Where’s my happiness? Part 2

Will Meyerhofer, JD MSW

Will Meyerhofer, JD MSW

Last week I shared my search for happiness story with you. (The tl;dr version is – I was unhappy. Found peace. Now I’m happy.) Thank you to everyone who wrote me, for all the love, support, and internet hugs!

This week, I’m so thrilled to welcome a very special guest, Will Meyerhofer, JD MSW, to continue this conversation about self-esteem. I’ve been following (read internet stalking) Will for some time, so I’m really excited that he agreed to sit down for a chat with me.

Here’s what you need to know about Will: he is the author of “Way Worse than Being a Dentist: the Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning” which was published in the fall of 2011. He has also written a book introducing and elaborating upon the central concepts of psychotherapy, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy,” which was reissued as a paperback in December, 2011. Will writes regularly for Above The Law, and maintains a blog about life, the law and psychotherapy, at www.thepeoplestherapist.com.  He attended Harvard College, the NYU School of Law, and the Hunter College School of Social Work. From 1997-1999, Will worked as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. Since 2005 he’s been a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Manhattan and a somewhat inadvertent speciality in working with lawyers. Will’s new book, a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space, is called “Bad Therapist:  A Romance.”  For more information about Will and his practice, please visit www.aquietroom.com.

Now without further ado…

So my approach to this topic of self-esteem is obviously a spiritual one (and I have no mental health training), can you talk about the academic/clinical version of low self esteem and what it does to people?

I trace the roots of low self-esteem back to the evolutionary need to please the parent.  Young creatures – especially mammals, and in particular, humans – are helpless when they’re born, and in our case, remain helpless for many years afterward.  It is crucial that we please our parents so we can receive the care we need to survive.  But none of us can perfectly please our parents – anymore than any parent can provide all for all the needs of any child.  Parenting is an impossible task – just like being a perfect child is an impossible task.  So we grow up feeling perhaps we haven’t succeeded in pleasing – that’s the beginning of low self-esteem.  Essentially, we take in negative messages – in psychotherapy we call these messages “introjects” – that attack us.  Tapes of our parents’ criticisms or our peers’ inability to accept us play in our heads even years after we’ve left our childhood surroundings.  In the worst cases, we can wind up with a persistent feeling that there’s a “badness” within us, a defectiveness, something that makes us unacceptable, unlovable – that we’ve failed to please and are thus, somehow, broken.

I think it’s often difficult for people to admit that they have this “weakness,” or to recognize it in themselves. Can you describe some of the words that your lawyer patients use that signal low self-esteem or internal self judgment?

I’ve referred to law firms as “the abattoirs of self-esteem” and I mean it.  There’s something about all those risk-averse, competitive pleasers stuck together in one office that leads to relentless competition and cruelty.  With lawyers, it tends to come out as a feeling that they, alone, of all the people in the law firm (often enormous law firms) somehow “can’t cut it.”  It’s usually a secret they keep to themselves – a terrible feeling they lock up inside until, perhaps, they feel safe enough to confide in someone like me.  And I’ve been shocked at how far lawyers plunge in their own self-estimate after only a year or two in biglaw.  How could someone who went to Yale, then Yale Law School, then won a place at one of the top law firms in the world, suddenly doubt his own abilities?  As in, completely doubt his ability to compete with anyone else at the firm?  But that’s what happens when you isolate someone and overwork him, then provide ceaseless criticism without a word of validation of his abilities, his dedication, his hard work and determination to please.  I’ve seen it, and it’s brutal and destructive and senseless.

What is the typical treatment plan for someone who suffers from this lack of confidence?

The general approach in psychotherapy is to provide a supportive, accepting atmosphere where a person can express his authentic feelings and thoughts, and in so doing, get to know himself.  If you truly understand yourself – it never fails – you’ll start to like yourself.  That makes sense, if you think about it.  Why shouldn’t you like yourself?  You have so much in common!  Low self-esteem normally comes from listening to negative introjects – the old tapes that play in your head – and trying to be someone you’re not – in effect, living someone else’s life.  But if you start to live consciously, and authentically, you’ll be living your own life, and that generally produces happiness.  What always astonishes me isn’t that people learn to love themselves – it’s that so many of us have been taught NOT to love ourselves.  That amounts to reproducing the worst of our own parenting in the way we raise our own inner child.  We abuse the child within us – and that creates mental and emotional distress.  It’s tragic.

