Posts Tagged ‘regression in the service of the ego’

My lawyer clients sometimes arrive at my office complaining about their awful work hours. They talk about how worn out they are, how they pulled all-nighters, came in on weekends, etc.

Other times they come in with a different complaint – there’s nothing to do.

Why would that be a problem? Couldn’t they just relax a bit and catch their breath?

No. Because at big law firms, no one is ever supposed to admit there’s nothing to do.

The big firms endlessly remind you of their ridiculous demands for “billable hours” – but they never so much as whisper that they might not always have sufficient work to keep you there that long.

If you’ve ever attended a partner’s meeting, you’ll know the rainmakers aren’t just sitting around gossiping about associates. They’re pressuring one another – and especially the young partners – to cultivate clients and drum up work.

One more secret: partners hog the work during dry times. That’s why associates feel the drought so severely.

The real issue here isn’t that workflow is variable at law firms. It’s variable at any business. That’s the way the world works. Of course there will be downtime.

The problem is that this reality isn’t acknowledged at law firms. That creates an atmosphere, at least for associates, in which rest, downtime, slow-downs – whatever you want to call it – are never permitted to happen. There’s no work – but the associates cannot enjoy that situation and catch their breath. Instead of resting, you switch from one intense pressure to another. Instead of having too much work and being exhausted – you’re exhausted with worry.

When there’s nothing to do, an associate is placed in a quandary.

No one admits it and says, “Hey, it’s slow this week – why don’t you take a couple days off?” That doesn’t happen at law firms.

Curiously, it does happen elsewhere. When I was in the business world, it was considered a matter of course to grab your coat and head home if things were slow. People respected the work you did, and there was no point in “face time.” If things were slow, you took off.

A friend of mine who worked at McKinsey consulting for years told me they had a phrase for these periods. You were said to be “on the beach” for a few days or weeks, while the partners drummed up business. It was acknowledged that this was the case, and no one expected you to do anything but rest up and be on call for the next project.

Law firms are different. Here is a culture that abhors rest above all else.



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I write a lot about unconscious regression – mostly how to prevent it.

That’s because you want to learn to parent yourself – to live your life as an adult, not a child, to be awake and embrace awareness so you can take charge of the life you lead.

On the other hand, sometimes being an adult can be exhausting.

At the end of each day, you go to sleep – a regressed, unconscious state.  You cannot survive without this nightly departure from reality.  Sleep deprivation is harmful, even fatal in extreme cases.   It is necessary for your physical and mental health to disappear into your unconscious to rest and recover.

You also need to play.  Perhaps that’s what dreams are – the play of the unconscious mind.

Conscious play – what the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris termed “regression in the service of the ego” – is also critical to staying healthy in mind and body.

It’s interesting that children play at being adults.  They bang away at a little workbench, or play “house” or pretend to care for a doll.  They are practicing for the time when they will leave the regressed, dreamy state of childhood, and assume adult responsibilities.

Adults do just the opposite.  When you play as an adult, you regress back to childhood activities.  You might occupy yourself with sports, vegetate with a video game or disappear into a novel or a movie.  You might sit on the beach, look at a palm tree and think about the world.

A change of physical scenery can be restful.  It’s nice to escape from your familiar adult world and take yourself someplace new, where no reminders exist of adult responsibilities.

You might find it useful to go somewhere without walls – and with long horizons.  There’s something about seeing a great distance that sets the mind to turning over new possibilities.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote that a man who transcends the conventional thinking of his time “must be accustomed to living on mountain tops.”

It is healthy to gaze into the distance – from a mountain top, or out over the ocean – and consider what might be.  You can best re-evaluate where you are when you can see a long way ahead.

The People’s Therapist is going on a vacation.

I’ll be back in a week’s time – rested and ready to continue in interesting new directions.

But for a few days I’ll let my child take over.

He wants to build a sand castle and splash in the waves and maybe read a good book.  A little sea air and a sun tan – and possibly a margarita – might be nice.  Maybe some good food and a little dancing.

I’ll see you when I get back.

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