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Litigation News

Fall 2022, Vol. 48, No. 1

Self-Compassion Amid Bad Habits

Joseph Beckman


  • Lawyers often adopt unhealthy habits to deal with stress.
  • Stress can lead to the abandonment of healthy habits in favor of quick fixes or unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • As a result, the author expresses the importance of self-compassion and returning to a healthy routine.
Self-Compassion Amid Bad Habits
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Much is written in our profession about the “unhealthy ways” lawyers deal with their stress. A series of recent experiences and stressors presented a sobering reminder of how the very traits that make us good at what we do are a double-edged emotional sword. None of us is immune, a fact that was recently driven home for me personally.

While we are smart enough to know which are our healthy habits, during times of stress it is easy to surrender the time we need to “sharpen the saw” in favor of quick fixes or numbing rather than treating the injury. When we take the latter approach, we are more likely to deploy—as something akin to emotional or physical bandages—behaviors that may temporarily provide stress relief but which we know to be unhealthy or self-destructive in the longer term.

I suppose what drove me from good to bad habits is what IT professionals like to call “scope creep.” At a high level, this is a series of small changes or tweaks to a project, none of which is material on its own. In the aggregate, however, they can (and often do) radically change the original project. “Stress creep” can radically alter one’s health, both physically and mentally. We risk engaging response sets that we know are unhealthy but are an easier short-term deployment than healthier alternatives.

Reflecting on a series of life changes over the past quarter, I am bummed, but not shocked, that it was so easy to set aside the habits that I enjoy and know to be healthy. I could rationalize this temporary change to be a condition due entirely to circumstances beyond my control. That “analysis,” however, would be a fiction. A lot has changed in the three months since I last submitted this column, but my choices are what brought me here. I think that acknowledging these poor choices is a start to finding self-compassion. I am not proud of my slippage, but the older I get, the more I also recognize the inherent “power in vulnerability.” So here goes.

A Whiskey Neat, Please

To begin, some physical challenges have rendered it nigh impossible for me to get a regular good sweat. I have yet to get that shot prescribed to me back in March. But exercise is the whetstone on which I have sharpened my emotional saw for 40+ years. Strike one.

Bartender, Make That a Double

Around the same time I went to the bench regarding sports, I took on a new adventure. I agreed to relocate (on a 3/4 time basis) from the cloudy, humid Midwest to the sunnier, drier mountains. They speak to my soul in ways I cannot articulate, so I was (and remain) excited for the change and challenge.

But the logistics of a cross-country move is not easy. I needed to find a tenant to take over my unit in Minneapolis. I also had to decide where to settle in my new town and navigate an incredibly tight housing market 1,000 miles distant. Strike two.

Actually, Make That a Triple.…A Quad?

Two’s company, three is a crowd. An aunt and uncle who had no children of their own and who were right there when my father died in 1976, experienced a series of health crises. Add three emergency cross-country trips to address elder care issues and the associated long-distance care coordination to the cocktail.

As I packed things to move, the third domino fell—my (generally) healthy dietary habits. Despite knowing better, I let good habits slide. When I should have been stretching and sleeping, I consumed empty calories, both mentally and physically. I began surfing, doom scrolling, and sloughing.

Next to fall (strike four?) was my daily morning meditation. A streak of 229 days was accidentally broken during my second emergency trip to Nevada. Regrettably, it typically takes me two to three months before my new streak is to a point where I go to great lengths to keep it alive—I am not yet there as I write this. So . . . another healthy coping mechanism went to the bench. I am in physical pain, and I feel like a hot mess! And I’m not done yet.

Highway to the Danger Zone

I have a secret. I love the taste of beer, especially the craft beers that have taken over shelf space formerly reserved for mass-produced cans of lager that dominated my younger days. I am mindful, however, of the genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse in two of the four branches of my family tree. That concern caused me to start a habit during my second year of college to take at least 30 days alcohol-free every spring. When in school, this period always started 30 days before the day of my last spring final.

Since graduation, the timing has varied slightly, and the fast is no longer broken 10 minutes after handing in my last final. While this is not “proof” of anything beyond perhaps a short-term ability to exercise a modicum of self-control, since my oldest put himself into rehab a few years back, I began to consume in a year approximately the number of beers that, in my 20s, I had consumed in a month! I felt healthier for it.

However, in recent days, as cooking became harder, it became easy to supplement my calorie intake with a “bomber” (or two) of a heavy malt beverage. This has left me uncharacteristically sluggish and feeling less sharp—markedly worse than a glass or two on a weekend or a single beer sipped while celebrating a special occasion on a weeknight.

One Day at a Time

Kristen Neff, whose work on self-compassion I have covered in this column previously, says, “Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness.” That sounds nice, but to be honest, I had a hard time feeling “worthy” over the past several months as I watched my good habits slip, only to be replaced by bad ones.

I started this article on a plane headed to my uncle’s funeral. I sat with him for an hour less than a week before he died. He was ready to go, even if his wife was not ready to let him. As is the custom on the Italian side of the family, the funeral was a celebration with all of John’s favorite foods, some good wine, and way too many calories. It was a healing event for all, despite trepidation about potential (but unrealized) awkward family dynamics.

Now that something we knew was coming since last Thanksgiving has come to pass, the family is slowly rounding back to normal life and routine. For my part, I finally made the time to get that shot prescribed for me back in the spring. I will be cleared to return to the gym within 10 days of submitting this story.

The “bi-city” experiment continues forward, and my partner and I are establishing—perhaps in fits and starts—a routine. My cookware is out of boxes, I know the route to the healthy grocery stores where I live, and I’m regaining my rhythm for a healthy diet. I am back to (natural) fruit-flavored SodaStream and maybe two or three tall beers a week.

As I accept my slipups and return to a healthy routine, I am also working hard to tap into “the proven power of being kind to [myself].” That is, of course, a work in progress.