« Frankie's Fastball | Main | How High the Moon? »

May 29, 2007

Benjamin Sells on "Cope or Quit"


Cope or Quit

A lawyer came to see me once and said he was unhappy with his work.  Why?  Because he was being asked by his firm to do things he felt were unethical.  What did he want from counseling?  To become "better adjusted" (his words) so he could be happier at his job.  Problem?  The things his firm was asking him to do were unethical.

Another lawyer complained of being discriminated against within her firm because she was a woman.  What did she want from counseling?  To develop her "coping skills" (her words) so she could better "accept" her situation.  Problem?  She was being discriminated against.

In both cases, I asked the lawyers what they would do if they could not adjust, cope, or learn to accept.  Both saw only one alternative.  They could quit.  Cope or quit--now there's a depressing choice.

I see the same pattern again and again in my work: People sense, rightly, mind you, that they are working in a hostile environment; then, through an introspective conversion they decide that the environment is a reflection of their own personal psychology.  Answer?  They must either learn to change themselves so they can accept the environment or get out.  [...]

Let's focus on our two lawyers. Their problem was that all avenues of imagination were closed to them except Cope or Quit.  For example, neither of them gave any consideration to staying and trying to make things better.  I don't mean they considered their options and decided it wasn't worth the effort to change things, or that they simply felt outnumbered or outgunned.  I mean that the very idea of working to change a bad situation didn't even occur to them.  And this in two highly competent professionals who were used to advocating positions, taking hard stands, and fighting for a viewpoint.  How could it be that so obvious an alternative as staying and, if necessary, fighting for what was right could be so completely overlooked?

--Benjamin Sells, in The Soul of the Law: Understanding Lawyers and the Law, 1997.

Benjamin Sells was a lawyer before becoming a psychotherapist in the vein of Thomas Moore, and this passage makes me think of three things.

First, I think sometimes that above passage sounds a little dated.  Who among us isn't aware that corporations make the papers daily when their officers are busted for corruption?  Who among us doesn't (now) know that gender discrimination in a law firm is illegal, wrong, and ultimately unproductive?  Thing is, though, they're still happening.  Maybe not as often as in the past (please feel free to chime in on this guess), but still more than often enough. Vigilance is still required.

Second, and also required: an attitude that we don't have to just "take it", but that we have the ability to make a change.  I keep thinking that "most people already have that attitude."  But it's just not true.  Most people, I think, believe they should have that attitude, but they don't actually have it.  It's easy to avoid pushing for positive change.  My hat is off to those who do it even when it's hard.  May their number increase.

Third and lastly: I realize that a variation of the "cope or quit" attitude too often appears in our own "one-person corporations".  In my case -- how many times have I thought about some piece of my nature that isn't serving me and thought, "my choices are to either learn how to accept my flaw/problem so that it doesn't make me miserable any more, or else learn how to deal with the fact that I'm always going to be miserable because of this flaw/problem."  How about maybe I can change?  In much of The Soul of the Law, Sells pushes the point that we need our imaginations to help us create new futures.  As for myself, I'm working on imagining a healthier me -- not stuck with the me I have at the moment.

Addendum: the serenity prayer has its usual relevance: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  Or the alternate version quoted long ago in Shoe, "Lighten up."



Your own personal copy from just 36 cents, via Amazon: The Soul of the Law: Understanding Lawyers and the Law

01:10 AM in Quotables, Reviews | Permalink


As for me, I'm working on imagining a healthier me.

I'm with ya, pal.

Posted by: Stew | May 29, 2007 7:13:18 AM

What happens when you're self-employed and you feel you are being discriminated against, and forced to behave unethically? Now that's when you need therapy.

Posted by: Elrond Hubbard | Jun 2, 2007 10:37:48 AM

Elrond -- Yeah, BOTH of you.

Posted by: Phil | Jun 2, 2007 4:53:55 PM