Not Your Average Shame Spiral

Not Your Average Shame Spiral

I’ll never forget visiting American University Law School in the spring of 2002. My friend and I were in DC checking out law schools, and one of our mutual friend’s sister (I’ll call her Angela) was a 1L at American.

What made the trip so unforgettable is that Angela’s 1L class was severely over-enrolled.

Something like double the anticipated number of applicants matriculated. Angela attended Harvard for grad school, so she was no stranger to hard work or competition.

Nevertheless, everything she told us about her law school experience was characterized by the notion of scarcity.

“There aren’t even enough seats in each classroom.”

“At lunch meetings, there’s never enough pizza to go around.”

“There are even more people to take your spot in the top quartile.”

“And it’s not like they’ve expanded the spots on Law Review.”

“All everyone can think about is how there is less to go around, and it affects the way we interact with each other.”

Yeah, I can imagine.

It doesn’t take a huge stretch of my imagination, either. Even though my 1L class was only around 250, the feeling that there wasn’t “enough” to go around was prevalent.

I’m confident that this lack of “enough-ness” isn’t unique to my law school or American’s.

Law school has long been an institution that prides itself on training the best and the brightest legal minds. And they’ve made no secret of their theory that this is best achieved by weeding out the weaklings.

You know the old saying that gets repeated at orientation, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here at graduation.”

They often go on to say that it’s no longer like that, but c’mon. What a shitty way to start your legal career. Right out of the gate, you sense there isn’t enough room for everyone. Awesome. They do this on purpose.

The primary motivational mechanism used by law schools is shame.

Think about it. From day one, they pander to your fears of not succeeding. As a high-achiever who earned a coveted spot in law school, you’re fairly sensitive to the idea of failure.

Immediately, you think, “I’m not going to get forced out.  I would be the laughing stock of my family/friends/colleagues, and that shit just ain’t an option.” (What? Your internal dialogue is always grammatically correct?!) So you resolve to buckle down and spend as much time in the library as it takes to convince yourself you are not a failure.

But it doesn’t end there.

With each class you attend, your professor seeks out an unsuspecting student to pepper with vague questions, with the main objective of stumping or humiliating said weakling student. All in the name of motivating the rest of us to study harder and be prepared. We all remember those first few weeks of law school when the thought of getting called on was all-consuming.

It’s no coincidence, either.

Shame researcher, Brene Brown, (yes, there are scientists who specifically study shame) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Also, it’s “the fear of disconnection — it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”

Kinda hits a chord, right?

The worst part is that we all are made to feel highly inadequate while believing that everyone else has got it figured out and is taking our “spot” — on Law Review, at the big interview, in the class rankings, in the summer associate program. But the truth is we are all scared shitless.

I say “are” instead of “were” because this culture of shame and scarcity does not end in law school.

Once we leave law school and enter the working world, we find ourselves hearing the same messages:

* There simply aren’t enough jobs for all the law school graduates.

* Only X% of associates make partner.

* The firm doesn’t have as much billable work in this economy, but keep up those billable hours if you want to keep your job.

* Bonuses and raises are frozen (…for associates).

If you think about it, why would the culture be any different from law school?  The people running these workplaces went to law school, too.  This is the culture in which they were trained and hazed, and it’s all they know.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.  And it’s certainly not the best way.

This culture that tells us we are not “enough” and that there isn’t “enough” for everyone is pervasive because it protects those in positions of power.

Partners have no plans to share their profits by making new partners, but they keep dangling the slight possibility of partnership in front of associates to keep them working hard (and stressing out when there’s not enough work to do).

Supervisors in public sector jobs rest on their laurels of seniority and the organizations’ lack of funding to motivate the underling attorneys to take on massive caseloads.

This “not enough-ness” culture breeds shame among everyone.

And one of the self-reinforcing characteristics of shame is the fear of talking about shame.

The real bitch of the matter is that the less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

But by talking about shame (painful though it may be) and sharing our experiences (as vulnerable as that makes us feel), we are able to overcome it.

At the root of the culture of scarcity and shame is our unwillingness to acknowledge our worthiness.

You know, that quality that got you into law school, admitted to the bar and at job where you now have “Esquire” at the end of your name. YOU did that.

Law schools and employers want you to believe that they are the benevolent ones who bestowed that JD upon you or so graciously gave you the opportunity to work jillions of hours to pad their fatty bank accounts or subsidize their laziness.

You are so much more than that.

And you deserve to be treated with the respect you’ve undoubtedly earned throughout your achievement-studded legal career. It’s not your fault you feel inadequate or unappreciated.

You’ve been told there’s not enough for you. And you’ve been hearing that as you’re not enough. After years of hearing this rhetoric, you’re bound to start believing it.

But I’ve got news for you:

You’re MORE than enough.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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