The year 2018 brought us news of the suicides of two very famous and rich people. I have often thought of suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. As I read of Kate Spade’s death, I wondered why. To those of us on the outside looking in, she had the perfect life. She was a designer whose name was worn on the shoulders of many women across the world. Even though she sold her company, she profited a great deal from the sale.
We followed Anthony Bourdian around the world as he introduced us to new cultures. At the time of his death, he was in France filming another adventure. So what would make a father of an 11-year old think he had nothing to live for and there was no hope for a better life?
For the past two years, I have been working on educating attorneys about mental health, depression, and alcoholism within the profession. The American Bar Association and many state bar associations have come to recognize the dire situation facing the legal profession with more and more attorneys across the country committing suicide, suffering from depression, and/or succumbing to alcoholism. I questioned what is the common theme for all of these suicides. Recently, I heard the motivational speaker extraordinaire, Les Brown, say it. The common theme is that they were missing a sense of self. They either didn’t know or could not fully appreciate who they were.
When you set out on the journey to discover a sense of self, the first question which must be answered is, who are you? Who are you when the esquire is stripped from your name? An attorney is just one of the titles you have, it doesn’t or shouldn’t define who you are as a person no more than the title wife, husband, daughter, son or parent. Those are the roles you occupy in this thing we call life. None of the roles define you. To determine who you are, you must examine what are your values in life? What brings you joy in the morning and what makes you cry at night? When you look in the mirror, are you pleased with the person you see looking back at you? If not, why not and how do you gain that sense of self that will help you get through the challenges life will surely hand you? Wouldn’t it be great if in the first year of law school there was a class titled “How to maintain your sense of self while practicing law.”
When you bring practicing law it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how successful others may say you are, if you don’t like the person you are. You must first like yourself if you are to be satisfied with the life you are living. You must be able to look at yourself and see the wonderful creation that you are to be able to stand in the face of adversity. Having a healthy sense of self will give you the confidence to go toe to toe with any other attorney no matter how many more years senior they are to you.
I remember a time when I was not very pleased with the person I had become. I attribute this to all the negative things I had been told about myself as a child. When we are young, we believe what adults around us say to us about ourselves. If your parents never praised you for the good you did, but always lectured you about the wrong, you will start to think you can’t do anything right. Unless you stop and work through those negative feelings about yourself, you will mature into an adult who, no matter how successful, will still see yourself as a failure.
The image of ourselves that we carry around every day can get so heavy that we want to stop carrying it, but we don’t know how without doing harm to ourselves. Most people give up because they don’t see any other solution. They have not learned how to develop better sense of self. People with high self-esteem are not inclined to have suicidal thoughts. They are more confident in who they are and their ability to overcome any challenge that life throws their way. I was 10 when my father died and I was left to live with my stepmother who said very little about the good things I could do. She told me that I would be pregnant by the age of 15. /based on what i heard from her, almost daily, I should have been a statistic. I had to search out people who saw the potential in me. Once I was in college, I went to seek counseling on campus. I didn’t think I was suffering from a mental illness, but I knew I needed to get help to improve my sense of self, if I was to have any success in life. I spent hours walking around campus alone. While I walked I would tell myself not to believe the negative things she had said. I learned to celebrate my victories, even the small ones. I reminded myself that I had managed to graduate high school at the top of my class without getting pregnant, as she had predicted. I celebrated the fact that I had obtained a tuition scholarship to a prestigious college. Later, I celebrated being accepted and graduating from a highly accredited law school. The more things I found to celebrate, the stronger my self-esteem grew.
After becoming an attorney I noticed when my friends were introducing me to someone, they felt the need to add to the introduction that I am an attorney. No longer was I just Lynn, now I was my friend Lynn the attorney. Others began to relate to me through my profession and not just me the person. I had to stop my friends and let them know although I might have more knowledge of the law now, I’m still the same person they have known for years. Having my law degree doesn’t make me a better person or friend.
What I have learned over the years is that having a sense of self doesn’t come from what other people say about you, but it comes from what you say about yourself. The need to have a sense of self is not something they teach you in law school. It is not something that the partners in your law firm are going to discuss as they sit around the conference room table. Having a sense of self is not taught at continuing legal education seminars. Having a sense of self is something you have to want to develop for yourself and sometimes by yourself.
The more things you encounter in life and make it through, the stronger your sense of self should be. You hae to be able to look at yourself and see the good person that you have become. It has to go beyond, “ I’m a successful lawyer.” Remember, that’s just one of the roles you occupy in the world. Look deeper inside so you can say, “I’m a good person and when you strip me of my esquire, I’m still comfortable with who I am.”