Fear of failure rather than celebration of inspiration imposes a heavy burden on mental health. Helen Pamely offers some mindful tips
‘The most important words you will ever hear are the ones you say to yourself.’
It’s 5pm on Friday, and just as you’re about to pour yourself a well-deserved and much anticipated G&T, that dreaded email you’ve been waiting for all
week invades your peace. Your heart sinks as your hopes for the evening, weekend and your sweet G&T evaporate just like that. But once you’re over the initial disappointment, the pressure to succeed and pull off the task in hand is pumping through your veins.
You need to smash this, you tell yourself. Except that you’re exhausted; you’re
not at your best after a long, heavy week. What is really driving you to succeed
at this moment is a deep-seated fear of failure. The stakes are high; do something wrong and you’ll know about it. You can kiss goodbye to that bonus, promotion, or general respect from your peers. A familiar inner voice pipes up: ‘If you don’t get this project completed perfectly by Monday morning then you’re a terrible lawyer and you’ll never make Partner.’ So you steadfastly press on and reclaim your seat at your desk.
What is this voice that wields so much power?
It is the ‘inner critic’—a voice with which we are all plagued. As high-achieving
individuals working in the hugely competitive environment we call law, it is loud and strong, but in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) it is considered responsible for ‘distorted thinking’ or ‘thinking errors’. Some common examples of this include:
- Black and white thinking. Characterised by terms like ‘every’ ‘always’ or ‘never’, eg ‘I never know the right thing to say…’.
- Catastrophising. Imagining the ‘worst case scenario’, eg, ‘if I don’t win
this pitch, I’m a failure’.
- Mental filter. Focusing on the negative and filtering out the positive,
eg dwelling on one negative comment rather than other positive feedback.
People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: they believe their success is largely down to luck, not their own talent. They believe if they perceive their achievements as ‘real’, then they might ‘slacken off’, and become failures. Fear of failure rather than celebration of inspiration imposes a heavy burden on mental health.
Learning about and working with these thought patterns is proven to be
extremely helpful in building the mental strength and resilience lawyers need to deal with stress, anxiety and depression (see, for example, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, https://bit.ly/3h6skwv). When we feel better, we do better. We have a general sense of wellbeing, raising our performance and efficiency at work. And the more razor sharp our minds are, the more we impress and win clients. We also become better team players and leaders, which makes for a more successful law firm overall.
Working with the inner critic
Through bringing our awareness to our mental processes we can learn to challenge our thoughts, eg how do we know a thought is true? What evidence is there to show it is fact and not opinion? What if the opposite were in fact true? When we do this we often find that the thought has no basis in reality. If we can see it for what it is, we weaken its power over us. It can help to write this down so we can clearly see written evidence of our false beliefs.
At first, it can be hard to recognise your inner critic’s voice as it is likely to be deeply entrenched in your way of thinking. Great tools for discovering and taming the inner critic are mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness (which is a foundation of meditation but can also be incorporated into just about any activity you do), is about bringing non-judgmental awareness to your mind, body and senses in the present moment, helping you to gain greater clarity, perspective and insight into the way you live and operate.
Through meditation and mindfulness practices you can learn to rewire your brain in order to break free from old thought patterns, allowing for new thoughts, more creativity and innovation. We tend to live our lives like pre-programmed robots reliving the same thought patterns day after day, but by focussing our minds through meditation we can create new neural pathways as we re-wire towards health.
Meditation also helps restore balance to the nervous system, allowing you to
recalibrate in the face of ‘fight or flight’ stress responses, so you can think more
clearly, and perform better. There is now a vast body of scientific evidence supporting the positive effects of regular meditation on wellbeing.
The next time you find yourself at the mercy of the inner critic, pause and try
this short meditation. You can hear an audio version of this on my website (www.therapywithhelen.com).
- Get yourself in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Take a slow, deep breath and notice how your body feels.
- Feel your feet on the ground.
- If thoughts arise, notice them, but try not to attach to them. Just relax and let them go.
- Allow your awareness to move up through your legs and hips and then on
to your back and shoulders, breathing into any tension you notice, allowing your muscles to relax.
- Gradually move your awareness to your arms and your hands and then finally to your neck and head.
- Take a final deep breath, notice how you feel, and feel yourself here in the
- When you’re ready, open your eyes.