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The Mental Load: Unlock the Golden Handcuffs

Feeling trapped in a job, career, or any other aspect of your life can be crippling. For a handful of years, I felt trapped in the BigLaw life. We all know the “golden handcuffs” analogy, but viewing things now “from the other side”, I’m here to tell you that you are not imprisoned. Unless you truly are in prison, you have a choice every morning when you wake up about what you’re going to do that day. No really, you do!

You’ve heard the saying “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Whatever type of job you’re in, there are SO many people out there who would probably give an arm and a leg to be where you are today. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when practicing gratitude, but this particular thought can actually feed into the “trappiness” – you are probably keenly aware of how hard you worked to get to where you are today and the thousands of people who’d take your spot in a heartbeat, and it leads to feelings of guilt for being unhappy with your situation.

Let me back up to my pre-lawyer years and tell you a story. For several summers before and during law school, I was a professional lifeguard. Not like a lounge-at-the-neighborhood-pool and tell kids to stop running lifeguard, but a legit Baywatch-style (minus the tv-worthy looks!) pro responsible for actually dragging people out of the ocean, doing CPR, and racing an ATV through crowds on the sand to get to emergencies.

I’m an anxiety-ridden control freak, so despite my swimming abilities, the beach lifeguarding job was the worst fit for me EVER. Being responsible for things completely outside my control (the ocean, the weather, and careless people’s actions) with actual life or death consequences was an absolute nightmare. But this was the best-paying job I could find at the time to cover my law school apartment costs, so I toughed it out (and admittedly, some parts of it were really fun).

In between the “exciting” parts of the job were long lulls of quiet watchful waiting – with lots of time to ponder how I’d gotten myself into this situation. I’d often marvel at how paradoxical it was that I was sitting in the middle of an expansive beach, with the ocean’s vastness stretching out before my eyes, living in a location most people considered an ultimate spot for relaxation and fun – yet I felt SO trapped.

If I could feel so trapped sitting on a perch overlooking South Beach, it’s possible to feel trapped anywhere. And many lawyers feel a sense of being stuck in their current positions without any true choice or control over their circumstances. But here’s the thing: nobody but YOU is responsible for where you are today. And nobody but you can decide how and when to make changes in your life.

I’m not saying you should walk out the door of your legal job tomorrow if you legitimately need the income and benefits to support your family. But you also shouldn’t remain in a situation where you feel such an immense pressure to stay if you know you’re not where you belong.

Like many other mental hang-ups, this trapped feeling can be alleviated by practicing gratitude, setting personal boundaries, and conducting yourself in an authentic manner. But you might be surprised just how liberating it is to simply internalize – and I mean really, truly believe – that you have choices and options. You might conclude – as I did at some point midway through my BigLaw years – that you actually are where you want to be. And if not, you can begin taking steps to grow your network, keep an eye out for other opportunities, and come up with an exit strategy.

But in any event, feeling trapped is merely a figment of your imagination. You can let this vice infiltrate your every thought and action, or you can engrain the real truth – that you have choices and the freedom to make changes in your life – into your psyche. At least then, you’ll approach your career (and life) decisions from a far more objective point of view.

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