Putting Ego in its Place

A few weeks ago, we went to the beach in Santa Cruz for four days of vacation. The sun was shining and warm and we didn’t do much and it was heavenly.

In truth, I was actually a little worried about taking the time off. I seem to have developed a story that it’s hard for me to sit still. I tell myself that I am naturally antsy and energetic and happiest when I am busy, like a field dog, delighted while herding but skittish and distracted the rest of the time.

Of course, this story is sheer hogwash.  It is one part Protestant work ethic, one part a persistent idea that Doing is in itself an act of virtue, and one part the idea that scarcity reigns. Like a bad scientist I have collected evidence to support the theory.  Mix these delusions with some liberal-privileged-upbringing guilt, top them with an earnest and heartfelt desire to save-the-world and relieve-all-suffering, and you have a basic blueprint for my Ego.

Let’s call him Ego-Dave.

My ego is the part of me that gets stuff done.  He’s the one that executes plans, keeps track of details, sends lots of emails, and generally holds it all together.  He thrives on tasks, and he is an extremely capable entity.  

As a result folks ask Ego-Dave to do all kinds of things.  This makes him feel important and real, and encourages him to want to run everything, particularly Me.

The problem is that Dave the Ego is not really Me: he is in fact a construct, a piece of software, or a figment of divine imagination.  As Tolle and Muhammed and others have wisely noted, the ego is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  

So how do I put my Ego in his place?  

This is a delicate bit of business, as I certainly don’t want to destroy him. After all I need him to take care of things. He is very useful!

I also don’t want to disable him artificially. I used to do that with intoxicants, giving my ego involuntary and occasionally violent vacations, with a hangover as a bonus round of sitting around inert and really slacking off. As a strategy this worked, but as a practice it turned out to be damaging and unsustainable.

The trick is to keep my Ego on as a willing, able and enthusiastic helper, while also keeping him firmly in his place. This means giving him a specific and delineated role: a job with parameters and boundaries.  I need to fence him in.

For example, I have tried hiring him on as a Contractor.  He’s the one who executes plans, and fits all the pieces together. He is the boots on the ground guy, who’s not afraid to get dirty or work hard and late.  

This turned out to be a bust, and the trouble is in the title. If the real Me is a timeless boundless awareness that is embodied in this world, then the Contractor is the one who contracts, or shrinks the world to make it manageable.

The Contractor must adhere to linear time.  Indeed he may even create it: if time is an illusory construct then calendars, dates, alarm clocks are his tools. He creates duties and obligations and agreements.  He does logistics, and collaborates with others to manifest intention into matter, and brings things into existence through attention. There is a magical quality to the Contractor archetype, but from a modern sensibility it seems more technological.

The problem is that Ego-Dave the Contractor is always jockeying for control. He wants to be the Boss! Ego-Dave has a huge ego!! He is convinced that he should make the decisions on all the contracts, but he never wants to say no. It’s like the more he does, the more he wants to do! He oversteps his duties.

He’s the one who loves to answer the question “How are you?” with a hearty grinning “Busy!!!”  He’s the one who earnestly believes his entire value as an entity is based on how many things he can do at once. I have tried that archtetype too:  The Juggler.

Ego-Dave the juggler masterfully keeps everything in the air with a touch here, a touch there, tossing and multitasking through life.  

The juggler likes to think that he isn’t working that hard (after all, it’s FUN!), and he’s a big show-off too.  He loves the attention of others, and he adores praise and applause.  

The trouble with Ego-Dave the Juggler is that he always wants to add another ball.  He wants to be the best juggler ever: the one who can keep the entire universe in the air.

When I let the juggler run the show, things get out of control in a hurry.  He pretends to be easy breezy, but he hates dropping a ball, and the fear of letting them all go at once is agonizing.

The juggler archetype was a great improvement from Atlas though.  

Not so long ago, before I even realized that my Ego was a story, I used to see myself as that primordial Titan who held the universe on his shoulders. Atlas is incredibly strong and powerful, and ripped and sexy in a bodybuilder kind of way.  He takes so much pride in his ability to hold it all.  

It was a huge relief when I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to hold everything all the time: that it wasn’t all my fault.

The big problem is that fundamentally my Ego is a workaholic.  He never wants to stop, and when he gets excited about something, watch out, because he is going deep.  He gets very focused, and he gets off on the adrenaline and the excitement and the pressure.  

