I recently spoke with Justin, a young lawyer who had just been fired from his firm. He was blindsided and bitter. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he told me. “For three years they told me I was doing fine. Then, all of a sudden, they changed their tune. At my annual review six months before they let me go, they said I wasn’t proactive enough about learning and improving myself and that I needed to ask for more feedback and take responsibility for my own development.”
“It sounds like that was a big shock for you,” I acknowledged. “What was your response?”
“Well . . . I just kept doing what I was doing and hoping things would blow over. After all, for three years they said I was doing fine, and I didn’t think failing to ask for feedback was such a big deal. I mainly tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Six months later, they fired me.”
In other words, Justin was in denial. He had been given clear instructions about what the supervising attorneys didn’t like and the steps they wanted him to take to rectify the situation, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see the handwriting on the wall.
Denial Is a Double-Edged Sword
Denial has its benefits.
Do you think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates got where they are without a healthy dose of denial? They “should” have concluded that their seemingly hare-brained and impossible schemes would crash and burn, but they ignored their astronomically low odds of success and pressed on.
Without some denial, extremely ill people and their loved ones might simply give up and accept the inevitable upon hearing a dire diagnosis. Instead, many patients employ a bit of denial to power them through exhausting and painful treatments in an effort to be among the lucky few who are cured.
According to crisis expert Judy Smith, the author of Good Self, Bad Self and the inspiration for Kerry Washington’s character on the ABC series Scandal, “[d]enial in its most beneficial form is a can-do attitude, a positive refusal to dwell on obstacles, and a motivational energy to chip away at those obstacles . . . .”
But, Smith cautions, “denial is a short-term coping strategy that allows us to reach for our goal, as opposed to a long-term strategy that almost inevitably leads to destructive behavior and negative consequences, as well as prevents constructive action to address the problem.”
If you’re using denial as a long-term strategy, you may be setting yourself up for failure. You are lying to yourself or accepting a warped view of your situation, while at the same time studiously avoiding making changes that could improve your circumstances.
Why? Typically, according to Smith, you’re living in denial out of fear or an inability to change. This sort of denial can spur you to engage in self-destructive behaviors of commission or omission.
Some real-life examples of lawyers I have met who are in denial:
- The lawyer who doesn’t engage in networking because she thinks that if she does good work, her reputation will speak for itself and clients will beat a path to her door.
- The attorney who verbally and mentally abuses associates and thinks that the reason he has trouble finding junior lawyers to do his work is that “millennials just don’t want to work hard.”
- The junior associate who went to a prestigious law school and thinks that he can do no wrong because the firm is “lucky” to have someone with his pedigree.
Banish Denial and Reap the Rewards
It’s understandable to turn to denial when the going gets tough. It’s hard to accept the truth when your lies (or the lies of those who claim to support you) are exactly what you want to hear. But it’s critical to resist the urge to put your head in the sand. You’ve got to look your challenges in the eye and address them if you want to move ahead and prevent a catastrophic event.
Recognize these truths about denial:
- Denial doesn’t solve your problem.
- Denial doesn’t make the problem go away.
- Denial will not give you peace of mind in the long-term (and likely, not the short-term either).
- The people around you are not in denial about you and your situation. Only you are in denial about you and your situation. In other words, you may be fooling yourself, but you’re not fooling anyone else.
You’ve worked too hard to get where you are to let denial derail your professional future. So, ask yourself, what are you in denial about?