In 2018, after graduating from Harvard Law School, I landed my dream job at a top law firm in California. I was just 24 years old and making $200,000 a year, including bonuses.
From the outside, it looked like I was happy and thriving in my career.
But here's the biggest downside of success that no one talks about: the deep anxiety — and eventual depression — that often goes ignored.
From Harvard Law to severe anxiety and depression
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My grandmother and I were very close. After she passed away during my last year of college, I started experiencing frequent panic attacks and gastrointestinal problems.
I went through a cycle of stool tests, ultrasounds, and eventually an endoscopy under anesthesia. At certain points, I couldn't eat, exercise or even hold conversations because I was so sick.
But the doctors kept telling me the same thing: "You look perfectly healthy, you just have to get your stress under control."
When the pandemic hit in 2020, my mental health spiraled even more, and I found myself unable to keep up with my workaholic habits. I finally met with a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with severe anxiety and mild depression.
That wasn't what I expected after working so hard to get to the top. At the same time, however, having an official diagnosis forced me to redefine what success meant to me.
So in July 2021, I quit my job as a corporate attorney to focus on my mental health, and it has changed my life for the better. With the additional breathing room, I was able to stay more disciplined with healthy routines.
Don't tie your self-worth with how others see you
For much of my life, I worked endlessly to rack up achievements that I thought would make other people respect me more, whether it was being high school valedictorian or interning at the White House or graduating early.
I realized that if kept going this way — chasing prestige and trying to control everyone's opinion of me — I would completely lose my sense of self. What I could control, though, was how I took care of my mind and body.
So I developed a mental wellness routine that worked for me, such as reading and exercising more. I also meet with a cognitive behavioral therapist regularly.
My experience was liberating. I thought, "If my story can help just one person out there, why not tell it?" I wrote a blog about my mental health journey on LinkedIn. It went viral and reached nearly 2.5 million people in the span of two weeks.
I also shared my story on other outlets, including Instagram and TikTok. Before I knew it, I was deep in a digital community that was built on mutual support, and it inspired me to start a new chapter in my career.
This year, I co-founded a law firm for content creators, where we help negotiate deals and protect intellectual property. Even though I'm making less than I did at my previous job, the work is energizing and the hours are better.
Success means finding a balance you can live with
Focusing on your mental health doesn't mean having to sacrifice your ambitions. It's about understanding what is most important to you, and what you can handle.
Here are some strategies that have helped me maintain my equilibrium:
- Identify signs of anxiety. Understand how stress impacts your body, and what tools and services are available to help. I also read a lot about mental health, particularly psychologist Nick Wignall's blog, and "Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Stanford neurology professor Robert Sapolsky.
- Practice deep breathing. It sounds easy, but sometimes I have to step back and remind myself to breathe. When I feel stressed, I watch a YouTube video that encourages me to "do nothing" for 10 minutes.
- Do daily check-ins. Instead of numbing myself with work, I make it a point to journal about my feelings and emotions.
My goal is to help people find a balance that works for them. Success and prioritizing your mental health aren't mutually exclusive, and my experience is proof of that.
Julian Sarafian is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School. He is a lawyer, mental health advocate and content creator. Julian has been an active voice in the mental health community, growing a community of nearly 350,000 followers across social media channels including TikTok and Instagram. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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