The Mistake Spiral

The most common thing I see among associate attorneys is the fear of making mistakes.

As attorneys, we can become so paranoid about making a mistake that we put a tremendous about of pressure on ourselves. Our minds are filled with nonstop nasty chatter:

Don’t make another mistake

You have to get this right

This has to be perfect this time

You can’t miss anything this time

They all think you are an idiot

Maybe you shouldn’t have become a lawyer

You don’t have what it takes

Not only are you frustrated over the last mistake but now all that noise makes it even more difficult to focus and do a good job.

As a partner, I always knew when an associate was spinning in this fear. They were taking longer to do everything. They were agonizing over the smallest details. The result of all their mental berating was that they usually ended up missing the big picture and billing a ton of time in the process. What’s more, those associates rarely reached out for help before they got too deep. It was incredibility frustrating.

When you spin in self-doubt, self-judgment and pressure to do everything perfectly, you are demonstrating to those around you that you have some doubts about your ability to do it right. When you allow one mistake to send you into a tailspin, it makes it difficult for those around you to have confidence that you believe in your abilities; that you can handle feedback or that you can operate under pressure.

What’s more, that self-doubt spiral convinces you that you can’t reach out and ask questions for fear that it will affirm to others that you DON’T know what you are doing. You end up going down rabbit holes and over-analyzing the wrong details. Ultimately, everyone’s time is wasted and the project drags on.

How’s that working out for your work relationships or your confidence?

It is a never-ending death spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies.

What’s so interesting to me is that below the surface of all these thoughts and pressure is the belief that this path was easier for everyone else. That others didn’t struggle as much as you are.

Why are you choosing to believe that your struggles are special?

Why are you allowing your growth and development to be a sign that you are broken?

Consider the possibility that those around you similarly struggled. You don’t know that they didn’t yet you are CHOOSING to believe that is the case.

At this point in your career, I think we can ALL agree that law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer. Your legal education was no different than anyone else’s. All attorneys wander the morass and confusion fog for YEARS before it clicks. You are not special in this regard!

The root of all those self-doubts and mistake spirals is the ultimate fear of failure. Below each overworked project and overly analyzed email is the fear of what it means when you make a mistake. And further, what it means if you keep making mistakes:

You can’t hack it.

You weren’t meant to be an attorney.

You made a mistake.

You shouldn’t be here.

That sneaky little worry is bubbling below the surface of all of those self conscious acts. You are afraid that those mistakes, when taken in total, are an indication that you can’t do this. From there, you build up these crazy expectations of perfection and try to think clearly and rationally from a place of frenzied panic and tremendous pressure.

It’s no wonder you keep making mistakes! How the hell are you supposed to do a good job when all you are thinking about is how you aren’t doing a good job? It’s madness!

Perfectionism is for scared people.

Repeat that phrase. Live it. Breathe it. Believe it.

When you try to mold yourself into some perfect “out-of-the-box” ready to perform, legal wizard you are setting yourself up for failure.

Law school does not prepare you to practice law. Welcome to the first phase of your life where there are no clear guidelines, metrics are fuzzy, and you have to just start trusting that you are doing it right.

Stop beating yourself up for signing up for the “on site” education that is the practice of law. That is how it works. Allow yourself to experience the process of learning on the job just like every associate attorney on the planet.

One small mistake does not mean that you are not cut out to be a lawyer. Do not let that mistake stoke the fires of fear and propel you into a frenzy.

You are a human. You will mess up.

Welcome to the party.

You want to do a good job and you want to improve and that is commendable. But first, you must do a good job for yourself. Honor the process of on-the-job development. Recognize that you don’t know it all and THAT IS OKAY. No one does.

Second, ditch your ridiculous expectations for yourself and get to work learning how to trust yourself and your judgment despite some bumps in the road.

Besides, what’s the alternative?

Where is all this worrying and fear getting you? What does it hurt to loosen up a bit and just keep rolling with the punches and using each mistake as a learning opportunity? An opportunity to honor yourself, have your own back, and learn.

The only thing you are learning when you continually run the cycle of negative self-talk is how to treat yourself terribly.

There isn’t room for much more and there certainly isn’t room left for growth. Recognize where your current patterns are leading you and decide if that is what you want. The choice is yours.

I help my clients get more confidence, roll with the punches, and have some compassion for themselves. Sound like something your practice is missing? Get some free support now and see what we can do together.


Photo by Axel Vandenhirtz from Pexels

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