My girlfriend and I are both aspiring lawyers – I'm taking the bar next month, she did it last year and is now finishing up a master's degree.
To become a lawyer in our jurisdiction, candidates need to do a six-month articling period sometime after the bar. While we were both in law school, I was recruited by a medium-to-large downtown business law firm. Obviously, I'm overjoyed that I'll be doing my articling there : the salary will be quite decent and it'll be a great springboard to bigger and better things.
Unfortunately, my girlfriend hasn't had as much success. By my count, she's done about sixty interviews over the past three years and not a single one has resulted in an offer. As I see it, this is due to two main factors. Although her marks have been good, they are not as stratospherically high as they would need to be to get into the places she has her heart set on (mainly top-level internships). Also, she lacks some self-confidence and has a hard time coming across in an interview as having that killer instinct that employers look for in first-year lawyers.
Obviously, with all the rejections, this last factor has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. My girlfriend is in denial about both these factors and hasn't thought it through much past a childhood “you can do anything you set your mind to!” sense of entitlement to the best job on the market. I love her, but there it is.
So the problem is this : every time she receives a rejection letter, every time she comes back from an interview she feels did not go well, every time a friend of hers get hired or gets sworn in as a lawyer, my girlfriend throws a fit. She feels left behind by her friends and by me, and she ends up questioning her entire career choice. I inevitably react badly to these situations, as I'm more of a “grab-life-by-the-cojones” kind of person and don't see any point in self-pity and crying over things we can't change. So, typical guy, I propose solutions and come off as insensitive. Voices are raised, tears inevitably come, and strain is put on the relationship.
My question is this : how do I comfort my girlfriend and see her through her difficult times, while simultaneously helping her shift perspectives, realize that it's not going to happen in the high-competition places she seems to want, and accept that no one will think any less of her for starting her career in a more modest law firm ? Or am I the wrong messenger here, due to the fact that I already have a job lined up ? Looking forward to your answer, thanks,
I love that you threw all your cards on the table, coined yourself a “typical guy,” and even identified that proposing solutions does in fact make you come off insensitive. The fact that you wrote in and asked about this tells me that deep down, you are anything but insensitive, which is great news because in order to be the man your sweet woman needs right now, you’re going to have to dig down way past your ‘cojones’, grab all the sensitivity you’ve got, and put it to work. Starting yesterday.
Here’s the deal, straight up.
Your girl, for one reason or another — her past, her parents, her relationships, her life, etc. etc. completely and utterly weighs the totality of her self worth on her accomplishments. The degrees she has, the job she gets, etc. Someone or something along the line sent her the emotional message that she’s not good enough as is, and that belief can really send someone into a tail spin. Is she aware of it– can she admit it? Probably not. But it’s in there, tucked behind her sixty interviews, fits, and tears.
In her mind, getting an amazing job=being an amazing person.
As you said, she “lacks some self-confidence” but from my perspective, it seems to be another level–more like some big time low self esteem.
Why that conclusion? I’ll tell you why…
She’s a ridiculously smart girl. Got her JD, passed the bar, getting her masters…she’s no dummy. But, even with all that intelligence packed into that brain of hers, she’s unable to see that something’s not working, right in front of her face. Now, I’m not a proponent of giving up on your goals, that’s for sure…but when there’s a total lack of flexibility on what the journey might look like to get there, well, that immediately throws up all the self worth, sense of self, self esteem red flags in the book.
She’s willing to go on sixty interviews for a reason–she’s on a desperate search for something. And my dear, listen up and listen up good… when it comes down to it, your girlfriend is not on the search for a job, she’s on the search for herself.
Also, getting really psychological here: when someone has low self esteem in this context, they, on an unconscious level, make sure they don’t achieve their goals. Why? Because they believe on some level that there is no way in hell they’ll be able to do well at the job, so why get it in the first place. In other words, until your girlfriend begins to truly believe in herself, she will unconsciously make sure that no interview goes well, because she can’t risk being given a job she doesn’t think she can actually do.
But, I digress.
This is not about her skills, her intellect, or her grades. You may think she just wants this job, but on an emotional level…she feels like she needs it. Without the possibility of this particular job, she has no clue who she is. So, rather than helping her to change her ideas about the job, go a step further and help her change her ideas about herself.
The thing about solving a problem vs. supporting a person is that there’s a huge massive difference between the two, and understanding that difference separates the sensitive guys from the rest of the pack.
When you focus on solving, things become de-personalized and more about the issue at hand. As a lawyer you focus on the facts and make the solution work come hell or high water. But this isn’t about winning a case or getting your point across. This is about the emotional complexities of a human being who you love, who doesn’t love herself. So instead of focusing on the details of what she apparently wants, focus on why she wants it (reminder: because she doesn’t think she’s important without it). And send all of your efforts, your sensitivity, your love…right there.
When you shift from solving to supporting, your girlfriend will begin the process of building a strong foundation and developing her emotional health enough to consider the idea of shifting her career perspective, and go for what she wants in a more flexible and fluid way. But, she needs to come to that on her own. Like I said, she’s no dummy, don’t insult her intelligence by telling her what she inevitably already knows. She can figure this out. She just needs some more tools, more time, and more support.
The real question is, how do you do this support rather than solve thing? How do you make sure she knows that your main concern is her happiness, and not her job? How can you express that you love her no matter what, and want her to be happy regardless of her job? Well, I’ll tell you how…
First, prepare yourself to endure the frustration of her pushing for this specific internship for a while more. Then…
Love her and support her like it’s your job. Notice her, not her interviews, not her accomplishments. The little things. Say thank you, I appreciate you, I love you. Support her in doing things she loves to do. Tell her she’s gorgeous. Smile at her when you’re at dinner with other couples…just ‘cause. She needs to be seen, authentically seen. And eventually, she’ll see herself.
Keep in mind though; smart girls can smell inauthentic BS and compliments from a mile away, it’s just a skill we’re born with. Sorry. So only say things that you really mean. Guys sometimes think: I committed to her, she knows I love her, so I don’t need to say it all the time. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Being seen and hearing about it never ever as long as you live…gets old. So take all the smarty pants communication skills you learned in law school, and use them like crazy.
Without making it obvious and creepy, start shifting the way you respond to her “fits”. Say what you see: I can see that you’re really sad right now. I can see this is really hard for you. I love you. How can I support you? When you say what you see (emotionally), you’re supporting the person, not solving the problem. This feels so delicious to a woman I can’t even begin to explain…
Also, “kind-of” to the wrong messenger part of your question by the way. You’re kind-of an amazing messenger for the self esteem stuff (support). But you’re kind-of the wrong messenger for the “you don’t have to work at the top law firm” stuff (solve). The only way for her to really hear that particular message is to hear it from her own inner voice.
I’m not making any promises, but when she comes to you (in due time) after you’ve been boyfriend of the frikin’ year and tells you while tears flow down her face that she’s decided to apply somewhere else, don’t act surprised. It just means she’s starting to realize she exists in a positive light regardless of the place she works…she’s beginning to see herself.
So, my advice to you Dave is this:
Support, don’t solve. Say what you see. Be patient. And shift your attention. Rather than focusing on the job situation and the totally frustrating feeling you have inside when she gets her rejection letters, focus on what’s underneath it all. “Typical guys” love to figure things out from the outside-in. So, don’t be a typical guy. Be an incredibly emotionally intelligent guy and start to focus on things…from the inside-out.
Thanks for you,
PS. Therapy can be a huge help for self-esteem challenges. If she mentions getting some extra support in that way, I’m happy to help her/you find someone in your area who might be a good fit.