Which all leads back to my latest Ego-Dave story that I am a field dog and my purpose is to run around and chase stuff and tend the herd.  Of course, this story has a lot in common with the other archetypes, in the common theme of busyness and taking care of others.

Thankfully, I am getting better and better at seeing through the stories of my Ego, and yet still sometimes I fall in so deep that I think it’s all really true.  I believe that I am in the movie, rather than watching it. And this movie is all action all the time, like one of those dreams where you never stop running from some mysterious threat.

When I am lost like this, I am no longer a spirit having a human existence, or a boundless awareness peering out from a human form.  Instead I am a Contractor, a Juggler, an Atlas, or a Field Dog, and I experience fear and sadness and overwhelm.

When I fail to put Ego in his place, then I am indeed his humble servant, and I find that to be very challenging.

Thank goodness for vacation.  When we went to the beach and lounged around the pool and played games it was absolutely delicious.  Once I got a refreshing taste of it, I wanted to sit still forever. I saw right through my Ego-story, and remembered again how good it feels to be free.

Seeking out this space is the reason I meditate.  When I sit and follow my breath, I drink in the experience of boundless awareness.  It is fleeting to be sure, but even a sip of that spacious expanse is a tremendous blessing.  

Meditation is a way of seeing through the stories of the Ego.  By making space for the “real me”, the part of me that is full of wonder and amusement and gratitude to simply sit still and breathe, I am setting boundaries for my Ego-stories.

What an irony:  by letting go of thoughts and stories, I actually create a container for my ego.  By sitting still and doing nothing, I establish parameters for my Ego-archetypes. By rebooting my computer I remind the Ego that he is indeed simply a useful piece of software, and not my operating system.  

What a relief to be back in charge!  Take that Ego-Dave, You’re not the boss of Me!!!

Well Being as Part of Competence in Public Defense

I have come to believe that showing up strong and energized is one of the most important things we can do for the people we represent.

I didn’t always see it this way. In the first few years, when I showed up every Friday with a pile of misdemeanor cases on for trial, and tried a boatload of them, I also had a not insignificant number of late nights in the bars with my colleagues and naps on the therma-rest under my desk.

My about-to-be-fifty-year-old body doesn’t tolerate that sort of schedule anymore, just like it doesn’t tolerate trials fueled by vending machine lunches of picante corn nuts combined with peanut M&Ms (even though that’s a completely delicious and satisfying lunch, at least in the moment).

I now see my well being as central to my duty of competence. It is harder for me to stand tall and refuse to back down from an important legal fight when I’m so exhausted I fear my own knees might give out. I’m not as able to be open and receptive to the stories and needs of the people I represent when I am so stressed out that I feel like I can’t handle one more thing. I’m not able to hear communications about ways that I can learn, grow and improve if I’m anxious and irritated.

The skill we need to develop and use the most in every aspect of our work as public defenders—listening—requires some reserve of energy and emotional balance.

We know our profession struggles with substance use, depression, anxiety and secondary traumatic stress. (I’ve written about this here and here.) The impacts of these struggles can include moral injury (the word I prefer to burnout, as explained here). The impacts also include diminished work performance and struggles with basic competence. 40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers include substance use or depression, and often both. (D. B. Marlowe, Alcoholism, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments, in STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR LAWYERS 104-130 (Amiram Elwork ed., 2d ed., 1997).

While basic competence requires us to provide competent representation (ABA Model Rule 1.1) and requires diligence in client representation (ABA Model Rule 1.3), basic competence also requires more than just keeping up with training and casework. It requires well being.

The ABA includes well-being as an indispensable part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence. The 2017 ABA Well Being Report defines lawyer health not solely by absence of illness, but by a positive state of wellness. It includes lawyers’ ability to make healthy, positive work/life choices to assure not only a quality of life within their families and communities, but also to help them make responsible decisions for their clients. It includes a wonderfully broad definition of well being that encompasses emotional, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social thriving.

well being ABA chart

morning beach hike
Morning hike.

I love the ABA definition of well being as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions.” Time working often feels like it competes with time to do things like being with my family, exercising, or shopping for nutritious meals.

While there never seems to be enough time, it’s useful to me to stop seeing work and well being as in competition. And to remember that competence includes well being. The time I take to do yoga or go hiking isn’t just for me. It helps me show up strong, focused and ready for the challenging work of public defense.