In talking to people about setting down their “quest for perfection,” I’ve heard them say “if I don’t drive myself to succeed, then I won’t get anywhere. I need this negative internal voice. If I set it down, I won’t be motivated to accomplish anything.” And it’s true that a lot of people “at the top,” are driven by the negative voice. My personal experience has been the reverse. As soon as I stopped trying to be perfect, I became even more energized and excited about setting new goals and achieving them. Can you talk about motivations and what are healthy versus unhealthy drivers for people?

I don’t believe in “coaching” and “driving yourself harder” and all that sort of talk.  If you are procrastinating, or resisting doing something, it’s probably because your unconscious – your inner child – is trying to tell you something.  Instead of trying to blast through the child’s reluctance and ignore that message, I’d propose sitting the kid down at a table and giving him a good listen – he probably has something important to say.  It might be that you aren’t the person you think you should be – you’re the person you are.  And that authentic incarnation of you doesn’t want to do what he doesn’t want to do.  I’m always correcting my clients, when they tell me what they “should” be doing.  I tell them I’m much more interested in what you WANT to be doing, because that’s what you’re actually likely to do, and succeed at, and find happiness with.

Unlike the tech and business sectors, the legal industry abhors failure and doesn’t allow for even the smallest of errors. How can people go through this restorative process (“I’m not perfect, and that’s ok.”) while keeping their jobs? Is there a way, or must one leave the Biglaw environment first?

Frankly, a lot of people go into law for the wrong reasons – they’re good at going to school and getting good grades, and they don’t know what else to do with their lives, so they look for a way to translate good grades into money and status.  That means a lot of people go into law and find themselves doing stuff they don’t want to do and hence aren’t much good at.  I’d advise everyone who really isn’t interested in law to do something else – at least, if, given the reality of school loans, they have that option.  At this point the legal industry is such a mess that most law students leave school without a job, and maybe that’s a good thing.  The loans may never get paid off – but at least they have no excuse to stay in a career they were never interested in in the first place.  My advice is to give yourself permission to do something you honestly want to do.  Don’t tell me “I can’t earn a living that way” because for the first few years of any career, it isn’t about money.  It amazes me that a kid will sink himself into debt to the tune of $240,000 to get a law degree when he has no idea what he’ll even do with it – but he’ll balk at working for $40,000 or even unpaid as an intern, to start a career he knows he’ll love.  Find someone who has the job you’d kill for – the dream job.  Then figure out how you can work for him – even if you’re sweeping the floor.  That’s the first step towards happiness and feeling good about what you do.

It seems to me that the profession, at large, operates on fear and control – first destroying confidence and then keeping everyone in line, so to speak, with the threat of shame. Not just in a large firm environment, but we certainly see it in most courtrooms, we read it in opinions and dissents and legal blogs. I’m talking about the snark, and “take downs,” and intellectually bullying of sorts. Can you weigh in on whether you think this is a necessary element of the profession, a result of the current economic climate perhaps, or can we make an effort to find a kinder, gentler law?

I never liked law – it just doesn’t appeal to me.  I don’t get excited about details and minutiae, and I hate adversarial relationships.  I like the big picture and getting to yes.  Everyone knows, as soon as the lawyers get involved, that the relationship will turn hostile and suspicious and argumentative, and the negotiations will bog down in details and everything will stop being any fun.  I don’t think there is such a thing as a kinder, gentler law.  You can try to do good with law – to effect social change – but I’m not sure you aren’t better off simply organizing and protesting and educating, rather than litigating.  Consciousness-raising is the goal, and that doesn’t generally come about through adversarial battles in court.  That comes about through sitting down and talking and sharing and empathizing with one another’s situations.  Maybe that’s why I gave up law and switched to psychotherapy – I felt I could be kinder and gentler, and do a lot more good.


Thanks to Will for taking the time to give us a deeper view of these questions. I’ll be back again next week with more on this topic!