Questions Resilient Leaders Ask Themselves at the End of Every Day — Part I

Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

Photo credit: Fauxels/Pexels

or the first time in over a year, I got to spend time in the same room with other prosecutors at NDAA’s Spring board meeting in Savannah, Georgia. It was so refreshing to catch up on everything since last March — a LOT has happened in our profession and world since we’ve seen the widened-pupils of our fellow soldiers of justice — and together quietly hold our pain stemming from the past year’s isolation, racial clashes, rising family violence, vitriolic public discourse and vicious attacks on our fellow prosecutors, their homes and their families. There was a blanket of understanding and support around our collective shoulders that didn’t need words to be palpable.

At the board meeting, I gave a brief update on the Well-being Task Force’s current projects, including this blog, Prosecutor Well-being, our webinar series, upcoming wellbeing conferences and retreats — slated for summer 2022 — and progress on the resource hub which will soon be available on NDAA’s website, chalk-full of articles, videos, contact information for providers and consultants and other resources on secondary trauma and well-being for prosecutors. We are also rolling out a national peer-connection platform — by prosecutors, for prosecutors.

Because of NDAA’s work in the well-being space, I am often contacted both by line-prosecutors approaching crisis and leaders frantically needing assistance as they are watching their charges — especially since COVID — descend the steps to join Wesley in The Pit.

“I need some well-being and sooner rather than later.”

“My trial partner is decompensating fast. He’s been drinking a lot and is going through a divorce. What can I do?”

“My top litigator quit this week and I have another attorney who hasn’t shown up to court in a week. My staff is in turmoil. I know we need this (well-being), but I don’t even know where to start.”

There is no quick and easy fix. We at WTF (Well-being Task Force) are taking a three-pronged approach and encouraging leaders to 1) teach and support self-care; 2) incorporate well-being and resiliency skills as competencies into the organization’s structure; and 3) take steps to change the culture, normalize the need for support and to make that support available to all prosecutors.

The best leaders I’ve worked with, who’ve made structural changes and cultivated resilient organizations, often check-in with themselves by asking challenging questions, such as:

How did I care for myself today?

The word self-care conjures images of golf-rounds, pedicures, and long sudsy baths. That’s what self-care can look like, but caring for oneself is actually more intentional than waiting until you step in a stress pile and need to escape. True self-care starts with a clearly defined big-picture intention that prepares you for better adaptivity in the future.

In addition to the little treats, real self-care is learning resiliency skills, taking care of your body, and getting enough rest. It means using your vacation time, getting away from your desk to eat lunch, scheduling time to connect with your support system and having the bandwidth to nurture those who lean on you for support.

My struggle with transitions

For example, since childhood, one of my self-care gaps is my difficulty adapting to unexpected schedule conflicts or last-minute changes — which would cause big adrenaline and cortisol spikes and negatively impact the rest of that day and then some. If a judge scheduled a contested hearing at the same time I was supposed to do a legal briefing at the police department, instead of canceling one or the other or finding a sub, I’d spin in circles, wringing my hands, chewing my nails wasting time and energy and stoically feeling stuck.

Photo credit: Julie Aagaard/Pexels

I equate self-care with self-improvement or learning skills that enhance the quality of my life. As part of my self-care plan, I set the intention to strengthen my roll-with-the-punches muscle and, like any other muscle, buffing-up required working out and then staying fit. Self-care is identifying your unique weak areas (your pressure points) and then teaching your brain to take an alternate route. It requires commitment, a plan and daily action.

Now, when my spouse schedules a tax session at the same time as my son’s parent-teacher conference, I take advantage of my SCT (self-care training). First, I start with a big, friendly grounding breath. Best if I can get outside but good anywhere. The next step is accepting the thing. This often requires a brisk walk. This happened. So, what are my options? Then I re-route, not just my plan, but the neuro-pathways that used to lead to mental spinning and, in so doing, let up on that stress-pedal. Sounds easy, right?

I’m writing this post from the airport in Atlanta, after learning that a series of tornadoes and severe lightning in Georgia have delayed my flight so that I will miss my connecting flight home this evening, may miss some important medical appointments tomorrow and, worst case scenario, result in cascading cancelations into a South Dakota trip scheduled to start to following day. I’d like to tell you that I smiled and decided I’d use the extra airport hours to catch up on email and write a couple of blog posts. Yeah, no. When the nice-sounding Delta reaper delivered the news, I stood there, blinking at her, and started to cry. Thankfully with my thick glasses and COVID-mask my meltdown was less obvious to my otherwise and unusually patient fellow passengers. After about two minutes, I found the closest ladies’ room, wiped my face with a paper towel, texted my friend for sympathy (she too was hunkered-down in an airport waiting out the storm), found a plug in and started typing. My point is that although stress still can pull the fire alarm in my body, due to some insight and practice, what would have derailed my train five years ago was finished in a blink, my body was spared the IV bag of cortisol and adrenaline and I’m cranking out some work. I successfully shortened the refractory period.

Progress looks different for everyone, but in order for self-care to be most effective, it must reinforce a soft spot and be proactive. My SCT really paid off today but — not going to lie — I wouldn’t turn down a pedicure right now.

Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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