You can always make a new groove. (My new groove is: no complaining.)

I’ve decided to accept a challenge and to try to rebuild a new habit. The challenge is to stop complaining.

The truth is I’ve been struggling a bit lately, feeling sad and angry more than I would like. I feel vulnerable to fire and hardship in Sonoma County (where we still have friends and community and our little apple farm, where we will retire and I will grow old happily pickling vegetables and making apple butter). I feel stressed and discouraged by pressures of juggling shifting management tasks and training programming, and suddenly picking up an additional full caseload to cover for staffing shortages. Once you start down the path of despair, there’s always climate change and politics and the cruelty of the criminal punishment bureaucracy to make things feel apocalyptic. It can seem like everyone is complaining and looking to find fault with me. Or perhaps I am complaining too much and looking to find fault with myself and others.

A source of optimism for me is the knowledge that I can always re-examine which of my habits are serving me and which are not. Then I can make a shift. It doesn’t need to be big or dramatic. Actually, I’ll accept it more and retain it longer if the new habit is something small but persistent.

Yoga has a useful term, samskara, that describes a pattern or habit as a groove. (Samskara is discussed nicely here.) I picture this like a small creek that can form a massive canyon over time. The water can flow easily, it’s the repetition that forms the groove.

creek pic                      canyon pic

The actions and thoughts we repeat form grooves of habits. As the grooves deepen, they become the defaults that we easily slide into, and it becomes more difficult to veer onto a different path. Of course these grooves can be positive or negative thoughts and behaviors.

There was a time years ago when I had a walking group in a public defense office where I used to work. After lunch we’d have a walk together to a local coffee shop and back to the office. We groused and complained most of the way, about judges, prosecutors, bosses and coworkers. I thought I’d really miss those walks when I got transferred to a different branch office. Instead, I realized the walking had been great exercise, and the company and comradery was good, but the complaining was a downer. I’d created a strong habit of collecting complaints and grudges to spout off each afternoon, as colorfully and profanity-filled as possible. Sometimes venting and processing can be constructive, this was not. This was filling my pockets with negative gunk, just to add to it and carry that stinky weight around. That was a crappy groove.

I don’t want to be in that groove, deepening it with repetition. new groove picI want to get a new groove.

I’ve focused quite a bit of attention in the last few years on developing appreciation through gratitude practices. I’ve thought less about the flip side. It’s been a while since I checked in on how much I’m venting, processing…and just complaining.

This is where the challenge comes in. My friend Stacy Sims described it to me recently, and then my daughter came home from school talking about her teacher doing something similar. Using information found here from Tim Ferriss and also summarized here (crediting Will Bowen, who wrote the book A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted), this is the version I’ve settled on:

  1. The goal is to go 21 days without complaining.
  2. A complaint is defined as “describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.”
  3. The marker is a bracelet that is moved from one wrist to the other when I find myself complaining. This will build awareness.

dissent bracelet croppedI picked a dissent bracelet gifted to me by two mentees, which I love. The word dissent will help me increase awareness that constructive, action-oriented problem solving is not a complaint and is something I aim to increase. Similarly, political protest and dissent are not complaints, and are valuable advocacy for systemic change. The bracelet is a little itchy and I might switch to a simple elastic band if needed, but I’m starting with this.

I’ve put on my bracelet. I might wear out my wrists moving it back and forth. I’m looking forward to what I will learn along the way.

Anyone want to try this out with me?

Don’t Text Me On The Weekend. The Importance of Reducing 24/7 Availability Expectations in Public Defense

A while ago, my work gave me a mobile phone, and said, as if it were great news, “now we can reach you anytime.”

No. Nope. Thank you, noooooo. I am working hard at minimizing that expectation of myself and others.

The increasing connectivity of phones and computers has upsides for public defense, like increasing our ability to work remotely, and to organize and access bulky files without carrying them around in boxes and binders. But this connectivity is not all positive.

The expansion of work into a 24/7 expectation of availability is not good for us. Research at Lehigh, on the personal impact of 24/7 availability expectations, found that email communications and expectation of response contributes to emotional exhaustion, poor work-life balance, anxiety and a strain on personal relationships. Even employees who didn’t respond to off-hours emails were negatively impacted by receiving them. These researchers suggest setting clear expectations of when employees are expected to monitor communications and limiting use of electronic communications outside those windows.

