Expand Your Shrunken Existence.


I had shrunk. It took a while to realize it, but I had.

I knew being a lawyer would be difficult. But I accepted it, anticipating that I would grow into my new role. It was the opposite. I shrank physically, mentally, socially, even spiritually.

I was a powerlifter before law school. I love lifting weights. It has a pureness to it: lift this up, put it down. There’s a meditative quality to it. Think too much and you’ll fail. The weight forces you to be in your body.

At my law firm, I lost this strength, even as I gained weight. But more than being physically weaker, my entire posture changed.

My movements became furtive. My head hung down and my shoulders bunched up. I flinched at the ring of my office phone or the ding of an email. I walked fast, even beyond the New York City stereotype. It felt like my skin had been flayed. Every bump or jostle was a slap on raw flesh.

Mentally, I became less curious, more dulled. I abandoned that uplifting sense of expansion that comes from discovering something fascinating. When I learned something at the firm, I wasn’t excited by it: I was learning it so I could finish my work, go home, and go to sleep. I wasn’t following the idea down whatever path it took me. I couldn’t get lost. The learning was purely mechanical, outcome-focused.

And I had a limited reserve of energy; a book or poem might have looked interesting, but I simply didn’t have the energy to care.

Beyond the grayness of dulled curiosity, the job mutated my thought process. I couldn’t be open. At the firm, everything was an argument, an opportunity to pick apart what people said. The legalistic thinking infected my relationships. It’s so utterly pointless — and predictable — to argue with someone over the precise way they phrase their pain instead of confronting the pain behind the words, but of course I did.

My social circle shrunk too. I could talk only about work; there was so little else in my life. And I wasn’t exactly working on the latest blockbuster Supreme Court decision. I was occupied with the daily frustrations of email, the angry partner down the hall, the broken printer. No one outside my office building cared.

I lost friends. Trying to see them was an unfunny joke because I always had to cancel at the last minute. The friendships before law school — my closest, most interesting friendships — were the ones hit the hardest.

Spiritually, my circle of compassion shrank as well. It was harder and harder to care about others. People on the street became obstacles to avoid, nothing more. I felt guilty meditating because I wasn’t checking my work email for 20 minutes.

My emotional range shrank because I numbed myself to how I felt. I couldn’t allow myself to cry. I forced everything deep down. But I spent so much energy numbing the bad emotions that I numbed the good ones, too. I don’t think you can turn down the volume on select emotions. It’s more like a master volume knob, and the entire frequency range of emotions gets dialed down.

One night, I broke down in the work bathroom. It was late and most people had gone home, so thankfully no one walked in. I wouldn’t blame anyone for crying in that bathroom, but I knew then that I had shrunk too much. I had to quit.

I didn’t stop shrinking immediately when I left that job. It’s a more gradual process, like healing after a broken bone. That healing process builds strength the same as lifting any weight. It’s not something that belongs on a to-do list. It has to be repeated, over and over.

I began, slowly, to expand. I’ve become excited about experiences again. I’m free to expand into my emotions. I can admit that I’m scared.

This expansion wouldn’t have happened if I had just gone to another law firm. (They’re all mostly the same, anyway.) No, I had to jettison that entire shrunken existence. I had to create my own version of success, one that allowed me to embrace my passions.

Now, I stand up taller. I don’t let myself shrink or be cowed. I expand.


Joseph Castelli practiced mergers and acquisitions in New York City and studied at NYU School of Law. Before that, he taught English in South Korea for three years, hiked and meditated in the Himalayas, and competed in powerlifting competitions. He now writes at Esquire No More.


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