I had shrunk. It took a while to realize it, but I had. When I started my career as a lawyer, I had expected that it would be difficult, but I would grow as a person. Instead, it was the opposite. I had shrunk physically, mentally, socially, even spiritually.
I was a powerlifter before law school. I love lifting weights. It has a simplicity, a pureness to it: lift this up. Put it down. Repeat. At the firm, I lost strength (even as I gained weight). But more than being physically weaker, my entire posture changed.
My movements became almost furtive. My head hung down and my shoulders bunched up. I physically flinched at the ring of my office phone or the ding of an email. Commuting on the subway, I shrank, even more than the crowds required. I walked too fast, beyond the New York City stereotype.
Mentally, my intellectual curiosity shrunk. That uplifting feeling of expansion when I learned something new and fascinating disappeared. When I learned something at the firm, I wasn’t excited by it: I was learning it so I could finish my work and go to sleep. I wasn’t following whatever path the ideas took me. The learning was purely mechanical. And I had a limited reserve of energy; a book or article could appear interesting, but I simply didn’t have the energy to engage.
Beyond the grayness of dulled curiosity, the job infected my thought process. In my first year of law school, I saw potential torts everywhere. At the firm, everything was an argument, an opportunity to pick apart the ambiguity of what people said. The legalistic thinking infected my relationships. It is so utterly pointless – and predictable – to argue with someone over the precise way they phrase their pain instead of confronting the pain behind the words.
My social circle shrunk too. I could talk only about work; there was so little else in my life. And my daily work wasn’t exactly the policy implications of the latest Supreme Court decision. It was the daily frustrations of email, opposing counsel, the printer, the firm. No one outside my building cared about our new coffee machines. Why did they exhaust so much of my mental energy?
I lost friends. Trying to see them was an unfunny joke because so often I had to cancel at the last minute. The friendships before law school – my closest, most interesting friendships – were the ones hit the hardest.
Spiritually, my circle of compassion shrank as well. People on the street became obstacles to avoid, nothing more. It was harder and harder to care about others, to step into their shoes. My job had exhausted my compassion.
I’m not religious, but my spiritual side (based loosely on Buddhism, nature, and meditation) decayed. I lost that part of me. It’s not unique to my spirituality, either. The same happened to my friends whose faith involved a church or temple.
My emotional range shrunk because I numbed myself to how I felt. I couldn’t allow myself to cry (though I did once in the work bathroom), because that might start an uncontrollable reaction. So I stuffed everything deep down. But I spent so much energy blunting the bad emotions that I blunted the good ones, too. As Brene Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “There’s no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.”
I didn’t stop shrinking just because I left the firm. It’s a more gradual process, like slowly healing after a broken bone. Again, Brene Brown: “The work of cultivation and letting go is not ‘to do list’ material. It’s not something we accomplish or acquire and then check off our list.”
I like the term expansion as the opposite of shrinking. Expansion describes the way I physically grow as I stand up taller and less cowed. How I feel less bullied. It describes the way I’m excited about experiences again. I’m free to expand into my emotions, no longer so scared to show weakness. I can expand into my passions, creating my own idea of success instead of having it created for me.
There are many reasons to leave a law firm. This expansion is one of the best.