Law school taught me many things, but one that stands out for me is this: Chocolate cake reduces stress.
I am certain chocolate cake is the reason I was able to pass the bar exam in two states on my first try. It calmed my mind. It helped me forget the gripping fear of failure. It was the perfect distraction from having to learn the (painful) rule against perpetuities.
I’m embarrassed to admit there were days when I ate cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That is the power of stress—it can turn you into someone you don’t even recognize. Oddly enough, I didn’t blame my five-pound weight gain on the cake; I blamed it on the law.
Is the law making you fat?
Admittedly, the word “fat” can trigger all kinds of emotions for those who consider themselves fat or overweight. If you’ve just been triggered, my apologies. I realize it’s a word many people—particularly women—prefer to avoid. I was never fat, but the fear of becoming fat came second only to my fear of failing the bar exam. That fear eventually drove me to hire a life coach and ultimately becoming one.
What I learned from my coach, and what I teach lawyers whom I coach, is that stress is a natural part of life. It’s how we manage our stress that has consequences, both good and bad. Never has this been clearer than during this time of COVID-19. People are facing stress in ways they’ve never experienced.
Lawyers, unfortunately, are used to stress. We’re taught to believe it comes with being a lawyer.
If you’re one of those lawyers who is using food to deal with stress, you’re certainly not the only one. Lawyers rank right up there with other high-achieving professionals whose waistlines are expanding in proportion to their job-related stress levels.
Is this a problem? And if so, who has the right to define it as a problem? While a law firm has every right to fire a lawyer whose drinking is impairing his or her ability to do the job, the same cannot be said when a law firm’s associates are overeating (and, consequently, gaining weight) to manage their stress.
Having a so-called eating problem is a whole lot different from having a drinking problem. A person who consumes alcohol to manage stress tends to be in denial that a problem exists. Still, the firm has the right fire the lawyer on the grounds that drinking is affecting job performance.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how many cases you’ve won. If you’re using food to manage the stress of your law career, you’re hiding something. And the more you hide, the more you feel shame. And shame can be very fattening because it makes you want to eat just to make the feeling go away.
Is it any wonder so many lawyers are left wondering, “Is this it?”
The question itself is flawed, however, because it is laced with the underlying fear that the answer is yes, this is as good as it gets. Ask a lousy question, and you’re bound to get an answer that’s equally lousy.
The better question is, “What do I have to do to better manage my stress and start enjoying my life again?” While you may not have the answer right away, there’s a whole lot more hope in that question!
When you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself, “What thoughts are spinning in my head right now? Why do I think this way? Where did I learn to think this way? And do I want to continue thinking this way if it leaves me feeling stressed and unhappy?”
How legal thinking fails us
The way lawyers think is part of the reason why they might gain weight. Lawyers focus on the issues, the governing rules, analysis of the law and then drawing conclusions (IRAC, anyone?).
There is no IRAC when it comes to managing your weight. It falls apart on the A-line, which makes the C-line impossible to fill in. For example:
Issue: Lawyers overeat and gain weight.
Rule: Eat when you’re hungry; don’t eat if you’re not hungry.
Analysis: I eat when I’m stressed. I’m always stressed. I always eat.
Conclusion: Stress feels like hunger, which means I’m always eating, which means there’s something wrong with the rule because otherwise, there’s something wrong with me and I don’t want to believe that. So I’ll just keep eating because it makes me feel better, even if only for a moment.
See what I mean? Thinking like a lawyer is not going to help you reason your way out of overeating. That’s because while “the law is reason free from passion” (thanks, Aristotle), overeating is passion free from reason.
This is an emotional issue, and we’ve got to pay attention to the emotions (stress, disappointment, sadness, depression) that are being triggered because of the facts of our lifestyles (long hours, quotas, demanding bosses, family obligations) and the way we think about the facts.
Like most people who don’t have tools to manage their stress, lawyers will turn to things like food or alcohol or gambling as buffers to solve a problem. In fact, they don’t even know what the problem actually is. The problem is not the job or family obligations—these are the facts. The problem is how we think about the facts. This requires mind management, and without mind management, we all struggle.
If you’re insisting it’s your law firm or the senior partner who’s always pushing you to do more that’s the problem, that’s where you’re mistaken. That’s where your thinking is flawed. It is neither the firm’s job—nor that of the senior partner—to take care of your state of mind. That’s all on you.
Doing the work
Stress management and weight management are all part of life management, and the only way to manage your life in a way that gives you the kind of life you desire is to manage your mind.
You don’t need more willpower. Willpower is a limited resource, and as soon as it runs out, you’re back to eating donuts for breakfast.
A new diet isn’t going to work, either. Correction: The diet will work, but only if you take responsibility and do the accompanying mental and emotional work. You see, it’s not a diet’s job to make you lose weight; that’s your job, and most overeaters would rather not have to take full responsibility for their overeating. “Diets don’t work” is music to the ears of anyone who can’t seem to lose weight because it shifts the responsibility away from them and onto the diet.
Think about this: We think about 6,000 thoughts in a day. Most of our thinking is unconscious, happening in our subconscious minds. So is it any wonder we find ourselves committed to starting a diet “next Monday,” only to break it by Wednesday? What’s going on?
We allow our subconscious minds to run our lives. We allow old beliefs we learned as children to run our adult lives. We don’t challenge our own thinking. We typically hold onto values learned from our primary caretakers without asking ourselves, “Is this really how I want to live my life?”
Change is hard because it raises our anxiety levels. It threatens our zone of safety. We want to keep eating donuts because donuts make us feel better.
Lawyers who overeat are in the habit of overeating. In order to stop overeating, you’ll have to replace the old habits with new ones designed to get you the results you desire without resorting to willpower. That can happen only when you reframe the way you think about food and stress and the perceived threat that seems to come with change. Instead of reaching for the donut because that’s what you always do, pause for a moment to check in with what’s happening inside your mind—is it the donut you need, or is it something else?
In the end, this is really about self-care and your desire to live a full life on your terms rather than be dictated by old thought paradigms and belief systems that are in need of an update.
What if your focus shifted from the things that stress you out to the things that light you up?
Issue: How to live a meaningful healthy life.
Rule: Write your own rules.
Analysis: Apply the rules to your day-to-day life.
Conclusion: It is possible to live a meaningful healthy life, but only if you’re prepared to make the rules and live by them.
Lin Eleoff is a lawyer and now life transformation coach for lawyers and other high-achieving professionals. She is the author of The Dignity Diet: How to End the Cycle of Cry-Eat-Repeat. For more info, visit her website at lineleoff.com or email [email protected]
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