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EXJ Conversations:

On Career Change, Mindset, and Mindfulness

Juan Velez, DNP, MSN                                                  Director, Licensed Professionals Program Sierra Tucson
Nancy Stein, Lawyer & Journalist

Ex judicata’ s Nancy Stein sat down with Psychiatric Nurse Juan Velez for a wide-ranging discussion on career change, mindset and mindfulness with topics including:

  • The difference between burnout and stress
  • The difference between stress and low self-esteem
  • The value of a mentor being in direct proportion to your own honesty
  • What does mindfulness actually mean?
  • Giving yourself grace


Juan Velez on Adapting to Your New Career

Juan Velez on Examining Goals

Juan Velez on the Difference Between Burnout and Stress

Juan Velez on the Meaning of Mindfulness

Listen to conversation:

NS: So, Juan, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk. You have such a great background as a psychiatric nurse practitioner working with patients on mental health, behavioral issues, and emotional issues. We thought you’d be perfect to give us some guidance for people who are looking to leave law and go into another career.

People always think about the financial aspects, but there are the emotional and psychological aspects that they tend to kind of ignore. So, from a mindset perspective, how should one prepare for making a career change? What should people be doing?

Juan Velez: Nancy, thank you very much for inviting me. Yes, my name is Juan Velez. I’m a doctoral-trained psychiatric nurse practitioner and speaking to you today is a pleasure. Let me start by saying that the first consideration is to remember why you went into the law in the first place. Was it to help people, make a difference, create, or be part of something? Maybe you felt pressured by previous generational expectations or feel obliged to reveal the truth, according to the law. Whatever the reason, spend some time going back and thinking about why you went into law. Take a moment to be with yourself. Changing careers is a huge challenge, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming challenge. Identifying alternative fields that appeal to you can provide you with accomplishments that you may have been missing for years.

Talk to people. Ask them what’s important to consider at this stage of your life. Do your own research; then decide if you have completed what you set out to accomplish working in law. If you haven’t, ask yourself what you have accomplished up until today. Ask yourself whether that’s enough. Be honest about it.

Then, go back and think about the results. But please be honest with yourself and find your balance.

NS: That’s the thing. People have to be honest with themselves. Very often, you think it might be a desire for a career change, but maybe you’re just burned out. Maybe it’s just the work you don’t like. Maybe it’s the firm you don’t like. How does one know whether it’s burnout or it’s a desire for real change?

Juan Velez: So, we need to identify what’s the difference between burnout and stress. They are very similar in terms of feelings, but burnout starts slowly. Often, as it builds, it may result in increased sleep disturbances. Many times, physical symptoms will manifest, including GI or gastrointestinal discomforts or headaches. Mental or emotional symptoms such as feelings of isolation are common. You might start leaving your job early and experience anxiety about not finishing tasks. You may even have reduced performance and low motivation.

Low self-esteem and stress are very similar, but there is a big difference. If it’s work-related stress, we tend to be more relaxed when we’re outside our work environment. We tend to seek those connections either with family or people we know or love outside the firm.  So, I recommend allowing yourself time to escape from the reality of your career and go into that daily questioning. Have a plan for how you will be able to unplug yourself from work, de-stress, and find a balance between your mental, physical, and psychological health. Of course, something that we need to be clear about is if you are engaged in any addictive behavior, alcohol, or drugs for instance, and struggling also with mental health to the point that it’s debilitating, I highly recommend that you seek professional help.

NS: Absolutely. You have to have your head in the right place. You want to assess your situation when you’re at your best. If you’re struggling with addiction, you’re not where you need to be and you won’t be successful when you seek to make a change. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense and sometimes you just shouldn’t make a change.

With that aside, assuming you feel you’re ready to make a change, what should you be looking at when considering work options? You mentioned earlier that you should consider what your goals were in getting into law and maybe tie in those goals and those interests when seeking a new career. What else will help you as you consider your next career?

Juan Velez: What I always recommend is to find people, a mentor, or somebody that you trust and you feel safe sharing your feelings with. Be mindful of where and to whom you disclose your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, we’re afraid to disclose plans or career changes because that can hinder or influence what people say. Sometimes, people say, “I’m just asking for a friend.” It’s very important for us not only to find out what our strengths are but also in which areas we need improvement. We also need to be sure that we have a balance between our physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and psychological selves, as well as balance in our interpersonal relationships and interactions.