The 2017 ABA Wellness Report and the 2018 ABA Well-Being Toolkit (discussed here and in resources here) echo this advice. The 2018 Toolkit recognizes the connection between 24/7 availability expectations and work-life balance stress. “The stress of chronic work-life conflict can damage well-being and performance. Evidence indicates that it is a strong predictor of burnout and significantly increases the risk of poor physical health.”

24 6 coverI’ve been reading 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, by Tiffany Shlain.  She is reminding me of the important ways that religious traditions, secular organizations, and labor groups have fought for non-work time. I find myself feeling deceived that the very makers of the devices that monetize our attention with dopamine-fueled screen dependence limit or prohibit those habits within their own families. Shlain jokes of rewriting the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as: “I saw the best minds of our generation distracted by texting, tweeting, emailing.” She is unquestionably right in advising us that down time is “a force field of protection that gives us strength, resilience, perspective and energy.”

My friend Stacy Sims gave me some great insights recently about digital dependence and her site The Well shares some here. The reality is that these tools that we think of as increasing connection and communication are making us feel isolated and anxious. There is trickery in the time savings they promised us and then gave instead to our employers. In the context of public defense work, tools that are said to free us to flex our time are instead being used to make us feel that we are at work every minute of every day.

As a person who has spent the last year with one foot in the role of being a courtroom line defender and one foot in the leadership role of being a training director, I feel responsibility to reduce this 24/7 expectation on both sides. It requires constant attention to unplug from work, by doing things like putting that work phone in a drawer for the weekend, and trying to communicate to colleagues when we should and shouldn’t make ourselves available to review and respond to work communications.

My favorite discovery of 2019 is the use of the delay delivery feature in Outlook. 2012-08_OutlookDelayDelivery2Even if I am catching up on work in off-hours, I can delay delivery of any email I send so that it is received during the next work day rather than interrupting the non-work time of my colleagues. This feels like a little gift we can give each other at work, the gift of uninterrupted down time. Increasingly, this is becoming a gift I value greatly.

I believe that supervisors and leaders have the responsibility of creating culture that reduces these 24/7 availability expectations. If you are in one of these roles, ask yourself if you’re prioritizing time for the people you supervise to rejuvenate.

In thinking about what you can do to support the well-being of those you lead or supervise, by minimizing 24/7 work expectations, the chart below may be a helpful guide.

What are you doing to support sufficient rejuvenation time and to minimize expectations of 24/7 availability for work?

Supportive of well being. Not supportive of well being.
Prioritize giving all employees time for sufficient rejuvenation during non-work and vacation hours. Actively discouraging work-related calls and emails during evenings, weekends, and vacations. Intrude upon non-work hours with work assignments and communications.


Only sending email, text or other communications during non-work hours in urgent situations, in which immediate notification to or action of the recipient is required. Sending non-urgent messages during non-work hours.
Building in systems with sufficient time for reasonable response-time expectations. Sending “drop everything and respond right now” or “drop everything and do this task right now” communications and assignments, particularly if they reflect poor planning or organization on the part of the sender and unnecessarily shift last-minute work to others.
Giving sufficient time for assignments to be completed during work hours. Giving assignments with insufficient time to complete during work hours, such as late afternoon case assignments for court appearance the following morning.
Supporting flexible time use for everyone, especially to support well being activities (time for gym, yoga, recreation, therapy, medical appointments, etc.). Inequitable availability of flex time, such as making it available to some employees while others are restricted by court schedules, office hours or other expectations. This is exacerbated if those flexing their time create expectations of responsiveness during times they elect to work in off hours, as it expands the expected workday of others into those hours.
Have robust coverage systems so that people can take leave and vacation. Complain about vacation/leave increasing work for others rather than having robust coverage systems.

Providing high quality representation to poor people accused of crimes is a high stress endeavor that regularly consumes early morning, late evening, and weekend hours. We can all look for ways to recognize and support true down time and off hours for rejuvenation.



Should We Stop Saying Burnout and Start Saying Moral Injury?

