How To Deal With Negative Thoughts That Can Derail Your Trial and Your Life

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Someone recently asked me how he could increase his confidence when he starts to have “negative thoughts.” I found this question interesting and decided to post this answer based on my own personal experience. Perhaps you’ll find something you can relate to in what I wrote.

As a malpractice trial lawyer, I deal Negativity in the courtroom with negative events, negative thoughts, some negative people and just plain-old negativity on a daily basis. Working within the legal system as a litigator—a system intentionally designed to be adversarial—I’m exposed to an amount of negative-ness that likely far exceeds that which most people outside of a courthouse will ever experience. I once heard a lawyer remark that when a judge calls someone “counselor,” that the word counselor is a judicial code-word for “asshole.” Given that, who among us could avoid experiencing any negative thoughts when a judge bellows:

“Are you ready to proceed yet, COUNSELOOOR?”

Clearly, developing tools to deal with negative thoughts is critical for one’s survival as a trial lawyer. For those unable to do so, the levels of negativity have the potential to consume one’s entire life—both in and out of the courtroom.

So getting back to the question that was asked, I feel that increasing one’s confidence in the face of negative thoughts is a flawed question because it assumes that people who experience “negative thoughts” simply “lack a sufficient amount of confidence”. Instead, I have found that negative thoughts arise for a variety of reasons. Because of this, there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that will cure this issue for everyone, in every situation. Instead, I have found that an important step in overcoming negative thoughts involves acquiring a variety tools to help you deal with them whenever and however they arise.

Let me start by giving you an example of how I try to help others deal with their own negative thoughts in my work as a trial lawyer. A large part of my work as a medical malpractice attorney involves helping the families of patients who are killed by medical malpractice. These are called “wrongful death” cases within the profession. One of the things that I’ve discovered through working on so many of these cases over the years is that there is something called “survivor’s guilt” from which, so far, every one of my clients has suffered. Survivors guilt is a term that psychologists use to describe a complex—and universal—process of self-blame that surviving family members experience after the loss of a close relative.

This issue is extremely important to the work I do because the top insurance company defense lawyers are all being trained in how to exploit the feelings of “survivor’s guilt” held by surviving family members in order to help the hospitals and doctors win malpractice cases. In fact, the defense bar actually pays psychologists to appear at legal seminars and teach defense lawyers about this condition. Not only are defense lawyers taught about the existence of this condition, they are also trained in the ways to best capitalize on the family’s grief—and shown ways to subtly elicit admissions in front of the jury that demonstrate the “personal blame” which surviving family members bring with them into court.

Don’t think this is real? My jaw dropped the first time I asked a client about it. In a wrongful death case from surgical malpractice, I had a patient’s widow tell me that she felt personally responsible for the death of her husband that occurred “while he was having knee surgery.” The reason: she wasn’t at the hospital when it happened. It didn’t matter to her that she was on her way to pick up their two little kids from grade school. Nor did it matter that the kids, 5 and 8, had no other way to get home. She felt guilty for not being there—and because of that alone—she convinced herself that she’d played a role in the outcome of his surgery. So how do you think her non-verbal communication might have appeared to the jury if a defense lawyer were to ask her the following questions?

The surgery was scheduled for the afternoon?

That was on a Thursday?

And you weren’t working back then?

Now I’m sure you loved your husband and all, right? No question. And everyone’s sorry
for your loss.

But you weren’t actually there—at the hospital—when your husband went in for that
surgery. Right, ma’am? Just ‘yes or no,’ please.

