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Balancing Life and the Stress of a Legal Career--Easier Said than Done

I have a much easier time recommending for others what they should do to find work balance, and have great wishes for them that their journey will go smoothly.  I am here to say from firsthand experience that even when you are making positive changes to support your balance and sanity, it can be a hard road.  I will be sharing (very soon) some big changes I am making in my life.  For now, understand that I am living in the perpetual state of transition and know it will be worth it in the end.

The other night I had pains in my chest and couldn't breathe

So I have been doing a lot of taking my own advice lately.  I am shifting significantly how I spend my time, and setting up for a life more closely in line with my priorities and goals.  I should be elated and have faith that everything will come together as it should.  Instead I have been finding myself ignoring my feelings and just putting my head down to get stuff done.  I tell others that going through major transition is inherently stressful, even if the end result is something amazing. Instead of admitting how hard this has been on me, I have been powering through.

And then it all caught up with me.  My body took on physical manifestations of stress, and caused me to have very scary and real symptoms.  I called a doctor friend and he talked through my symptoms and asked "are you under any stress lately"?  Ummmm...

I am a soldier - I can plow through and downplay things

Lawyers are trained to withstand long hours, strenuous mental hurdles, conversations with angry clients, and meetings with demanding partners.  We are the counselor that people vent to and expect miraculous solutions from.  Particularly for those lawyers with personalities that aim to please (like me), it can be easy to just take everything on and try hard to not let any chinks in the armor show.  But suppressing the impact and pushing through without taking care of yourself has its toll.

So when we need someone to share our burdens, who is there to help us?  Are we willing to let down our guard to admit to someone that we need someone to talk to?  Or to admit to yourself that we need a night on the couch with a book, or with a friend and a glass of wine?

But I don't even have it as bad as ______.

In today's economy, even when things aren't going exactly as you want, it can be hard not to compare your situation to that of others.  If things look good on paper (I have a job, a home, a loving husband, etc.), even if you are unhappy or stressed out it can be easy to downplay your situation.  If you do let negative feelings creep in, they are likely to be accompanied by a serious dose of guilt on top of that unhappiness, for the fact that you are unhappy.  Yikes.  I talk to lots of young lawyers who are desperately unhappy, and yet they are always quick to say "it could be worse" or "I don't have it as bad as [some other person]."  Yes, this is true and it is always good to get some perspective and have gratitude.  However, it is important not to suppress or ignore real (and valid) feelings.

I fell into the trap - and am digging myself out

So Monday I had a migraine and was feeling crummy, and as the day crept on, I literally had the breath knocked out of me from stress.  This shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but it was.  All the transitions and changes in my life hit me at once.  I had been ignoring the reality of what I am going through.  I began second guessing and scrutinizing my decisions (believe me - not helpful) and could feel my chest tightening with each (shortening) breath.  So I made a decision late Monday night.  I rescheduled a class I was supposed to teach the next day and scheduled a chiropractor and massage therapy appointment.  I talked to my mom and husband, had lunch with my sister, and had a session with my coach.  It was full on triage to get me back on track.  I validated the feelings of anxiety about my shifting future plans.  I decided I wanted to try and share the heavy load I was carrying with those that care about me.

No matter how "together" someone seems - they are facing their own struggles

The take-away message is to honor yourself and to treat yourself kindly (and without judgment) when you are living through a stressful time of your life.  Even positive change carries stress with it.  You do not always have to have everything together, and if you see someone who seems to, they are likely hiding their struggles.  Yes, I pride myself on prioritizing work-life balance and making life choices to support the vision for my future.  But I will not always have it together, and will be hit with a very real and physical reminder that you can't plow through life to get to the other side.

I welcome your stories of how stress impacted you, or how you took stress by the horns and tamed it.  

Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.