I have called my experience of leaving public defense work after the first seven years burnout for many years. My experience followed the three classic symptoms of burnout:

  1. Physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. I went from energized by the work to barely dragging myself through each day. Some weekends I would sleep 14 hours straight and still feel exhausted, like I just could not recharge.
  2. Feelings of self-doubt, loss of personal confidence. I started to wonder if I had what it took to actually be effective, not just in new and complex challenges (like learning about DNA), but in things I’d done many times (like writing and arguing search motions) that began to feel pointless.
  3. Doubt for the value of one’s work. I felt like a cog in the machine of processing people through courtrooms to prison as efficiently as possible. At times it seemed like my presence even helped this machine run, by pretending the grossly unfair process complied with minimum constitutional requirements by having a lawyer present.

In May of 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout as an occupational phenomenon. My first reaction was to appreciate that more people might have access to leave from work or quality care for chronic workplace stress. My second reaction was irritation at the WHO’s definition of burnout: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This definition places all the responsibility on the individual and frames the questions in terms of individual strength or weakness.

moral injury video pic Last year, Dave showed me a YouTube video of Dr. Zubin Damania arguing that the term burnout and should be replaced with the term moral injury. I became convinced that the moral injury framework is a necessary shift to a more useful way of conceptualizing chronic workplace stress and trauma. This shift is important because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual (do yoga! be more mindful!) and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing. While we can mitigate some individual impacts with self-care, systemic solutions are needed to correct systemic causes.

Surgeon Simon Talbot and psychiatrist Wendy Dean wrote an article on the application of the term moral injury to physicians. They argued that “without understanding the critical difference between burnout and moral injury, the wounds will never heal and physicians and patients alike will continue to suffer the consequences.” They assert that the concept of burnout “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience, traits that most physicians have finely honed during decades of intense training and demanding work.” They wrote that the “moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.”

The term moral injury was first used to describe soldiers’ responses to their actions in war. Doctor and clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes moral injury as perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Journalist Diane Silver describes moral injury as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.”

Dr. Shay’s version of moral injury is “derived from patients’ narratives and from Homer’s narrative of Achilles in the Illiad,” and is:

  1. A betrayal of what’s right
  2. by someone who holds legitimate authority (or by one’s self)
  3. in a high stakes situation.

Public defense is filled with betrayals of what is right by people with authority in high stakes situations. Deep soul wound is a perfect description of the impact of a criminal punishment bureaucracy that processes people—disproportionately people of color– into cages. Deep soul wounds result from a system in which: women are handcuffed to metal beds during childbirth in custody; money bail and mandatory minimums extort pleas for daylight; and fines, fees and forfeiture are used to line pockets and destroy communities.

If you substitute public defender wherever Talbot and Dean  reference physicians, it’s a perfect fit. The concept of burnout…suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience, traits that most [public defenders] have finely honed during decades of intense training and demanding work. The moral injury… is being unable to provide high-quality representation in the context of [public defense].

Talbot and Dean describe a career progression of physicians that suffer from moral injury: following a calling rather than a career path; desire to help people; almost religious zeal, enduring lost sleep, lost years of young adulthood, family strain, financial instability, disregard for personal health; each hurdle offers a lesson in endurance in the service of one’s goal; failing to consistently meet needs of clients has a profound impact on wellbeing. Many public defenders recognize ourselves in this same career progression.

Public defense leaders who have spoken publicly about impact of systemic obstacles like underfunding echo the language of moral injury. “I’ve had people come to my office and need immediate mental health leave, some considering self-harm. We come here with a goal to help people no one else is helping. When we can’t do it, it’s crushing.” (‘My Attorneys Are Ticking Time Bombs’ Kansas City Star May 31, 2019.) Public defense offices are filled with determined and dedicated people. Unfortunately, many offices are struggling to retain people. (Just a few of the many examples are Thin Ranks, High Risks (describing Kentucky), and One In Four Kansas Public Defenders Quit Last Year, Leaving Agency ‘In Crisis.’ Apr 8, 2019.)

The value of shifting from the framework of burnout to the framework of moral injury is in the discussion of causes and the solutions. Burnout focuses on individual inability to manage stress, and suggests individual responsibility to develop skills and strength to handle chronic stress—self-care practices like yoga, meditation, and therapy. Moral injury looks at systemic obstacles, abuses and transgressions, and suggests systemic solutions—such as reduced caseloads, supportive leadership, sufficient training, and mentorship support.

