As the year draws to a close and the holiday season approaches, it's a time of reflection, celebration, and connection with loved ones. However, for many, the final months of the year can also bring about heightened levels of stress, exhaustion, and a profound sense of loneliness. The convergence of holiday preparations, year-end work deadlines, and the absence of familiar faces can lead to what's commonly known as "end-of-year burnout" and a deep sense of isolation. For lawyers, the loneliest of professionals[i], year’s end can bring an even greater sense of overwhelm and disconnect. Despite these challenges during the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ there are ways to beat the burnout and loneliness enabling you to embrace the new year with a sense of connection and belonging.
The Holiday Paradox
The holiday season, typically a time for celebration, can paradoxically heighten feelings of loneliness for lawyers. Some factors contributing to this sense of isolation:
Work Demands: Lawyers often face tight deadlines and billable hour demands as the year-end approaches. This can lead to spending holidays working while others are celebrating. Even when time off is prioritized, many lawyers feel guilty, distracted, or stressed by the unanswered e-mails, piles of work, and unbilled hours waiting for them upon their return.
Time Zones and Geographic Separation: Lawyers may need to travel for cases, attend conferences, or work on global matters. Being in different time zones or geographic locations can make it difficult to synchronize holiday celebrations with loved ones.
Reduced Social Interaction: For lawyers whose sense of community comes from being with colleagues in the office or bar association events, the slowdown in work and networking events during the holiday season can diminish social interaction and amplify feelings of isolation.
High Expectations: The legal community is competitive, and lawyers may feel pressured to maintain a facade of success and joyful optimism during the holiday season. This can result in a reluctance to share their feelings of loneliness and burnout.
These factors can be even more challenging for women, to whom much of the burden of creating “holiday magic” falls, as they seek to maintain their professional personas and obligations while meeting the holiday expectations of family and friends. It is not surprising that this joyful time of year can become wrought with anxiety and exhaustion.
The Loneliness Paradox
Many of us spend all day interacting with clients and colleagues in the office, on the phone, and through Zoom, yet remain isolated and alone. This paradox of loneliness – you don’t have to be alone to experience loneliness, cannot be solved by simply surrounding yourself with more people. Why? Because loneliness is a subjective experience of disconnection that comes from feelings of not being seen, understood, or valued. As a result, it is not the quantity of relationships you have with other people, it is the quality.
Yet, the very things that could bring us closer to others are the things that are least valued in our profession. Being good at our jobs as lawyers usually requires us to forgo being open and vulnerable with our feelings about our professional pain points and our challenges in personal and family life. The need to keep up a façade of competence, control, and contentment leaves us feeling detached from ourselves and prevents us from authentically connecting with others.
The work in navigating the holiday and loneliness paradoxes lies in actively deepening our connections with colleagues, friends, and family members who are important to us. No small feat, it takes courage to face the vulnerability that comes with opening oneself up to connection. If successful, however, we can begin to receive the care and support of those around us.
Look for the Helpers
People want to help others way more than you think they do. Research consistently shows that people underestimate others’ willingness to help them by up to 50%.[ii] Additionally, the research tells us that the “helpers” feel great afterward and are grateful for the opportunity to assist.[iii] This research is not surprising and aligns with several other studies that show how terrible we are at judging how others will respond to us when we seek advice and ask questions.[iv]
But it isn’t as simple as just asking for help. We have to be in a position to receive the help. This is where many lawyers struggle. We know what it means to ask for help from mentors, peers, and colleagues in the day-to-day tasks of lawyering. Yet we are lost when it comes to asking for help in managing anxiety or depression, navigating imposter phenomenon, or recognizing feelings of being alone and afraid.
Before we can look for the helpers, we need to muster the courage to help ourselves. There are of course many opinions on the ways in which we can improve well-being outcomes and reduce burnout and loneliness, but some of the techniques most proven to be effective include:
1. Practicing Gratitude
A gratitude practice is a deliberate and mindful habit of regularly reflecting on and expressing gratitude for the positive aspects of your life. It involves acknowledging and appreciating the good things, people, and experiences that you have, rather than dwelling on what you lack or the negatives. The negativity bias we lawyers develop as a means to zealously protect and advocate for our clients can wreak havoc on our sense of ourselves and others. When we can be mindful of the present moment and find joy and appreciation in everyday experiences, we will be more open to opportunities for connection and to receive the care and support of others.
2. Put the Esteem Back in Self-Esteem
The worst lies we tell are the lies we tell ourselves. Most detrimental are the lies we tell ourselves about our value as human beings. Many of us pull away from authentic connection and help-seeking because we simply don’t believe we are worthy of such care. If you are like many lawyers, you’ve probably spent some of your career thinking you are not enough. Perhaps you’ve subconsciously betrayed parts of yourself to fit into professional cultures, to please others, or to get ahead. These small betrayals can add up over time and inform our stories about who we are and what we are worthy of receiving. These stories can be kind and supportive, or they can be cruel and detrimental. When we finally accept ourselves to be worthy of our own respect and care, we can receive that respect and care from others.
3. Change Your Criteria for Success
Perfectionism runs rampant in the legal profession and is a large inhibitor of help-seeking behavior. If we admit our need for authentic connection or ask for help in managing burnout, we must inherently accept that we are not perfect. Additionally, the unrealistic expectations that stem from perfectionism keep us from authentically connecting with others as we either become paralyzed with fear of “doing it wrong” or we hold those around us to unreasonable standards. Most detrimental, perfectionistic tendencies can also result in a lack of empathy and understanding towards others, making it challenging to connect on a deep emotional level. If your definition of “success” in lawyering or life requires you to maintain an expectation of perfection, consider the ways you can cultivate a growth mindset, learn to focus on progress over perfection, and practice self-compassion as a means to change your criteria for success and limit the impact of perfectionism on your relationship with others.
During the holiday season, when joy and celebration are expected, it's crucial to acknowledge the paradoxical challenges that lawyers often face – the onslaught of "end-of-year burnout" and the poignant loneliness that can pervade our lives. As we navigate these perplexing emotions and the demands of our profession, we must remember that authenticity and vulnerability are the keys to breaking free from the loneliness paradox. It takes courage to open ourselves up to connection and to seek help. By actively deepening our relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, and by recognizing the value of seeking support, we can defy the isolation that sometimes accompanies our legal careers. Remember, seeking help and building meaningful connections are not signs of weakness but reflections of strength and resilience. In doing so, we can beat the end-of-year burnout and loneliness, finding the warmth of the holiday season in our hearts and the support of our loved ones.
[i] “Lawyers rank highest on 'loneliness scale,' study finds.” April 3, 2018. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyers_rank_highest_on_loneliness_scale_study_finds [ii] “How to Ask for Help and Actually Get It.” August 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/smarter-living/how-to-ask-for-help-and-actually-get-it.html [iii] Id. [iv] “Want to Seem Smart? Ask for Advice.” August 29, 2014. https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/want-to-seem-smart-ask-for-advice.html
Ryann serves as the Director of the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program (CAMP) and Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice (LEJ), lawyer professional development programs of the Colorado Supreme Court. A former litigator and a seasoned consultant and advocate on professionalism, diversity, and equity in the legal field, Ryann focused their law practice on civil litigation with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ families and civil rights.
Ryann has been routinely recognized for their legal practice, most recently earning the American Bar Association Rosner & Rosner Young Lawyer Professionalism award and the IDEA Leader in the Community award from The Center on Colfax. Ryann sits on the boards of several Colorado non-profit legal organizations and serves as the 2022 President of the Colorado Bar Association. Ryann earned their law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law and holds an LLM and undergraduate degree from the University of Denver.