NS: It’s interesting that you say that. It’s great to find people who you can trust to really be honest with you, but then you also have to be open to hearing what they have to say. A lot of people are not. They’re in a state of denial, and that doesn’t benefit them at all. You have to be open, honest and accepting when people you trust share their thoughts.

There are often steps that people overlook in conducting a self-assessment. What do you find people often miss out on?

Juan Velez: I believe people fail to be truly honest with themselves. Also, sometimes, we are conditioned by certain biases. They may be social biases, family biases, or family traditions. Many times, we also have our own preconceptions based on things that we learned before coming to the career. Be open-minded and be clear. You can get great input. When making decisions about your career or your next step, it’s important to consider if it’s right for you. Will it likely fulfill your goals?

NS: You mentioned expectations and families. There’s often a sense of disappointing family members or feeling that you’re a failure because you or your parents spent all this money on law school and now you’re just going to drop your law career. Sometimes we project feelings, but sometimes those feelings are real. How does one cope with the feeling that they are disappointing those they love and respect? How does one address those feelings and move forward?

Juan Velez: The first thing to remember is that you have survived everything that you have faced. You’ve been great. There were no terrible failures. Focus on taking away from the experience you gained as a lawyer and use it to create opportunities to grow and expand your experiences. Give yourself grace. Don’t be too critical. Allow yourself time to adapt. It can take 9 to 12 months to feel comfortable in a new role, as a part of a new team, and in a new environment. It takes a good amount of time to acclimate to a new environment.

This is a major life shift. Give yourself an adequate opportunity not only to re-evaluate but also to look around and see what’s going on with you and to know whether a new job you are considering is the right opportunity for you. Remember what your goals are.

That’s very, very important. Sometimes, we place all our energy on accomplishing one particular goal. In doing so, we may miss many other opportunities. But many times, we also continue driving our own life like a Rolls Royce, only looking into the rearview mirror. Flip those mirrors and start looking forward.

NS: That’s an excellent point. It’s so true. You have to look forward. You have your history. But where do you want to go now? I also think sitting down with family members and being honest about where your head is at and what you’re struggling with is an important step. Explain why you feel you need to make a change. Make clear that you want and need their support. Have real conversations with the people in your life so they can understand your needs and can be supportive, I think people miss out on that a lot if they don’t get that information across. They’re trying to do it all themselves and they need help. So, enable people to support you.

How about some of the roadblocks, emotional roadblocks, psychological roadblocks, and others that people stumble over as they’re trying to determine what to do next and in making a change?

Juan Velez: The first thing that we need to do is to identify our values at an early stage of the process. Before I make any decision, it’s easier for me to adapt to the new situation if I have clear expectations and a clear baseline. Also, don’t change your values to meet or align with new opportunities. Be sure that those opportunities fulfill your core values. Set and respect your boundaries. You will never be out of alignment if you operate based on what is most important to you personally and professionally.

NS: I think mindfulness is certainly important in managing stress and making intentional decisions. Don’t just act emotionally, understand where you’re coming from and what your concerns are. Then find strategies with those things in mind. Practicing mindfulness is going to be something I think is key. But before we go further, we hear a lot about mindfulness, but many people don’t really get it. So what can you tell us about mindfulness?

Juan Velez:  Mindfulness is when we are present. It’s about taking a daily self-inventory. We are so concerned about these electronic devices these days and how to recharge them, but we forget how to recharge ourselves. So the first thing I recommend is to wake up and look at yourself in the mirror give yourself a little pat on your back, and ask yourself how you’re feeling. We need to establish a baseline. We tend to believe that nothing less than 100% is good enough, but many times, 100% is an unrealistic goal.

So create your range of operation, our threshold regarding your productivity. Be kind to yourself, kind to others, and aware of the things you need to do in order to recharge yourself. Maybe it’s going for a nice cup of coffee. Maybe it’s going for a massage or a walk, spending time with your dog, those types of things. Also, recognize that, as humans, we are social creatures. We depend on interactions with others and feedback from others in order to improve ourselves emotionally.

NS: My grandmother used to always say, “Count your blessings. Actually write them down and then you can write down your problems too. When you do, you’ll see that there’s so much more to be thankful for.”And, you know, problems find a way of working themselves out. You put the energy in, but don’t let them be the master of your life.

Juan Velez: Right. Don’t let them define you.

NS: Exactly. Don’t let them define or control you and how you feel about yourself.

Juan Velez: We don’t go around to people and say, “Hi, I’m diabetes” or “Hi, I’m cancer.” But we tend to use psychiatric diagnoses as an identity. We tend to go around and say, “Hi, I’m depressed.” And people say they’re depressed when they really aren’t. They may feel less motivated or feel they have less energy than on another day. Allow yourself wiggle room to feel your feelings. Experience your emotions, but do not let them define you.