I speak and write frequently about things we can each do in our own lives to improve our well being—things like yoga, meditation, recreation, boundaries, and contemplative time away from work. I believe these practices are useful because (1) they aren’t dependent on a funder or office leader for support and can be started and maintained by each of us individually, which gives us ownership, control and autonomy in our own well-being, and (2) even with systemic solutions, secondary traumatic impacts will occur from working with people who have experienced profound trauma, and we will need personal practices to mitigate those impacts. This is not to suggest that self-care is the best or only needed response to moral injury.

Jonathan Shay outlined a definition of moral injury that comes with a solution. Moral injury deteriorates trust, ideals and ambitions; it creates an expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation from others. He writes that the solution is within our control, and is “the need for leadership to be expert, ethical, and properly supported.”

In the context of public defense, self-care shouldn’t be used as a tool to shift responsibility to the individual where systemic solutions are needed. No amount of self-care can overcome the systemic obstacles and failings of the criminal legal system. Self-care can help us get through the day and keep fighting as public defenders, but it isn’t a replacement for the true systemic change that is needed.

The Sunday Scaries. Secondary Traumatic Stress in Public Defense.

It’s Sunday. So Monday is closing in on us.

When I first heard a public defender use the term Sunday Scaries, I didn’t need any further explanation. That feeling of bracing yourself for the next work week. That feeling of prep and motions I’d hoped to have finished already, but have not. That feeling of wishing I had better news to give clients about negotiations or investigations. The mountain of recordings that just came in and need reviewed.

When I have discussions with public defenders about what the Sunday Scaries actually feel like, we describe anxiety, sleeplessness, sadness, second guessing, emotional exhaustion, dreading work.

This work is just so very intrusive sometimes. It’s there all the time, imprinted on our minds and  bodies, reminders around every turn.

There’s a certain intersection I avoid, because driving through it, and past the flower memorial that has been continually refreshed there for a decade, causes my mind to revisit photos of a crash scene and child’s autopsy.

Every public defender I know has similar stories, but many of us fail to view these experiences through the lens of continually experiencing trauma at work.

Many of us learn about the impacts of trauma in an analytical way, through the preparation of our cases. We learn the importance of working with experts in PTSD or Adverse Childhood Experiences to understand and present the stories of the people we represent. We fail to turn this same insightful lens on ourselves, sometimes voicing the view that to do so would be unacceptably vulnerable, or even disloyal by taking our focus away from the traumatic experiences in the lives of the people we represent. Trauma impacts us, too, in ways we need to acknowledge and process if we are going to stay in this work.

There’s a case I think of often, and each time there is a dull ache in my hands and forearms. During the trial, as I questioned a child, I gripped the table behind me so tightly that eventually a weird, numb weight took over my hands and forearms. I loosened my grip and felt pins and needles in my hands. Jurors cried as the questions continued, about the night this child’s mother died on the other side of her bedroom wall. After a while, I felt the heavy, numb forearms again and realized that I was white knuckling the edge of the table again. The case had a good outcome, but every time I think of it my hands and forearms still ache.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D, author of the beautiful book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, explains that trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and body manage perceptions. Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. Apparently it even gets stuck in our forearms sometimes.

In addition to primary or direct experiences of traumatic events, we in public defense also experience secondary traumatic stress, which is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another person. This definition is from Figley’s Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized. Everyone who works with and/or assists traumatized or distressed children, adults or families is at risk for secondary traumatic stress—including therapists, nurses, teachers, hospice workers, social workers, journalists, firefighters, physicians. STS is sometimes also called Compassion Fatigue, and we know from Linda Albert’s study of Wisconsin Public Defenders that public defenders are impacted (as described in this prior post).

A colleague had a case that we discussed constantly as he prepared for trial. At one point I listened to the recording of the wailing cries of the mother whose child had just drowned in the bathtub. Those sounds went into my mind and stayed there, where they still replay sometimes.

There are constant opportunities to experience primary and secondary trauma in public defense work, including: seeing a person you represent being taken into custody; seeing a person you represent being sentenced; seeing the pain and struggle of the family and community of the person you represent; watching your colleagues struggle and face abusive treatment by judges, prosecutors and others; viewing injury, autopsy and scene photos; scene visits; reviewing records of trauma; hearing stories of trauma; hearing testimony of violent events; dealing with prejudice and abuse within the criminal sentencing bureaucracy; seeing the reality of the jail conditions experienced by the people we represent.

