“Are you going to talk about anything else?” My brother rolled his eyes as I talked about a technical area of patent infringement that no one in my audience cared to learn about. This was just a few weeks ago, and we were at a small dinner party with some family friends. I had finished up my time with a firm this summer, and I was excited for the chance to talk about it. But my brother’s comment reminded me just how much I’d been talking about my work. I had an amazing summer outside of the firm, too: I went on some relaxing getaways, I spent a lot of meaningful time with my family, and I finally read the books that had been on my reading list for months now. Yet, throughout dinner, I had mainly only talked about my firm experience. It was a reminder to me that law school — and the legal profession — should not and does not encompass my entire identity.
During my first semester of law school in Fall 2019, I found myself burnt out fairly quickly. I was spending too many hours reading, not necessarily because I had a lot to read, but more so because I felt that this was what I had to do. I felt like I was supposed to be outlining after every class, even if I didn’t really know what outlining even was. Despite being on top of my schoolwork, I felt guilty when I wasn’t doing law school-related work, only because I felt that there was no time or room to think about anything else.
In retrospect, my perception of law school was wrong. I am the first [to-be] lawyer in my entire extended family. As a result, before I even began law school, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do my best and become the best. In doing so, I very quickly lost sight that while law school was an important part of my life, it wasn’t the entirety of it. In psychology, enmeshment refers to an unhealthy codependent relationship where boundaries between two individual people become blurred. The term is also used in the sense of becoming enmeshed with one’s career, to the extent that it encompasses one’s whole identity.
As a 1L, I had become enmeshed. Partially because of my self-imposed pressure to succeed and partially due to the cutthroat environment that law schools naturally create, I made law school — and being an eventual lawyer — my entire identity. I stopped focusing on my relationships, health, and other hobbies. I was lucky to be close to home and have a circle of friends outside of law school nearby. Eventually, being around my family and friends helped me remember that I had other important aspects of my life that I could not neglect. Going through this self-realization in law school has helped me become more aware as I prepare to enter the legal profession.
The legal profession can create an environment where it is easy to become enmeshed: the work is high-pressure, we work in high levels of competitiveness, and unfortunately, overwork is sometimes glamorized. Being passionate about work is not a bad trait, but when these factors lead to “being a lawyer” becoming the central focus of one’s life, this becomes unhealthy. Not only can such enmeshment lead to burnout, but it can also have detrimental effects on our overall well being when there is a slightest change in our careers. Job changes, hiatuses from work, and entire industry shifts are normal, but when we build our lives around and view ourselves from an angle of only our careers, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and loneliness when these changes inevitably occur.
Experts in the field suggest that to combat career enmeshment, people should reflect frequently and deeply on their values and interests; we all have a sense of personal purpose distinct from our work, and we should feed into that as often as we can. On a practical level, experts also recommend describing ourselves to others without mentioning our job titles, by focusing on our hobbies, traits, or purpose instead. In addition, research shows that having a close circle outside of work helps ground us and expand our identity beyond work.
I will always be very grateful for my time at BC Law and I am still very excited for my future career as a lawyer. However, I know that my work isn’t the sole source of my overall happiness. Before I took on the role of “law student,” I held numerous other roles: daughter, sister, and friend. I sustained these throughout law school, and I’ll continue to invest in them afterwards. I hope to enjoy myself at work, but after a long day at the office, when I come home at night, I want to be happy with the life I’ve created there.
I spend most of my Sundays at temple, a place that is always a welcome respite from law school. A few weeks ago, I met a girl around my age who had just moved to the area, and we sat together for a bit. I talked about how I’ve basically been raised in this area, and she told me how she’s moved around ever since she was little. We connected over our shared love of cooking and we laughed over our kitchen disaster stories. At one point, she asked me what I did, and I started with my spiel: “I’m a third-year law student at Boston College Law School…” I bit my tongue and stopped there. The next week, I met her again, and she told me she had gotten her mother’s recipe for a dish that we had talked about the week prior. Amidst our conversation, she asked, “Hey, what do you do again? You must have mentioned it last time, but I totally forgot.” I smiled. She doesn’t know me as “A Law Student.” I like it that way.
Roma Gujarathi is a rising third-year student and loves to hear from readers! You can contact her at email@example.com.