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Goals, Depression & Work

Posted Mar 03 2010 9:54am

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving Oliver Wendell Holmes.

There are different concerns at different stages of one’s depression journey.  Lawyers who are in the throes of it, perhaps for the first time, need education about what depression is, understanding, medication, support and psychotherapy.  After they’ve started to feel better, they’ll need to turn their focus to their livelihood and how they’ll work at it in a way, hopefully, which takes into account their mental health so as prevent and/or mitigate any future depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book,  Undoing Depression , has this interesting insight about depressives in the workplace:

“Sometimes when I have spoken to business organizations, I have surprised them by advocating for hiring the depressed; but aside from taking more sick days than others, depressed people can be the best employees.  We’re [Dr. O’Connor has long struggled with depression] good at being responsible.  We are good soldiers, honest and industrious.  We have high standards and want to do any job well.  We have too much guilt to pad our hours or take home office supplies.  Treat us decently, and we’ll be grateful and loyal.  Unfortunately for the depressed individual, however, we discount these virtues and have a difficult time enjoying the world of work.”

I think that’s a great insight because overcompensating, even if it makes us miserable, can make us great workers.  God knows lawyers have high standards.  In essence, many of these people don’t fundamentally value themselves. They may fervently chase other measures of success – money, power and status.  Yet, inside, they often feel broken, sad, stressed or depressed.  Here’s what Dr. O’Connor said in an interview I had with in New York City about a depressive’s need to value him/herself:

O\'Conner 3

O\'Conner 3

We tend to think of lawyers as colossal egos bent on being Masters of the Universe; and there probably a good chunk of those people out there who I never could stand anyway.  But, in my experience, there are many accomplished lawyers who suffer from depression who are of different ilk; “good soldiers” who bust their asses and don’t give themselves much, if any, credit.

I was doing a walk-a-talk with a friend of mine [a real non-lawyer type] recently in Central Park in New York City.  I stopped to munch on some peanuts that were a real disappointment. He was baffled when I told him I didn’t feel that I’d accomplished much in my professional life.  “You were just named to that that publication, ‘The Best Lawyers in America’. For Christ’s sake, count your blessings!” 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take credit.  It was because I couldn’t I just didn’t know how to.   And, as Dr. O’Connor said, not taking credit doesn’t often have much to do with our professional success, but it has a lot to do with our satisfaction with our jobs.

There are emotional bridges that connect us to various aspects of ourselves and our environment. For depressives, there often isn’t an east-bound bridge connecting their good work to their emotional selves. Others may slap them on the back and plaques may parade across their office wall.  No matter, there’s still a disconnection; a sense that their accomplishments were an accident or a recent run of Lady Luck.  They often have a sense that they’ll be found out; that all of their success is a put-on.  They think they’re imposters who truly don’t deserve such accolades – especially from any genuine place inside of them. No matter how distorted this vision is, they’ll insist that it’s true till the cows come home.  I know because I’ve banged these drums a few times over the years. 

Then there’s the other bridge pointing west-bound.  It connects their goof-ups, mistakes and bad decisions to themselves. You see, lawyers have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for bad things and an underdeveloped sense of ownership for the good stuff they do. This take on life isn’t about taking responsibility for our mistakes.  Rather, it’s the toxic self-impugning; the inner critic run amok spraying bullets from an AK-47 at our self-esteem.

I’ve come to learn that feeling a sense of satisfaction and pride in my work because of my efforts is a skill that I have to work at – and I’ve come a long way.  One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is by setting goals. For many years, like all lawyers, I swam upstream into the time currents of my day.  I didn’t have to set goals about when to get things done because the Court, my firm and other various incendiary devices did that for me. Finishing a set of interrogatories or successfully arguing a Summary Judgment motion, wasn’t a goal that I set for myself – it was simply another deadline in a litany of other deadlines.

Setting goals for ourselves that we’ve personally reflected upon is important step for those who wish to recover from depression.  It counters the sense of hopelessness and the confusing lack of direction characteristic of a depressive’s attempts to navigate through life.  Goals give us a Garmin for our game.

Even though setting goals would be a healthy thing for someone with depression to work at, they often don’t.  Again, Dr. O’Connor:

“Depressed people, pessimistic [a hallmark of lawyers thinking style] and lacking confidence, tend to avoid setting goals as a way to protect themselves from disappointment.  They don’t realize that the absence of goals leads to a completely different and frequently worse set of problems.  Even if you miss your target, you grow and benefit from the practice of productive activity.  But depressed people, who don’t trust their ability to adapt to bad news and hence avoid setting conscious goals, find lives that lack direction.  Your goal becomes just getting through another day.  In the depths of depression, that may be all you can manage, but it doesn’t take you anywhere.” 

Or, as the great Indian Chief Seneca once wrote: “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim.  When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

Setting simple, realistic and concrete goals improve both our performance of the activity and our actual experience of it.  My Catholic take on it from Mother Teresa helps me put this in the context of my part-time faith:  “We can’t do great things; only small things with great love.” 

Work isn’t just about what is thrown at us by our jobs.  It’s also about the passion we bring to it. In this vein, it’s not just the immediate task before us that hooks us, but how we’ve set it up in our own minds.  Again, Dr. O’Connor:

“Making a commitment [to a goal] focuses our attention on where we want to go and helps us focus our thinking on getting there.  People feel happier as they progress toward their goals; they have a sense of involvement, they feel productive and useful, and they give themselves ego strokes for being good and industrious.  Because we’re so adaptable, however, those good feelings don’t necessarily last once we’ve got to where we are going.  We have to make a deliberate effort to savor and appreciate our achievements.”

The key words are deliberate effort.  The word “deliberate” comes from the Latin word “deliberates” which means to weigh carefully.  It requires us to reflect on our course of action and think about what actually works and what doesn’t for us on the job.

In my experience, depressives are often lacking the goal-setting skills they need to be happy and content in their work lives.  What’s the consequence of not setting goals is a sense of meaninglessness; ennui that won’t go away.  Depressed lawyers have an inner dialogue that goes something like this: “I have all this paperwork to get to today, but I have to be in court all morning.  And . . . oh shit!!  I forgot to call the judge back on that motion.” And so it goes as these worrisome thoughts pour out of our noggins.  We’re just jumping around putting out fires and surviving our days.  Is it really any wonder that we draw little or no satisfaction from our work with this approach? 

When I talk to depressed lawyers about this and suggest that they think about their goals and what they really want to achieve, you would have thought that I asked them to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge: “Are you kidding?  You want me to spend time thinking about my goals?  When the hell do I have time to do that?  I have no time during work and then when I get home I either want to (a) forget about my day and enjoy my family, (b) pass out on the couch and forget about everything in front of the T.V. or (c) do anything that doesn’t involve thinking about my job.

There’s no problem in using these ways to decompress after a day’s warfare at the office.  But if these activities, albeit pleasurable, avoid the important questions raised by work, and our connection to it, we may to rebalance the tires.

In my next blog, I will address some practical ways lawyers can set goals and draw pleasure from accomplishing them in their everyday work lives.

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