Here’s the cure for legal overthinking: make the best decisions you can as a family lawyer, and let your mind rest. You will live longer and happier.
By James Gray Robinson, Consultant and Speaker
There are two kinds of lawyers, those that know they overthink, and those that are in denial. There are many ways to describe “overthinking.” “Analysis paralysis,” “worst case scenario thinking,” “second guessing,” and “mental masturbation” are synonyms that give some perspective to the problem. The term “overthinking” usually applies to problem solving and decision making, to the point that it affects your quality of life. Legal questions, life questions, relationship questions and family questions arise every day. Over thinking prevents us from initially making a decision and then causes us regret and feel shame if the results don’t live up to expectations.
The practice of law rewards perfection and punishes error. In wrestling with the fear of getting something wrong, lawyers can lay awake at night with over-active imaginations of all of the things that may happen based on any given scenario. This causes anxiety and stress at every level. I often felt that my obsessive compulsive disorder made me a better lawyer, but it sure made my mental life hell. Thorough consideration and contemplation is certainly well advised when dealing with legal strategies, clients and adversaries. When it interferes with your emotional and mental health, not to mention sleep and well-being, it is best to learn how to balance risk avoidance and intuitive thinking. After all, over- thinking is risk avoidance, intuitive thinking avoids over thinking.
The Cure for Legal Overthinking: Here’s What You Should Know
Attorneys do it all the time. They interpret body language, facial expressions, words and phrases to determine what the other side (or the client) is thinking. Do you fall into the trap of reading the other person’s mind? This is over thinking. It is one thing to find out what the other person wants, but it’s quite another to assume what the other person wants, especially when it is at 3am and you are staring at the ceiling. So don’t worry about what the other side is thinking. Focus on what you are thinking and look for the flaws in your logic. Don’t assume how a judge, a jury or your spouse will respond, make sure you are acting with integrity. Then you can sleep at night.
No Regrets or Self-Abuse
Simply put, if you beat yourself up or criticize yourself, you are doing it wrong. If you have a law license, you are smarter than the average bear. So intelligence is not the problem. If there was something you need to do better the next time, just do it better the next time. I call this the Darwin You; either learn from your experiences and evolve or you quit practicing law and teach. I learned more from the cases that got unexpected results than the ones where I got what was expected — that is the beauty of unexpected results. You didn’t get an unexpected result because you didn’t do something wrong, you got the unexpected results because you didn’t have enough experience. I subscribe to the John Daly (golfer) maxim, “just grip it and rip it!”
Every lawyer should have a gym membership and a personal trainer named Sven or Gretchen. The more thinking that you do has to be balanced by physical exertion. I could cite study after study that describes the benefits of endorphins, melatonin and serotonin that are secreted into your brain during and after exercise. This has nothing to do with physical appearance, it has everything to do with mental health. It is impossible to overthink when you are gasping for breath. I have a theory that sitting in a chair analyzing every possible detail fills your brain with mouse turds. Exercise helps clear those cobwebs out.
Ask the Question
Many times lawyers try to outthink other people, rather than simply ask them what they are thinking. This especially applies to clients, family and friends. When we need to know something in order to plan, make decisions or strategize, it is best to ask rather than figure it out on your own. I often asked my clients in the initial interview: “What is the other side going to say about you?” That is a great way for your client to open up about the weaknesses you are going to have to deal with without you having to figure it out at 3am. It works equally as well with family and friends, because the answer to “what aren’t you telling me” gets to the heart of the matter pretty quickly. I am not sure why this works so well, but it gives the other person the chance to come clean without admitting they have done something wrong. If you can ask the question in a kind, loving way, they will not feel threatened and can open up.
Just like putting a child in “time out” when they are being unruly, you can put your mind in “time out.” This can be five minutes of meditation regularly and repeatedly during the day, or set aside a set period of time you have to think of something pleasant, like what you will do when you win the lottery. When you think positive thoughts, it sets up mental patterns that will help you when you are overthinking. It gives you a vacation from yourself. This comes in really handy when you are in an argument with a loved one that is going nowhere. Call a time out, go think of something pleasant, and then return to the discussion. Your partner will appreciate the fresh mindset and positive thinking you are bringing to the equation.
When we learn to think without over analyzing everything we can live a much happier, more effective life. Motives are not questioned, we don’t assume everyone is out to make our life miserable. Give yourself a break, allow other people to have different opinions. Accepting other people just the way they are allows them the opportunity to do the same. You don’t have everything the way you want, give the universe the opportunity to improve on that. When you “grip it and rip it”, you may lose the ball, or you just might hit it farther than ever before. Make the best decisions you can, and let your mind rest. You will live longer and happier.
James Gray Robinson was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. You can learn more about his work by visiting www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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