If there’s one thing my clients all have in common, it’s what I call the habit of catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is the tendency, often unconscious, to always assume the worst possible thing could or will happen. In other words, to always be imagining catastrophes.
You get a new assignment at work, and you immediately start worrying about screwing it up. Your kid goes on a school trip, and you can’t stop thinking about everything that could go wrong. You go on a great first date, and then you spend the next week imagining all the ways you could get hurt. Your parents don’t answer the phone for two days and you’re mentally listing hospitals to call to check on them.
This mental habit destroys peace of mind, produces frequent or constant anxiety, and drains your brain of energy to do other things. But the most insidious thing about catastrophizing is that it masquerades as being a productive thing to do. Your brain tells you that imagining all the things that could go wrong in any given situation is actually helpful because then you can be prepared.
Lawyers are particularly prone to catastrophizing because learning to catastrophize is one of the first things you’re taught in law school. It’s not called that, of course. It’s called “contemplating all possible eventualities” or “hypothesizing all potential forms of liability,” or some other phrase of legal-speak. But it’s catastrophizing nonetheless.
Now let’s be clear: When it comes to drafting a contract or planning your trial strategy, thinking about all the ways things could go wrong is useful. Not doing it could even be malpractice in some cases. But the problem is that you learn this skill all too well – and no one ever mentions that it needs to be contained, or teaches you how to do that.
Like a medicine that can be poisonous when used in the wrong dose or too often, catastrophizing can be a helpful tool to use in your practice, but it can also overwhelm your brain, leak into your personal life, and begin to color your view of everything around you.
The immediate result is frequent unease, worry, and often full-blown anxiety. And the long-term less obvious results are rigidity, fear of change, and avoidance of healthy risks. When you’re a catastrophizer the unknown is exhausting because it brings up a whole new set of worries – so you start to avoid the unknown. Lawyers think they are risk averse by nature, but in fact it’s a very specific set of thought patterns that make you fear risk and change, and catastrophizing is one of them.
The good news is that you learned how to think this way and you can learn to change it too. (Even if you were naturally inclined in this direction before law school, I can promise it’s gotten much worse since you started your career). So how can you turn it around?
The first step is awareness. Simply noticing that your brain is catastrophizing will help you get a little bit of distance – you start to see that if your brain reacts to every single thing with this tendency, it just might be a way of thinking and not an objective list of possible outcomes.
The second step is learning to engage with that thought pattern and slowly start to change it. You can practice talking back to your brain and pointing out that it has no way of knowing that any of these terrible things will happen – and in fact that good things might happen instead. With awareness and engagement you can retrain your brain to harness the catastrophizing pattern and use it only when it will be helpful. Remember, you’re the boss of your brain, not the other way around!
P.S. If you haven’t grabbed my free guide to how to tame your lawyer brain yet, you can sign up for it at the top of any page on my website – the entry on catastrophizing will give you several practical exercises you can do to start reversing this thought pattern today!