‘WA’ is a young Palestinian man who fled Palestine after being tortured by Hamas for refusing to be a suicide bomber. When his grandmother paid for him to find safe passage to Europe, she made sure that he knew his birthdate. After a journey through Italy where he was traumatised further by sexual abuse perpetrated by carers, he found a loving family in the UK.
The Home Office however are insisting that he is some five years older than he believes himself to be based on his Grandmother’s evidence. This birthdate has become all he feels he has left from his old life now his parents are deceased and his homeland is unavailable to him. He cannot stand to use his newly assigned birthdate. The result of this standoff and the consequential decimation of his sense of identity, is that he decided to refuse food as he wishes to die and join his deceased parents.
The resulting eloquent judgement in the Court of Protection , relating to the question of whether he should be force fed, is a powerful read and says so much about the importance to us as humans of a sense of identity. Without that sense of who we are and where we came from we struggle immensely.
The importance of self-kindness
The whole judgement is worth reading, not only for CoP lawyers, but there was one small sentence buried in the middle that leapt out at me. One of WA’s doctors, a Dr Wild who had been considering whether any therapy would assist WA said (para 54)
“Compassion-focused therapy may help [WA] to consider alternative ways to be kind to himself other than taking actions which fit with his sense of integrity. However, it should be noted that he currently evidences capacity to be kind to himself, such as making efforts to act in accordance with his values.”
Clearly, WA’s mental state is born of extremity and should not be diminished by comparison to entirely different situations. However, this comment struck me because of how commonly I see lawyers struggle to be kind to themselves. It reminded me how professionals working in mental health see being kind to ourselves as a vital to our wellbeing.
A lot of the talk about ‘wellbeing’ in the profession covers surface measures such as taking time to exercise or the appropriate time to turn off emails. These are important and part of self-care. However, true wellbeing’ in my view goes so much deeper than relaxation and bodily health and reaches right down to caring for ourselves psychologically at the level of identity. The practical things we do are simply the actions that flow from achieving deeper inner wellbeing. That includes acting in congruence with our own values and being kind to ourselves by not forcing ourselves to live a life that is in conflict with them simply because it is expected of us, because we have done it for a long time or because it brings in a goodly sum of money each month.
Being kind to ourselves in this sense can mean accepting that we change as we mature and that what was right for us once may no longer be. The assumptions we made about career and home life may turn out to have served us in the past but no longer. Wellbeing requires that we accept that and be kind to ourselves by allowing adaptations – whether minor tweaks and adjustments or wholesale rearrangements of our lives.
Understanding our values
Of course, in order to do that we have to know who we are. We must understand what our individual values are and also how we are ‘wired’ in terms of our preferences for our interactions with the world around us
In From Career to Calling author Suzanne Cremen recalls her time as a lawyer in a top entertainment firm in Sydney. She had competed with over 400 applicants to get her dream job and yet once there she recalls feeling ‘like I was dying in this work’. She suffered from physical ailments and was drained, hated the work and felt herself ‘disheartened by the pointlessness of the work’. She went on to move through a number of careers before studying depth psychology which included Jung’s personality type work which led to the creation of the well-known Myers-Briggs personality typing. Once she understood that system she realised that her personality type conflicted totally with the characteristics culturally required of her by her legal job. Only when she changed to work that allowed her to truly be who she was did she thrive.
Interestingly Jung’s work acknowledges that we have a ‘shadow side’. Our shadow is not just about the characteristics we all have that we are ashamed of and don’t show, but the desires and qualities that have not yet found their expression in our lives. It is often around midlife that we encounter these repressed parts of ourselves and we start to struggle with how to express them. Hence the classic midlife crisis stereotype of the buttoned-up accountant who spends his life in grey suits, adding up numbers, then who suddenly, wildy, goes and buys a Harley Davidson and expresses his desire for danger and exploration by joining the Hells’ Angels on a trip down Route 66.
Expressing those rising desires does not have to be so dramatic. Nor does it necessarily involve a change of career. It might be more about finding expression outside of work or altering the type of law you practice or finding a firm whose values around work expectations fit yours. But living according to our views and expressing our personality, desires and instincts does have to be done if we are to be kind to ourselves. And we do have to be kind to ourselves if we want to find a sense of wellbeing in our lives.