The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress have a striking similarity to the Sunday Scaries: anxiety, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, sadness, anger/irritability/impatience, poor concentration, second guessing, detachment, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness, shame, physical illness, lateness, absenteeism, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, stomachaches, headaches, strained relationships, disconnection from purpose, dreading work. Many of us experience some combination of these symptoms so frequently that we incorporate them into what we expect working in public defense to feel like.

Morning hike and meditation.

 Bessel Van der Kolk talks about recovery from trauma through mind-body connection and body focused practices like yoga and meditation. He emphasizes that human memory is a sensory experience, and movement practices can restore a sense of goodness and safety. In my own experience, yoga and meditation practices are particularly well suited for processing our constant intake of public defense trauma, and can help cultivate resilience in the face of feeling overwhelmed by these traumatic impacts. Dr. Van der Kolk also explores the benefits of writing and journaling.

Do you practice yoga or meditation? Do you write or keep a journal? Let us know in the comments how these practices help you sustain your public defense work, or other practices or approaches that you find helpful in response to the challenges of secondary traumatic stress.


Meditation and Failure Resilience

From the Department of Again and Again

I love my morning walks with Trixy the Dog. We climb 250 steps to the top of Bernal Hill and then jog and walk and fetch tennis balls as the sun rises over the San Francisco Bay. In the winter, the bay burns bright with orange and red and as I breathe deeply of the crisp sky, I feel profound gratitude for my life.

I listen to podcasts as we walk, and I recently heard Sharon Salzberg talking about “beginning again” in meditation. She proposed that that the big work is not in sitting down, it is how one begins again on the cushion after spacing out, fantasizing, daydreaming, or worrying.

Over and over and over again.

In this sense, meditation is really a practice in failure resilience: I experience “failure” repeatedly, along with accompanying opportunities to choose to start over.

In my meditation, as in my life, I am endlessly interrupted by urgent and enticing sirens. “Don’t forget to take that file to work!” “Remember you need to pay that bill today!” “Hey, you never called your dad back!”

With more practice, however, I have come to realize that use of the word “failure” is a harsh self-judgment; distraction is a very ordinary and even lovable aspect of being a human being.

As sentient beings we are eminently distractible: perhaps it is a necessary element of curiosity. Our thoughts feel weighty, pregnant, and ripe, and pose incredibly compelling and seductive challenges. To remain present in our bodies requires discipline, attention, and practice.

While it is surprisingly easy to wake up to the present moment by breathing deeply and letting go of things, to continue to stay awake in it, especially in our turgid modern culture, can be very difficult.

Still, with experience and practice, and with amazing support and teaching from my teacher JunPo Dennis Kelly Roshi, I have come to see that my thoughts are in fact weightless and illusory.

As substantial and meaningful as they may seem, when I look at them from a distance, they are mostly revealed to be misleading, trivial or even ridiculous!

I have come to welcome these thought-mines, for each of these intrusions is a gift. I am continuously offered the opportunity to listen, acknowledge, and explore my mind, and then to choose to loop back to the body/place where I am sitting.

When I return, it’s important that I am nice to myself.

For much of my life, my failure resilience was negligible: each new stumble and fall was simply more evidence of my long demonstrated inherent sucky-ness. My inner voice was a bully, haranguing me for my missteps and mistakes, and providing ever more fuel for the shame-machine.

Thanks to steady practice and lots of emotional work and attention, I have gradually shifted that voice to one that is gentle, loving, and amused. After a reverie into the future or the past, I now wake up, grin, and whisper to myself:

“Oh Dave, you sweet silly man, welcome home!!! The fire is lit, there’s food on the stove, and how ‘bout a nice hot cup of tea?”

I find myself smiling broadly as my old judgment of “failure” shifts, yet again, to “human-ness” or “presence” or simply “being alive.”

I worry about the many people I love that still speak to themselves with a harsh and unforgiving voice. Sometimes I will actually hear it out loud, as a friend scolds himself for a mistake.

Hearing this, I can’t help but butt in: “Hey please don’t be mean to you! You are a good friend of mine, and I stand up for my friends!” They usually smile and pause and smile again, sheepishly. Sometimes I don’t think they knew they were saying it at all.

So to all you wonderful PDs out there: I invite you: Bee gentle with yourselves. Bee loving and kind. Bee here now.

Smile, and welcome yourself home!