Overwhelmed? Transition from a Socialized to a Self-Authored Frame of Mind

Part I: Why Do You Feel Overwhelmed?

WLF 2018 Theme: Self-Authorship

Want to be less overwhelmed? Why change your mindset.

As a woman lawyer in a large law firm, making the shift from a socialized to a self-authored mindset may be the only way to become less overwhelmed without quitting your job. Science explains why.

Thanks to breakthroughs in the field of brain neuroplasticity, we now know that our brains actually continue to develop throughout our adult lifetimes. Dr. Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist and author of numerous books on adult development, notes that adults can move through five distinct stages of development throughout their lifetimes.   “Can” is the operative word here – Kegan emphasizes that transitioning to higher stages is NOT automatic.

The model can be explained as follows. In the earlier stages of development (1-3), what we think, believe and do is guided more by external standards of success – what do other people think of what we are doing? In the later stages (4-5), we navigate through life by internal standards of success – what do I think of what I am doing?

The research shows that most of us are either in or transitioning between two stages: “Socialized” (Stage 3) and “Self-authored” (Stage 4). You can do a very quick self-assessment by asking yourself which example you relate to most in the “getting on the bus” scenario described above – Option A or Option B. If you identify with Option A you are not alone; in fact, studies reveal that many of us never move past the socialized stage.

Movement to higher stages of development is often prompted by an increase in the complexity of our life circumstances.  According to Kegan, a sense of being “in over our heads” or overwhelmed by life circumstances is one of the most obvious clues that we need to transition from one stage to the next.

Do you recognize yourself (and others) here?

Based on my experience as an executive coach, many women lawyers often feel overwhelmed. WLF alumni say, “I thought I was the only one feeling overwhelmed and barely hanging on. Now I see that all these amazing, impressive woman lawyers are feeling the same way. It’s actually a big relief because I thought there was something wrong with me.”

There is definitely not anything wrong with you – nor is it a gender issue in the traditional sense. Women are no less able to do the work or take the pressure than men. The problem is that the lives of women lawyers often are more complex than those of their male counterparts.

Consider this: The “socialized standard” for the ideal worker at most large law firms is someone who is “all in,” –  i.e., fully devoted and available to the job with no personal responsibilities or interests that interfere with work. Under this “all in” approach in law firms, status, excellence and commitment are associated with billable hours logged, and work takes priority above all else.

“All in” at work works for many male lawyers because the “socialized standard” is achievable for them: being a provider is primary, and everything else is secondary. This makes sense since it was created by and for men. However, it doesn’t work for many women lawyers because their roles and responsibilities outside of work often cannot  be relegated to secondary status (or women may not want them to be). Right off the bat, it is impossible for them to meet the “socialized standard” of success at work.

Yet many women lawyers struggle to meet MULTIPLE sets of socialized standards – “all in” at work AND all of the success standards typically associated with women (who historically did not work outside the home). These include great mother, wife, parent, caregiver, cook – name your “story” of what it means to be a successful woman. We exhaust ourselves trying to balance obligations and meet multiple, often competing, expectations. We then further deplete our energy by feeling guilty, ashamed, or both. The only possible result is OVERWHELM!

Clearly, the socialized frame of mind is not working for many women lawyers, and there is a clear need [JH1] to transition to a self-authored frame of mind. My friend and colleague Carolyn Coughlin, an expert on Adult Development, explains it as follows: “The key shift involves developing an internal voice that enables you to navigate across multiple complex, and often conflicting, external standards.” So, while we may not be able to change the complexity of our lives – let’s face it; complexity is the new normal – we can absolutely strengthen our ability to navigate around it.

Many of us already identify strongly with the self-authored stage. In fact, we find it comforting that there actually is a name for what we are doing and feeling. That said, transitioning completely to a self-authored mindset is not easy. It involves changing the way we think, believe and act. It requires focus[JH2] , vision, courage and self-compassion. And it can be very hard to make choices that are different from those of others. Like everything we do in WLF, the methodology for the transition is self-awareness, practicing small changes, and embodying change.

Up Next:

  • Making the Transition to a Self-Authored Frame of Mind

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