The Seat of Resilience

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

The Three-Legged Stool

I know nothing of structural mechanics and little of furniture, but I do know that if you lose one of the legs from your three-legged stool, you won’t be sitting on it for long. And I’ve learned, mostly the hard way, that resilience in criminal justice has three main components: 1. Regulation, 2. Connection and 3. Purpose. Regulation is the ability to manage our response to stress and use it to function in the optimal zone most of the time. Connection, with peers, supervisors, clients and other humans (as well as our furry friends) is the spark of healing that ignites when our stories are held and understood by others. Purpose is the driver, the momentum, the reason we get up every morning and show up donning smiles and SWAT gear — figuratively and, for some, literally.

Photo Credit: iStock

Sustainable wellbeing in our business requires all of the three legs. Each employee is responsible for learning and strengthening skills that help develop the regulation muscle, that foster deep listening for co-workers, and that highlight and remind us of our important purpose. As leaders, we can’t ensure each employee’s happiness, but we can — and must — offer an employment landscape where happiness, or satisfaction, are possible.

Whose Job Is It To Make Sure We Are Well?

Individual employees each bear the responsibility to learn, understand, attain fluency in and regularly practice resiliency skills. In additional to practicing self-care and neuroplasticity, each individual must provide meaningful peer support to co-workers, commit to improving the health of the larger organization and take steps to evolve our profession as a whole.

Leaders must facilitate wellbeing from the top down. Executives are responsible for offering a landscape where all employees have an opportunity to build and practice regulation skills; the organization’s culture is that of connection and support; the purpose of the work — ease the suffering of others — is highlighted, recognized and rewarded; and employees’ caseloads are manageable and salaries are reasonable.

Leaders can no longer rely on the ubiquitous expectation that employee wellness is wholly dependent on them engaging in “self-care” and “work-life balance.” We must provide sustainable work environments, understanding that employees’ self-care, though important, isn’t enough. That expectation implies that there is a pathology or depletion that is the responsibility of the individual alone when, in fact, the depletion is inherent in trauma-related work. We must make structural and organizational changes that build in secondary trauma processing and employee resilience as competencies, acknowledge the depletion, and provide mechanisms to neutralize it.

Today’s managers are responsible for offering programming and providing adequate time and resources for resiliency training, at least until it becomes such an integral part of our culture that the training is redundant, which will be never. Additionally, leaders must secure funding to ensure a plausible work landscape (PWL) that will ensure enough staff to maintain realistic caseloads and pay people a workable wage. In addition, encouraging peer connection between your workers falls short. We must actively facilitate peer support.

Sustainability requires a panoramic approach, but leaders must do the heavy lifting by offering resiliency training, actively facilitating peer support, continually circling back to purpose, providing a plausible work landscape, and leading by example by taking care of our own wellbeing.

Finally, all of us must take active steps toward normalizing a culture of wellbeing in our profession, destigmatizing vulnerability and requests for help, and bringing wellbeing programming into the mainstream.

The Rule of Competence

All attorneys are required to follow a strict code of conduct, our ethical rules, which are some variation of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct [MRPC]. The first one, the Rule of Competence, is the most basic: all attorneys must be ‘competent,’ meaning they possess legal knowledge, have necessary skills and thoroughly prepare. Rule 1.1 defines “competent” representation to require “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” But, if an attorney is mentally ill, in the throes of addiction or burned out, no amount of knowledge or preparation will ensure good judgment or even adequate representation. Wellbeing is a prerequisite to competence, regardless of whether it is expressly stated in the language of the rule.

The ABA currently recommends expanding the rule to clearly include lawyers’ wellbeing in the definition of competence. Some states, such as California, have made these changes, by adding a definition of competence to include the “mental, emotional, and physical ability reasonably necessary” to engage in legal work. Cal. Rules Prof. Conduct Rule 3–110.

Competence can be directly tied to culture and funding — critically important to line workers and executive level leaders.

The Wellbeing Yaw: Stress Management

A few years ago, I was hiking with a wise friend who was helping me work through some viciousness at work. I’d taken a controversial but ethically right position, examining the integrity of an old conviction with fresh eyes. As criminal justice professionals, we don’t have the luxury of doing the easy thing. We must do our best to do the right thing. People went crazy.

“Who does she think she is?”

“Who paid her to do this?”

“She doesn’t care about victims!”

