I see a lot of articles, presentations, and books that promise to help lawyers “banish doubt,” “conquer fear,” or “overcome anxiety.” Though these pieces are usually offered with good intentions, they still trouble me. I’m a lawyer who practiced for nearly 15 years. I have also meditated for a decade and am now a trained mindfulness and compassion teacher. I’m a successful law firm partner, a leader in the bar and my community, and I recently published my first book. And I am afraid almost every day.
Even so, I would call myself a confident person. I have successfully tried trials and counseled clients through murky and high-stakes situations, led initiatives in my community and firm, and, through my writing, turned myself into a thought leader in the profession. Through all of this, fear is my constant friend. It’s always there in the background with a worry or a nagging thought or an icy pang in my stomach as I head into the next big thing.
The reason I’d call myself confident now is that the fear just comes along with me. In the early years of my law practice, it used to stop me dead in my tracks. A nasty thought would arise, something like “who do you think you are?” or “this is never going to work,” or “this is a waste of your time.” Then shame would set in, and I’d drop the new idea, delay working until the fear of a deadline forced me to rush the project to completion, or push ahead half-distracted, trying to pretend I wasn’t scared.
This is no way to live or work and certainly no way to thrive in the competitive legal profession. And yet I lived this way for years, until my anxiety pushed me so far that it became a depression that forced me to reevaluate my entire life. In the course of that reevaluation, I started a meditation practice that changed everything because it helped me break my fear down into component parts.
Have you ever heard a great business leader or genius say how they solved a really big problem? Most of the time, they say that they figured out how to break the project up into pieces and then they tackled one at a time. This is what meditation did for me. It helped me see the different pieces of my fear – thoughts, physical signs of stress, and emotions – and then it helped me build skills to accept and care for them.
The popular conception of meditation is that it is about having a clear mind and a calm body, but that’s not really how it works. The practice of meditation can help you cultivate this, but it does so by building mindfulness (awareness) and compassion (kindness). By focusing on the breath, feeling the sensations in your body, and actively wishing yourself and others well, you don’t banish fear or other normal human emotions. Instead, you build the skills to see them for what they are and greet them with kindness and acceptance.
So now, when nasty thoughts come to mind, awareness helps me see them and let them float. Sometimes I challenge them with logic because they are rarely 100% true and often totally false. Sometimes I identify them as “my doubt voice” which I now recognize merely as a signal of fear instead of the voice of reason. When this voice is accompanied by physical sensations, I let the feelings be there until they subside. I recognize that they happen because I’m doing something that matters to me. Then, if the fear tells me any useful information, I use it to motivate action by seeking help or support, more thoroughly focusing on an issue, or giving myself a pep talk.
When things work out, I look back and laugh at my doubt and add another item to the list of occasions when it was wrong. I recognize that I did something hard and scary and let pride wash over me for a moment. But, of course, things don’t always work out and that’s when mindfulness and compassion really help. In those cases, I let the feelings of disappointment, frustration, and sadness come and I greet them as a normal part of life for a human who doesn’t control all things and a lawyer whose job is dealing with risk. And I let the feeling of being cared for in a moment of suffering wash over me and know I can get up and move forward when I’m ready.
This, in my opinion, is real confidence. It’s not the absence of fear. I didn’t overcome anxiety; I never banished doubt. Instead, confidence is clarity about what fear is and the purpose it serves. Confidence is also acceptance of and care for myself when anxiety and doubt arise. It’s not a belief that I’ll always get good results, but it requires trust that I will have my own back no matter what happens.
Ultimately, confidence is not a fleeting emotion but faith in a process and oneself. Its literal translation means “with trust.” To trust yourself as a human and a lawyer, you don’t have to jettison all fear. Instead, you can start to notice how fear shows up for you and then you can learn how to care for yourself when it arises. Mindfulness and compassion can help you do this because they can help you see and accept yourself as you are. If you want a more confident future, stop trying to conquer your anxiety. Instead, the better route may be to learn to notice it first.