There’s a nagging voice inside that keeps saying, “I am really unhappy. I need a change.” But you feel stuck. You think about quitting to do something different, but immediately, your brain comes up with 101 reasons why that is a terrible idea. Besides, all I know how to do is law. That’s all that I have been doing.
Then there’s the practical consideration. How will I pay my mortgage? Make my car payment? Not to mention that enormous student loan payment.
Before you know it, that nagging voice has been hushed and you march into the office, still feeling discontent and struggle through another day.
Often, these feelings accompany burnout. The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as, “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”
It can be really challenging to make good decisions when you’re experiencing burnout.
Lawyers are very logical by nature so you may find that your brain goes through a set of very similar thought patterns each time you consider a change — which leads to further inaction.
If you feel stuck in the thought pattern I’ve described, try this writing exercise. It will help you move from rumination into action.
What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen?
When considering major life changes, the feeling of anxiety can feel so overwhelming that it’s hard to think clearly. My thought pattern would go something like this: I hate my job. I should be happy with this job. I worked so hard at it. But I really hate this job. I want to quit. I can’t quit because I’ll be a loser. Like an endless merry-go-round, my mind would go through the exact same thought patterns, continually feeding the dreadful sense of anxiety.
If you suffer from this, try this exercise:
- Grab a piece of paper and a pen. On the top of the page, write whatever primary desire comes to mind. It can be anything you desire! “I want to quit and make art,” “I want to quit and start my own law practice,” or “I want to quit my job.”
- Then ask, what is the worst thing that can happen? Another question you can ask is what am I most afraid of?
- Write down whatever answers come to mind.
- Repeat Step #2 and ask the same questions again. For example, if your answer is “I’m afraid my friends will think I’m a failure,” see what’s beneath that fear by repeating the questions.
- You’ll likely have many different answers to the questions in Step #2. The key is to dig into your fears and figure out the absolute worst-case scenario.
When I was honest with myself, the two primary fears were (1) being seen as unsuccessful or somehow “failing” and (2) not being able to find another job (then subsequently becoming homeless).
This tendency to catastrophize is so common for humans, especially lawyers. We tend to hyper-focus on the negative, yet overlook the positive.
Now, try playing this exercise in reverse. Ask yourself, what is the best-case scenario? Suppose you do quit your job and move onto the next thing and you’re wildly successful. What does that scenario look like?
Isn’t it possible that completely “failing” at Plan B is just as likely as “wildly succeeding” at it? Doesn’t the most realistic scenario look like the rest of your life currently — a mixture of ups, downs, successes, disappointments, happiness, and sadness? Once you’ve faced your thinking errors, you’ll be in a better position to know when it’s time to quit.
In navigating career changes, one thing I’ve found to be crucial is having a regular mindfulness practice. It has given me space to literally sit quietly on a daily basis and to look at the thought patterns and emotions without getting lost in it. If you’re struggling with the decision to quit or stay, I encourage you to join me for a free webinar on August 27nd! Register here.