To view the Q&A with Doron, please see Debunking the Law Student Lone Suffering Myth, Part II – Questions and Answers [coming soon].

Doron Gold has had hundreds of legal professionals confide in him. He is a long-time staff clinician with Homewood Human Solutions, provider of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Member Assistance Program, which provides free, confidential mental health and wellness services to law students, lawyers, judges and paralegals. In his role, Doron receives telephone call after telephone call in which legal professionals ask some variant of this question: “am I the only one experiencing depression?” Am I the only one suffering from anxiety, addiction, bipolar syndrome, ADHD, deep and general dissatisfaction with life? The frequency of these calls combined with their content – a vast number of professionals feeling completely alone in their distress – was near “absurdity”, says Doron.

DoorsOpen2012Photo by Jackman Chiu | CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Doron chalks it up to a perception among many legal professionals that perfection is required for success in the law. Lawyers are imperfect, as all humans are. However, some lawyers perceive that everything matters at all times – – that any mistake is irredeemable. Life can also be unpredictable. It is unfortunately not unusual for a client to present after suffering a professional setback, the loss of a parent, and a serious health issue in short succession. Often, such clients perceive that they should be coping perfectly with such serious setbacks. They may perceive that others are not struggling, regardless of their life circumstances.

This perception that perfection is required at all times leads to a lack of trust between peers and colleagues and a fear of appearing weak or incompetent if vulnerabilities are exposed. Therefore, legal professionals don’t talk to one another about these issues. Consequently, they feel needlessly isolated. These unhealthy beliefs often begin or are exacerbated in law school, which is why Doron believes strongly in early education and intervention.

Unhealthy perfectionism can extract an immense toll, sucking the joy and vitality out of an otherwise comfortable life. Perfectionism is about remediation and leaves no room to celebrate the good.

Doron recalls one recent client (details have been changed to preserve anonymity) who painted a poignant portrait of the very real, negative impact of unhealthy beliefs. The young woman in question was accomplished; highly educated; professionally successful and respected by her colleagues; in good health; attractive; had a loving partner, family and friends. By all objective accounts, her life invited contentment. Nevertheless, she described a constant existential dread arising from the fear that her string of successes couldn’t possibly go on. She worried that she might be fired; that her partner might leave her; that something might go terribly wrong. Her energy and motivation were constantly sapped through worry. Something had to change.

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Doron combats this kind of unhealthy thinking by encouraging clients to test distressing thoughts and beliefs with concrete evidence. He asked the woman to consider whether there was any evidence she was doing poorly or would do poorly at work (there was none); whether there was any evidence that her partner was unhappy (there was none); whether her belief that disaster lurked around the corner was supported by evidence (it was not). Gratitude journals, he suggests, can also help retrain a mind that tends toward pessimism to take a more balanced view of life.

Challenging core beliefs and keeping a gratitude journal are two cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tools which aim to unearth maladaptive beliefs and challenge them, thereby changing the filter through which events are interpreted, the thoughts and feelings evoked, and any behaviours that result. The goal is to replace maladaptive beliefs with adaptive, more realistic beliefs, resulting in an improvement in feelings and behaviors.

CBT can be done with a therapist through your university, through the free e-counselling or in-person therapy provided by the MAP [requires registration], or with private therapists [bottom of page]. There are also self-paced online CBT resources that you can work through independently. The comprehensive multi-module programs available at the Centre for Clinical Intervention can help manage depression, distress intolerance, panic attacks, procrastination, social or generalized anxiety, or perfectionism.

CBT is just one approach to help minimize the distress experienced by “lone sufferers”. In the following Q&A, Doron also discusses how to create a supportive law student community, how to know when to seek professional help, and how you can make positive changes, even if all your energy seems occupied in just keeping up.

To view the Q&A with Doron, please see Debunking the Law Student Lone Suffering Myth, Part II – Questions and Answers [coming soon].

This post was adapted from a presentation given by Doron Gold to students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law on Friday November 28th, 2014.