

Create a ‘failure resume’ by jotting down your three biggest or most uncomfortable career failures. Then record what you learned from each incident and think about how these experiences led to where you are now.

Balancing stress and performance

The Yerkes-Dodson stress curve posits that a certain amount of stress is necessary for optimal performance. However, when stress levels become too high, they lead to anxiety, panic, and even burnout – all conditions that are, unfortunately, prevalent among lawyers.

When you’re not making mistakes and feel very comfortable, you’re likely in your comfort zone. Everyone needs to rest in their comfort zone occasionally. However, if you’re constantly in your comfort zone, it may be worth pushing beyond it and embracing some failures to enter your growth and learning zone.

Exercise #3

One way to manage stress is to learn to recognise the signs of stress before it gets too overwhelming. First, take a moment to reflect on the last few weeks of work. How have you been feeling? Have you been sleeping well? Do you feel like your performance has been affected? Write down your thoughts and feelings.

Next, think about what triggers your stress. Is it a certain deadline or task? Is it a particular colleague? By identifying the triggers, you can start to manage them better.

Finally, rate your stress level on a scale of one to ten, with one being minimal stress and ten being overwhelming stress. This will help you to recognise when you start to approach the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson Stress Curve, where stress levels become too high and start to negatively impact your performance.

By recognising the early signs of stress and taking proactive steps to manage it, you can stay on top of your game and avoid burnout. Remember, stress is often unavoidable, especially when you step out of your comfort zone. It’s how you manage it that makes all the difference. Discover what helps you return to an optimal state, be it reading a book, going for a walk, or catching up with friends. Incorporating these stress-reducing strategies into your life, even during high-stress periods, can help you manage stress more effectively.

Understand imposter syndrome and discover your superpower

Impostor syndrome is another common phenomenon that causes anxiety in the legal profession. This happens when we doubt our skills and talents, and live with a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. A pervasive sentiment among lawyers returning from a career break or maternity leave, is a fear that someone will tap us on the shoulder and declare we don’t belong. It can affect anyone, no matter their gender, identity, success, or position.

However, when we dissect what impostor syndrome is prompting us to do or feel, we find a potential superpower. This may seem counterintuitive, but by leaning into feelings of inadequacy, instead of resisting them, we can turn them into a catalyst for fulfilment.  

The behaviours associated with impostor syndrome can manifest in various forms. Some individuals adopt a ‘superhero’ persona, overworking themselves to compensate for perceived shortcomings. Others set incredibly high goals and struggle with self-esteem when they inevitably fall short.

Tackling these tendencies

Self-reflection is a useful tool. Consider what you tend to do when experiencing moments of self-doubt or impostor syndrome. For example, a lawyer who did a conversion course instead of a full law degree might feel they lack knowledge compared to their peers. Spending excessive time on research and fact-checking becomes a coping mechanism to compensate for this perceived deficit. A helpful strategy to manage this can be setting time limits for tasks to prevent excessive fact-checking or research.

Exercise #4

Reflect on instances when you’ve felt like an imposter, noting your behaviour in these moments. For instance, one example shared during the webinar was adopting excessively friendly and agreeable behaviour during networking events and conferences. Recognising these tendencies allows you to identify your stress triggers and turn your imposter syndrome around into an asset. In this case, it would be giving yourself permission to be more genuine and authentic.

To wrap up, here’s a great piece of advice that came out of the session: Rather than trying to fill someone else’s shoes, focus on filling your own.

If we constantly compare ourselves to others, we inevitably encounter feelings of inadequacy. But by focusing on being the most authentic version of ourselves, we can dispel these doubts. After all, we are the ones who shape our identity and how we are perceived. By filling our own shoes, we honour our unique strengths and abilities, and this authenticity naturally elevates us. It’s a simple, yet powerful principle to keep in mind going forward.

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