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Practicing law can be stressful. But more than the circumstances we find ourselves in, it is our thoughts about them that cause most of our stress. As pastor and educator Charles Swindoll said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
In other words, for a situation or circumstance to trigger stress, you must perceive that situation as stressful. It’s your thoughts about it that are producing your stress.
Instead of focusing on the circumstance causing your stress, what if you focus on your perception of the circumstance?
When you change your perception of a situation, you can change the way you feel about it. You can move past feeling threatened by stress and instead view it as a challenge — and an opportunity. Here are five ways.
1. Stop arguing with reality. No, things are not always the way they “should” be. But regardless of how they should be, they are the way they are. As Reinhold Niebuhr famously stated, we need the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Figure out what you can change, then learn how to accept everything else. You’ll be happier, less frustrated, and have more time and energy to work on the things you can actually accomplish.
2. Stop worrying about “what if.” It’s not our fault that, as lawyers, we tend to foresee the terrible ways things might go wrong. After three years in law school reading about how many transactions failed, how people died, lost their fortunes or suffered other tragedies, and the like, we now have clients who expect us to know in advance all the potential pitfalls so they can avoid those problems. Yes, lawyers must consider the “what if’s,” but that doesn’t mean they need to stress us out. The fact is, something often goes wrong in the practice of law. How could it not, when so much of what we do is fraught with conflict and risk? Plan, prepare and deal with it. But don’t worry about it. It’s a waste of time and energy. The truth is, if you cannot control an outcome or circumstance, then no amount of worry will change it. On the other hand, if you can control an outcome or circumstance, then you simply need to do the work.
3. Believe you can handle whatever happens. Think back to all the challenges you have faced. Most likely, there are very few, if any, that you weren’t been able to handle. Even if you didn’t deal with some of them perfectly, and even if you would handle some of them differently in the future, you dealt with the challenges. Much of our anxiety comes from thinking that if the worst happens, we won’t know what to do. But experience shows otherwise. Believe that you will be able to handle whatever comes your way.
4. Realize the stress is not permanent. Sometimes when you are living and working through a particularly stressful time, it can seem that the stress will be permanent. You cannot see through the overwhelming stress you are feeling. Fortunately, very few things in life are permanent — including the bad things. Remembering that “this too shall pass” may be all that is needed to help alleviate the stress.
5. Stop replaying upsetting events. When stress is caused by a sense of injustice, we often replay the events over and over again in our heads, imagining all the things we could have said or done differently. But this just perpetuates the negative emotions caused by the injustice. It prevents you from moving forward, or focusing on the present and potential solutions. Stop giving space in your head to the person or circumstance that was unfair and instead look forward to resolving challenges.
We can’t always control circumstances but we can choose how we respond to them. And we can choose to not be stressed out by our stress!
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