No matter how confident she may appear, many a woman lawyer harbors a fear of fraud just below the surface. All it takes is a critical comment, an icy silence, or the realization that she has actually made a mistake, and voila! The self-questioning and self-flagellation begin.
Once launched, it is merciless and distracting. How stupid! How could you?! What else have you screwed up?!
It’s no surprise that of all the positive psychology exercises I’ve prescribed for clients and workshop participants, the most popular has been the “letter to yourself,” adapted from the “Exploring self-compassion through writing exercise” developed by University of Texas self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff.
The lawyer writes to herself as a friend, mentor, or loved one would write to her about some error or omission. Sometimes, I suggest she write as though she were writing to a good friend who had made a mistake.
What’s produced is inevitably a gentler letter, sans name-calling, than all the self-talk she’s been dishing out. Generally, she notices immediately that she treats herself worse than her worst enemies. In a workshop setting, I often hear a collective sigh of I thought it was just me relief as the women who normally beat themselves up in silence share their stories.
The hope of this exercise is that with practice, self-compassion will eventually become a more natural response. That would be good because this is about more than the warm and fuzzy feeling of a Hallmark movie.
This shift from self-flagellation to self-compassion is key because although self-criticism and perfectionism may look like the road to self-improvement, they can actually have the opposite effect. They can hamper the ability to succeed and find enjoyment in the practice of law.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, can move us along toward both “grit” and a “growth mindset,” the twin qualities that the American Bar Association has embraced for keeping women engaged in the practice. Grit, a research-based concept developed and popularized by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, entails perseverance and passion for long-term goals. A growth mindset is a notion developed by Stanford researcher Carol S. Dweck, that brains and talent are just the starting point, and that real growth and improvement come from dedication and hard work.
In a word, it is easier to persevere when every misstep does not entail a painful self-beating, and easier to grow when we stay in the game and keep on learning.
So what exactly is constructive self-compassion? Dr. Neff identifies three elements: 1) self-kindness, 2) a feeling of connection with others, 3) and what she calls mindfulness or “balanced awareness” of the degree of pain we’re experiencing. In other words, to experience real self-compassion, we must not only be kind to ourselves, but also must realize that all of us are in this together, all sharing triumphs and missteps, and adopt a reasonable view of our own performance.
She believes that self-compassion, which is rooted in internal acceptance, escapes the stress-producing downside of self-esteem, which is routed in external approval and competition.
As she wrote in a 2011 article for Greater Good Magazine, self-compassion “offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others.”
Other researchers and commentators have suggested ways in which self-compassion can specifically benefit women lawyers. In a lead article in Women Lawyers Journal in 2016, attorney Kate Mayer Mangan opined that self-compassion and reduced fear of failure might increase risk-taking that women lawyers often find difficult, make them generally more resilient in a gender-challenging work environment, and provide a buffer against stress and depression. So important might be the effects, she said, that self-compassion could be a key to “stopping the leaky pipeline” of women out of the legal profession.
Dr. Neff’s research seems to bear out the salutary effects of self-compassion in a law practice environment. For example, she reported a study in which participants were asked to imagine their feelings in a potentially embarrassing situation, in which they had performed poorly as part of a team—the sort of scenario that might come up in working on a case. Those scoring high in self-compassion were able to take it in stride and not too personally, looking instead at the big picture. Those who depended more on external approval for their esteem, however, were devastated, feeling like losers.
Similarly, in a different study, half the participants received neutral feedback about a video performance and the rest received positive feedback. The self-compassion participants were unperturbed by the feedback, no matter which kind they received, while the participants with high levels of self-esteem were disturbed by receiving only neutral feedback. In a law office environment, where feedback can be sporadic or non-existent, those who depend on positive external feedback to feel good about themselves can feel lost.
The most common objection I’ve encountered in crusading for more self-compassion is that lawyers who accept their fallibilities will turn soft and stop striving to become better and better. One senior partner rebuffed the idea of having a self-compassion workshop at his firm on the grounds that the Millennials there were already “too entitled” and he didn’t want to give them a pass on working hard.
Again, though, the research shows that a bigger dose of self-compassion is likely to produce more—not less—of what he wants. A 2011 study by UC Berkley researchers Juliana G. Breines and Serena Chen suggests that self-compassion after personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.
Another of Dr. Neff’s studies probed what motivates self-compassionate individuals and found that it was not a desire to bolster one’s self-image but simply to maximize one’s potential and well-being. The development of self-compassion in a law firm culture might go a long way to foster better lawyering as well as better relationships among colleagues less desperate for self-promotion.
For the curious, Dr. Neff has developed both a scale and an online test to measure self-compassion levels, along with a toolkit for developing a greater capacity for self-compassion.
For starters, a kind letter to yourself might be just the thing.