For Women in Law By Women in Law

Guest Blogger, Erin Peters, discusses some of the hidden obstacles to receiving help and stresses how important it is for us to learn how.

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Risky Business – The Hidden Obstacles of Getting Help

When Kim Jakeman invited me to guest blog for LiL I had been talking with friends about some of the challenges we face getting the help we need. I hope that by sharing my own experiences with first acknowledging my need for help, and then daring to ask for it, might help others to reach the support that is often close at hand.

I am a mother, former lawyer, and psychotherapist. One of the side-effects of training as a psychotherapist is the mistaken (or wishful) thinking that somehow, we therapists should have transcended our own psychological challenges, and are now magically free to practice what we preach. I was reminded of this recently as I was preparing a webinar designed to encourage lawyers to seek help and support. An important part of the piece, from my view, was first to understand what psychological barriers there might be for doing so – what beliefs, desires, and fears might get in the way of lawyers asking for the help that we often really need. So, there I was, diligently preparing away, and this being one of my first webinars, struggling with the challenge of new technology – Zoom pro, cameras, live polling. Not my strong suit. And despite the knowledge that there were experts out there, people I could turn to for help, I persevered, late into the night, pushing food, teenagers, and other distractions aside. I cannot recall the catalyst, but at some point, I heard, “practice what you preach, Erin – reach out for help”. I did, and, magically, my technology struggles vanished.

What stopped me from reaching out earlier? It was those familiar voices, representing the psychological barriers that clearly still do get in the way. Voices like, “I can manage”, and “I am certainly smart enough”. Perhaps, “I am not used to asking for help”, and “I am more comfortable doing things in my time, my way”. And the deeper whispers of “My LinkedIn friends seem to manage brilliantly”, and “I like myself better when I am competent, not struggling”.

I suspect I am not alone, and that many women/lawyers/helpers hear these voices. The legal profession is one which manifests systemic barriers – such as the culture of high achievement and speed – in which there seems never enough time, and certainly not enough time to stop and seek support. Also, at its essence, law is a service profession in which lawyers work to serve others. In a recent quiz I conducted, in a group of over 200 lawyers, 99% of the respondents identified with the statement “I feel good when I can resolve problems for others” and 92% with “I am generally more comfortable giving than receiving”. Advising, counselling, assisting with transactions, advocating a position . . . all of these helping verbs comprise much of the daily work of lawyers. “She is totally dedicated to her clients” is a worthy accolade.

Yet, as our workloads and stress levels grow, many of us experience the shadow which clouds this accolade. Cast firmly in the role of helper, it becomes difficult not to help others when they need us. Particularly in a profession where saying yes and doing more are the norms, saying “no” or even, “not right now” may come at a cost. Delegation is also tricky, as we tend to be almost compulsively self-reliant – “I can manage, it’s better this way”, says the voice. In a culture of high-achievers, seeking support is (unfortunately) often misinterpreted as weakness. Who among us really wants to be the one person in the office who sticks her head above the parapet, who dares to admit “I can’t manage right now?”

For me, there is an irony here, as the qualities that bring us professional success in law are the very things that can limit our access to support. What the current pandemic reminds us daily is that at times in each of our lives support is what we all, lawyers or not, need. In engaging with this blog, the question I would leave you with is: What would it be like, this one time, to ask for help? Perhaps magical.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Peters is a psychotherapist, former lawyer and mother based in Vancouver, BC. She runs a private psychotherapeutic counselling practice and works to support the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers and those who live and work with them. You can find out more about Erin here.

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