This happened right on the heels being publicly blamed for the institutional deficiencies of my predecessors, inviting vicious threats from keyboard activists which continue still. As public servants, we expect criticism for things outside of our control, but I was devastated. Intellectually, I kept reminding myself that if we only respect the rule of law when the answer is easy, obvious, or in our favor, it would render the rule of law meaningless. It is especially important to follow the letter of the law to a T in situations when it is messy, complicated and incendiary. But the cognitive dissonance was almost unbearable.

“If you were a superhero,” my friend asked, “what would your superpower be?”

Ha. Ha. I’m not a superhero at all and all I want is to stifle this welling anxiety. To know that jumping into this political fray wasn’t a colossal mistake.

“Being sensitive? Attracting ugly old white guys rancor? Making everybody mad?”

“Think about it,” she said as she got back into her car at the trailhead.

The antithesis to wellbeing, in its most simplistic form, can be boiled down to one little (but giant and multi-faceted) word: stress. Wellbeing can be broadly defined as the productive management of stress, proactively, in real-time and after the fact — cleanup. Stress management is where the rubber meets the road. But the phrase “stress management” sounds deceptively simplistic.

In reviewing and summarizing what we’ve learned about trauma, we know that mammals’ physiological stress response was an evolutionary coup, developed for species’ survival. When a stressful event occurs in the life of, say, a deer being chased by a dog, its body produces a powerful chemical surge that turns on the survival superpowers. In humans, these temporary changes include increased visual acuity, better hearing, faster running, and stronger throwing (think caveman with a spear). These superpowers are superhelpful in a clutch survival situation, but they don’t come without a cost. Digestion halts, immunity is compromised, and the thinking, rational brain is turned way down or completely off. Similarly, the ability to accurately absorb, organize and file incoming sensory information is also compromised. Additionally, the hormones responsible for the superpowers can be caustic to our insides, especially when our insides are chronically exposed.

Our stress button — called the amygdala buried deep in our brain — and its relay of events that follow a pushing, was manufactured to help us crush unexpected environmental threats and to remember them so as to be better prepared to conquer them in the future. Fool me once, said the amygdala. This important response was supposed to be short in duration — seconds to minutes — and infrequent — think the occasional saber-toothed tiger. Here’s the catch: in addition to things like saber-toothed tigers, which thankfully don’t chase us down anymore, our very own thoughts can push the button.

Faith Harper, Ph. D., in her book Unf#ck Your Brain (Blackstone Audio Nov. 7, 2017), referred to the first motion picture, Arrival of a Train (YouTube it). Auguste and Louis Lumiere, the brothers who made it, unveiled it at an art show. Instead of being really impressed, the audience was reported to have been terrified because it looked real and they lacked a frame of reference to distinguish real danger from perceived danger. Their pre-AMC DINE-IN-brains, in the interest of avoiding their hosts getting crushed by an incoming train, hit the alarm and said, “RUN!”

Our saber-toothed thoughts (STTs), triggered by — you know it — stress, are everywhere, all the time. The stress response to a STT is just as “effective” and corrosive as if you were grabbing your home-made spear to protect your family nestled in the cave. This process that started out as adaptive and necessary for survival, is now maladaptive and contributing to our demise.

Both kinds of stress, whether the kind that will literally eat you, or the newer internal kind that will cause inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and addiction, the kind we produce with our STTs, is part of life and, unfortunately isn’t something we can take out of the equation. Here’s the good news. We can’t stop it, but we can control our response to stress and metabolize it in a way that it is less harmful both in the short term and over the long haul. In fact, with education, practice, and support, we can actually learn to benefit from stress, and use it as fuel for progress.

When I started training for this wellbeing marathon a few years ago, post-traumatic growth was a newish phrase used to describe what happens to people who are able to use their challenges to become . . . better. Some of these people were born tougher than nails. But some of them learned the secret recipe and then committed to making it work through study, practice, hard work and — the last necessary ingredient — trauma. Without trauma there’d be no resilience.

My husband and I were recently reflecting on the past 10 years, revisiting our blessings, traumas, and my challenges associated with running a large organization as an elected, the first woman in my position. “You know, if I hadn’t been run over by the proverbial bus, I never would have known that I was the kind of person who was strong enough to lift a bus; to toss it across the road.”

I think I finally found my superpower. Bus-throwing.

The Seat of Resilience is an excerpt from Kirsten Pabst’s book, Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals, and is re-posted here with the author’s permission.

Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

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

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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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National District Attorneys Association

National District Attorneys Association

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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