NS: I think it’s important to understand that feeling sad is not depression. Depression is a clinical term and sometimes you should be sad. You’re right to cry and feel sad when you’re going through a difficult time, a family member’s death, a job loss, or a broken engagement. Understanding that and being mindful is really key to being able to get through whatever the problem is.  I often say you can’t go around problems; you must go through them. That’s essentially what it comes down to. But sometimes, you just feel trapped or helpless. What are some strategies to help when you start to feel paralyzed?

Juan Velez: Again, don’t be defined by others or by your feelings. It’s okay to feel the feelings but it’s not okay to allow them to define you. Working through feelings instead of avoiding them or not being able to feel them helps you move on to remove those roadblocks that we often create for ourselves, like that feeling that we’re not good enough. We are good enough. We’re survivors. It’s the reason we’re here and it takes a lot of small wins to be successful.

Sometimes, we allow our spouses, our boss, team members, our own biases, or our parents to define us. Be clear about whose disappointments they are. If those disappointments aren’t yours, don’t allow them to become yours. Consider your feelings in the planning stages of a career change. It’s okay to be in a low mood today, but that doesn’t mean that that will break you.

NS: Right. We all have bad days. Having a game plan helps. Knowing how you’re going to go about things. Here’s where I am now. Here’s where I want to end up. What are the steps I can take? In that way, you can see that you’re moving forward. Recognize that change takes time. It may not happen today, tomorrow, or even in a week or two. It may take a period of time. Being open and accepting of that fact, not putting too much pressure on yourself, can help greatly. I think those are areas where lots of people just fail.

Years ago, during the recession, I was giving a lecture about positivity. A lot of people lost their jobs. I asked the lecture attendees “What’s the first thing you should do when you lose a job?” People said, Go online, start looking for a new job, work on your resume . . . .” I said, “No. First, sit down and cry. You’ve had a loss. You have to grieve first.” Once you can get through the grieving, you can take steps forward. That’s when you can put together a list and a strategy. That’s when you can think through what you want, call friends, and let people know that you’re looking for a position. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, what interests you, and where you want to be in a few years. All of that, I think, really does help people. I think people need steps to take, a plan of action. We talked a bit about self-care. You mentioned going for a massage or doing something else that makes you physically feel good, helps you psychologically.

Juan Velez: Allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to decompress and regulate is an important step. Something else I want to add is do not let yourself lead by fear. Lead with courage, with vulnerability. Embrace the fact that you can take charge and own your agency. Agency is having your voice but also being aware of the consequences. Don’t look back and beat yourself up for mistakes. Go back to identify opportunities to grow. Try it again and again. See what you discover.

NS: Right. You can’t just give up. It’s like when you want to get married. You can date dozens and dozens of people before you find the right one. You’re not going to marry each of them. It’s the same with a job. It takes time to really understand what you want, where you want to end up, what your strengths are, what your desires are, and what type of lifestyle you want. So all of those are considerations that I think people need to consider. I think people get overwhelmed by the stress and uncertainty. What are some strategies for dealing with that stress and uncertainty?

Juan Velez: I would say mindfulness is a powerful tool. Take time to meditate. Take time for yourself, time to be present. Conduct a self-inventory, and make sure Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is fulfilled.[1] Having a sleeping hygiene and exercising are important and helpful in managing stress and uncertainty. Multiple studies confirm that little tweaks can have a dramatic impact. So, if you smoke cigarettes, for example, being active and cutting two cigarettes per day can expand your lifespan by up to five years.

Actually, you can regulate your system in ways that decrease activation, which can also decrease inflammatory processes. Again, mindfulness and presence make a difference. One of the most beautiful things is seeing yourself as a quilt, those beautiful blankets that are passed through generations. They have multiple colors, multiple fibers, and multiple shapes. So we don’t have to see that quilt as a bunch of separate pieces. We have to see it as beautiful and appreciate the comfort it brings us. See it as a whole. We should see experiences that way, too. Don’t get stuck just by minimizing one thing or another. Be kind, flexible, open-minded, and vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a weakness; it’s the new sexy.

NS: I like that. We are vulnerable and that’s OK. You have to be prepared for rejection and deal with the rejection. You just need that one right job. It’s a competitive environment. So you need to steel yourself for rejection. That’s where mindfulness is really going to be key. Look at experiences in the context of your life, as a whole, and learn from each experience.



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