New Zealand Law Society - “Overthinking Perfectly”

“Overthinking Perfectly”

Overthinking and perfectionism may sound like pre-requisites for legal practice. But clinical psychologist and author Gwendoline Smith discusses the long-term impacts of this mode of operation. She provides practical tips for legal brain health.

I occasionally have members of the legal profession in my practice. Not as many as there theoretically ‘should’ be, but the reluctance to seek psychological assistance is of course reflected in the mental health statistics within the profession. Not forgetting taking the award for the most suicides of any profession, toppling the Dentists who held the position for many years. Statistically lawyers are over-represented amongst the professions in the following categories; depression, burn out, anxiety and problematic drinking.

When lawyers do present for help, (which they are cautious of doing in case it appears on their employment records) there are two main themes – Overthinking and Perfectionism.

I’ll never forget a consultation one afternoon. I had just identified for the client the above two cognitive behaviours as problematic.

He (the Lawyer) looked me straight in the eye and said:

“So you’re telling me that you would want to consult with and pay for a lawyer who didn’t overthink and wasn’t striving for perfectionism?”

A challenging question, and one which I will endeavour to answer in this article.

The first group of people who would prefer not to engage with a perfectionistic overthinker are; your spouse, your partner, your family and loved ones.

Because, it is this group that have to live with your irritability, your fatigue, often heavy drinking and obsessionality. They are the ones that witness the detrimental impact on your health, your mood and your psychological well-being.

However, you could be thinking “aren’t these two habits not the making of a good legal professional?”

The answer is “perhaps in the short-term.”

The impact of stress

I would like to start this discussion with a little educational spiel about the impact of stress and strain on your system and then we’ll focus more directly on how perfectionistic overthinking lubricate this ongoing erosion and breakdown of your psychological, physical and emotional well-being.

There was a debate in the literature for many decades as whether to use the word’ stress’ or ‘strain’ to describe the above phenomenon. Hans Seyle the founder of the science, wanted to name the response of the body to the demands placed on it – Strain. Eventually academics agreed to use the word stress to mean both stress & strain. I have a soft spot for the word ‘strain’ and Hans Seyle regretted the use of the word stress. Why? Because stress ended up with a whole lot of subjective interpretations that resulted in misleading judgement calls.

For Example:

  • ‘Positive’ stress is when you do adrenaline sports and you’re a hero.
  • ‘Negative’ stress is when you can’t cope, feel distress and hence are perceived as weak.

In my opinion this is why, many lawyers do not want to acknowledge that they are burning out or are stressed. Is the fear of being perceived as weak unable to cope and hence not a consideration for promotion or partnership opportunities.

‘Strain” on the other hand just is. It is neutral, there are no value judgements.

I use this metaphor to explain. Imagine two very large trucks. Tied on to each tow bar is a piece of rope. They both go in opposite directions and the rope is pulled, and pulled, and pulled – and because of the force the rope eventually breaks.

This is strain. It’s physics.

It is a fact. It just is. No judgements, no weaknesses, just fact. That is what strain is about. When you do things that you enjoy, or when you have to go through emotional experiences for things that you don’t enjoy, they all place strain on your system. As a result of strain, your system can shut down.

Your system will shut down eventually with prolonged exposure to strain/stress. The physical response becomes increasingly disabling the longer the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ survival mechanism is switched on.

The biological system overproduces adrenaline and cortisol the stress hormone. There is abundant research to evidence that excess cortisol will break down the immune system.

Think about the last time you decided to take a holiday because you were overloaded and overwhelmed by work demands. There you are tickets in hand bags packed, decide to sit down for a beverage, and all of a sudden notice a discomfort in your throat, slight coughing and sniffing. Yes, the beginnings of flu-like symptoms. Instead of champagne in business class, you’re grabbing for a nasal spray and throat lozenges.

The reason being is that now that your body has been told that you’re going on holiday, the cortisol that was keeping you going stops being produced. Bingo! Payback time.

Your head is attached to your shoulders

I emphasise this very rudimentary point as what many of you won’t realise, is that you can switch on this entire survival response with just ONE thought.

Particularly if the thought is fear-based and negative. Which brings us to the point of discussing the hazards of perfectionism and worrisome overthinking.

You see, perfectionism is based in fear. It is a fear of making mistakes, a fear of failure, a relentless pursuit of the unattainable. For perfectionism is an illusion, it is not a realistic goal. Excellence yes, perfect no.

Perfectionists are the ones that work and work, check and recheck and are constantly anxious during the pursuit of this deception. The perfectionists are more prone to health problems and burn out. Hence, albeit their goals to be the best, ever lawyer, are foiled by neurotic exhaustion.

The thought processes that accompany perfectionism are consistently turning on the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ mechanism. Sending fear-based messages to the amygdala (our survival brain). However, these messages are not life threatening they are to do with perceived catastrophe e.g: making a mistake is not life threatening at most it may cause discomfort.

Discomfort may be uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you.

Just Breathe and ride it out.

Which brings me to the subject of “Overthinking”

It is my clinical observation that ‘overthinking’ is the contemporary phrase for worry. This begs the question, “Is all overthinking problematic?” Clearly ‘no’. You may be spending a lot of time thinking about a case. You could be planning a surprise party for partner. This kind of thinking can be pleasurably stimulating, even though you may think about the same topic throughout the day and into the night. Overthinking. Yes – but a problem no. This I refer to as positive overthinking. I refer to negative overthinking as worrisome overthinking, and it is this cognitive habit that is responsible for some of today’s most common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Should you be concerned about your overthinking – here is the answer.

“Yes, if it is thinking that gets in the way of your ability to function’ — Dr. Robert Shieff, Psychiatrist

Let me explain. Worrisome overthinking draws on the definition of worry – “The prediction of negative catastrophic outcomes.”

Caution, scepticism & reality-appreciation are embraced in legal education. However, this type of thinking becomes maladaptive outside of work, and pessimism is shown to be a major risk factor for unhappiness and depression

Hence, your brain is constantly involved with forecasting the worst possible outcomes, Pessimism.

The important word here is ‘prediction’ which is essentially looking into a crystal ball, which at last look, none of us can do.

Here again lawyers are caught in somewhat of a Catch-22.

As pessimism encompasses what can be called a prudent perspective, which you are trained to implement. Caution, scepticism & reality-appreciation are embraced in legal education. However, this type of thinking becomes maladaptive outside of work, and pessimism is shown to be a major risk factor for unhappiness and depression. It is not a formula for being a happy human being, parent, partner, manager of people.

Hence the challenge for lawyers is to remain prudent professionally & contain pessimism outside of work. The other issue that comes to mind, is that it is not my understanding that you are taught people skills at law school. Yet, you so often are working with people at their worst, angry, distressed and often vengeful.

This article does not allow for specific strategies and skills to help you with the specific conundrums I have raised. Here are a few tips for legal brain health.

  • Set realistic internal goals – based on realistic capabilities and time commitments.
  • Accept mistakes – Zero tolerance for mistakes is a fantasy
  • Improve prioritizing
  • Accept that law is inherently stressful – accept not succumb
  • Effective stress management habits – exercise, meditate, socialising etc. etc.
  • Do not try to be everything to everybody
  • Remember – true professionals know when to ask for help and delegate responsibly.

If you want to learn more about the management of overthinking grab a copy of my book – “The Book of Overthinking” Allen & Unwin

Strain and Survival Response illustrations by Georgia Arnold and Gabrielle Maffey.

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