On 19th Feb 2020 YLAL Liverpool met in a cosy library at The Quaker Meeting house lit by fairy lights to discuss wellbreing and self care for those working in the sector.
Siobhan Taylor-Ward opened the meeting by giving some information about the resources available to lawyers, findings of the Social Mobility survey and JLD's wellbeing survey and also a bit about her experiences and how she has managed stress and pressure in the workplace.
We then heard from our speaker Josie Hicklin, Justice First Fellow and Trainee solicitor at Greater Manchester Law centre who is also a qualified yoga teacher. We are sharing her words with you below so all of our members can benefit from them:
The work that we do is hard and we don’t get lots of money to spend on yoga retreats or spa days or whatever the new fad in modern self-care is at the moment.
The people that we work with often come to us in the darkest crisis points in their lives, and we are continually asked to meet them with hope and with answers.
And the unjust systems that we challenge through our work are unrelenting.
And so looking after ourselves so that we can continue with this hard but necessary work, becomes so important.
And so I’ll briefly share some of the things that my journey has taught me about wellbeing and mental health:
- The difference between compassion and empathy.
Like many people here who have chosen to work in this sector, I am really sensitive to other people’s pain and experiences. Wanting to ensure rights of vulnerable people are recognised is why many of us ended up here. But its particularly people like us that need to learn to be able to distinguish between the two, both for our sake and for the sake of our clients.
Empathy can be a very easy thing to melt into. It’s the ability to feel other people’s pain and experiences deeply in your bones. I’ve written up witness statements about asylum seekers’ journeys to the UK and then had to go and chain smoke and cry in the toilets. Because when you are having empathy, you can’t remove yourself from people’s pain, you take it on board, your heart can almost hurt for that person, or you become so angry at a situation that all your energy is spent on that anger and not on offering an alternative way. And so actually empathy is debilitating, it stunts our ability to be of help because we are so absorbed with feeling it.
I think instead what we are asked to be is compassionate. When we have compassion we can see pain and understand and acknowledge a person’s pain, but we don’t take it on as our own. It is when we are able to separate ourselves from the head fuck stuff we see everyday that we can make real change - we can say i see you and this horrendous thing that is happening to your over here, and I am over here and it isn’t happening to me, and therefore I can use all my energy to help you rather than using my energy to feel what you’re feeling.
And I think this one of the hardest qualities to incubate, but it is necessary if we are to prevent burn out, and also to act in the best interests of our clients.
- The importance of hope
To me hope is not a pink fluffy cute feeling that everything might be ok someday, but is a really powerful reminder that another way is possible and that she is on her way. That people being turned away from homeless services and turning to spice to cope or having their benefits sanctioned and starving to death or losing their family somewhere on the way to the UK after fleeing unspeakable violence isn’t the way it has to be.
Walter Brueggeman says “hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
Hope is something we all bring to life through our work, but for our own wellbeing let it be a reminder that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. I think YLAL is one of the great spaces for that reminder, and I encourage you to find other spaces other communities that remind you that though this work is tough and unrelenting, you are not alone; that someone else is going through what you are and as Martin Luther king says, the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.
- You need to be full up before you can give out to others.
Its only from our overflow that we should be giving, if we are constantly tired and not eating right and not able to find time to spend with those we love and importantly time to be alone with yourself then you’re doing it wrong. Life is complex and we are complex humans. We need to remember that we are not just lawyers. When we put yourself in the lawyer box and that box only we become disconnected from who you are in all your entirety, and disconnected from other people - from your clients from the world around you - and i think that’s when our wellbeing really takes a hit and we get burnt out. We are not just lawyers. We are everything. And so find what it is that makes your soul come alive and do that.
Id encourage you to write a list of all the things that make you happy and peaceful and then make sure you do at least two of them a week. Anything from watching harry potter to running to staring out your window with a brew. I always thought that because I didn’t feel an immediate difference if I did these things then there was no point - we want quick fixes but that's not really how selfcare works. But I gradually began to see the changes these still, small, slow, unglamorous daily rituals had on my ability to handle stress in other parts of my life.
I wanted to end with a poem that I sometimes use to end my yoga classes which felt poignant for today:
When despair for the world grows in me
And i wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And i feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- Peace of wild things / wendell berry
The meeting ended with an open and frank discussion of mental health in the sector, members shared their stories and offered insight into ways they have found to manage the impact of legal aid work on their mental health.