As a young lawyer I struggled with something I called “Sunday night disease.” Sunday night disease was my euphemism for the anxiety I felt anticipating the upcoming week. I know I was not alone. When a friend of mine became a Judge, I congratulated him and he told me that the best part of assuming the bench was the redemption of his Sundays–they were no longer miserable. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to a podcast by Tara Brach who spoke about conquering the fear of failure, and it occurred to me that Sunday night disease was just performance anxiety caused by fear of failure. And it can be conquered.
Tara defines fear of failure (or FOF) as a fear of inadequacy; a fear of not being good enough or up to the impending task. A variation of that fear is a fear of not being prepared. It was only a few years ago, over thirty years after I graduated from college, that I stopped having a recurring nightmare about not being prepared for final exams. Tara describes this fear as programmed into our reptilian brain as a prehistoric survival mechanism. I guess it was a way for our ancestors to anticipate tigers lurking outside the cave. In any event, fear of failure is ingrained in all of us, but magnified in lawyers. The adversarial legal system is the modern day equivalent of the prehistoric tiger prowling in the shadows.
So how to respond?
- First acknowledge the anxiety. Relax and allow it. By trying to block it out, you will only make it worse and then it will gnaw at your subconscious. Write down anything bothering you to get it out of your head.
- Take time on Sunday to review your week and make lists to help prepare for the upcoming challenges. Plan ahead but don’t overthink it.
- Take some time to visualize any project, court appearance or meeting that is distressing you. When visualizing the upcoming week, don’t focus on achieving a particular result but rather your performance. The more you focus on your performance rather than a particular outcome, the less fear will imprison you. And ironically, the less you fear, your performance will improve and increase the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.
- As an alternative, the Roman Stoics would intentionally visualize negative results to prepare themselves for a possible loss. By doing so, they would analyze how to compensate for “worst case’ and develop a plan just in case.
- Keep perspective. When the great trial lawyer David Boies was asked about the possibility of a loss, he commented, “Why should I worry? Because I might lose? That’s the worst thing that could happen to me?” It is not our life. Do the best you can and move on to the next case. Losing is not the end of the world, even if your client may be disappointed. We are not guarantors of a particular result, only doing the best we can with the facts and the law as they exist.
- Once you make your best argument, let it go. It is no longer within your control. Accept the result, good or bad, and plan for the next action. Remember, nobody can predict the long term implication of any action, even something perceived today as a loss. It may ultimately lead to a greater triumph!
Through better planning and by keeping a big picture perspective you can keep the tigers away from the cave. Remember to stay positive and also remember all of the past “anticipated” catastrophes that never materialized. Sunday night disease is curable if you accept it and think your way through it.