Look at what has just happened. The defense lawyer seems to be acting in a polite way in front of the jury. He’s not being confrontational with the witness and is giving the outward appearance of a person who is both respectful and sorry for her loss. Meanwhile, he’s covertly carried out the work of someone who truly deserves a designated seat in one of the innermost circles of hell—which he will no doubt regale in later. Using the tricks the defense bar has taught him, he has manipulated an unsuspecting witness and pushed her to the verge of a major mental meltdown. What happens next could crush her case. If she falls for his ruse and acts compliantly, she’s likely to just faintly verbalize “no, I wasn’t there.” But at the same time, all of her survivor’s guilt and the negative feelings about the loss of her husband and her “not being there” has just gotten kicked-up and thrown right in her face. Through her non-verbal communication, all that guilt and baggage which she has been carrying around with her—as irrational as it may be—will now start screaming to the jury, “I’m to blame. I’m a bad person. I don’t deserve justice.” This kind of thing happens all the time, and lawyers leave court wondering why they didn’t get the result their clients deserve. The reason is because they don’t truly understand what it’s like to lose a close family member; they have never listened closely enough to someone who has; they haven’t heard of “survivor’s guilt” before; or any combination of the three.

I’m no psychologist so I can’t tell you why we feel guilt, blame, lack of confidence—or any other negative thoughts as a result of things we have no control over. For many of the people I’ve spoken to, it just seems to be part of the natural process everyone experiences when they survive a loved one’s death. These negative thoughts often become very personal to each person who suffers under their weight. And because they’re so personal, it doesn’t matter whether or not the thoughts make any objective sense. The negative thoughts are simply experienced as reality to those of us who have them—no matter how outlandish they really are to anyone else.

I have seen how detrimental negative thoughts can be, and I consider it my job to become aware of things like “survivor’s guilt.” My personal experiences have made sensitive to the suffering of others. And I hope that through my experience, I can help those who are just starting their journey. So, here are some tools that you might consider trying out in order to overcome the negative thoughts in your life—whatever they might be.

Immediate Changes –

6 Tools To Overcome Negative Thoughts

1. Get present. Negative thought patterns commonly occur when people get stuck either ruminating about something from the past (living in resentment) or worrying something in the future (living in fear of the unknown). When you recognize a negative thought, make a conscious effort to become “present.” It’s become well-accepted that the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. So once you’ve become present, it’s then impossible to remain trapped inside your head with those negative thoughts. Also, try to remind yourself that the only chance you have of affecting anything is happening in the present moment. So try to get, and stay, there.

2. Remind yourself that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. If you’re not getting what you want now, consider telling yourself that it’s because you will end up with something far better later. Accept that things might not happen on “your time” – or even the way you think they’re supposed to. But trust that they will work out for the best. Take comfort in knowing this. Then, each time it happens, celebrate it as sign of personal growth. More will be revealed.

3. Practice meditation—specifically, a form of meditation where you practice letting go of your thoughts. Sit and try to let all your thoughts go. When a negative thought comes up, release it. When a pleasant thought comes up, release it. Whatever thoughts arrive, practice releasing each of them. The practice of releasing thoughts during meditation will aid you in releasing negative thoughts in all other areas and aspects of your life.

4. When you recognize a negative thought, use it as a reminder to take action. You only need to ask yourself this one question: “What’s the next right action?” Then take it.

5. Practice acting your way into the right thinking, instead of thinking your way into the right action. Don’t just sit there waiting to feel motivated, confident, or even ready to act. Many people who wait to be in the perfect frame of mind to act never make it there. Instead, go on autopilot and just start taking action. Your mind will soon catch up with your actions and you’ll be on your way.

6. Throw yourself into service. Practice being useful both to others and to yourself. This doesn’t have to involve giant commitments of resources or energy. How many times do we ask a cashier at the market how he or she is – and really mean it? Who knows what kind pain others might be experiencing in their lives outside of their work? The genuine interest and smile you show in those couple of minutes might be the only caring or smile that person receives all day. It can also serve as an opportunity for you to practice “being present.” The question “how are you?” shouldn’t mean “you can now start ringing me up while I check my email on my cellphone.” Take a genuine interest in others – even if it’s just for those few moments. The skills you develop speaking and really engaging with others will also assist you in being more confident in other areas of your life. Finally, practice being kind to yourself by not repeating old patterns of negativity others have shown you.

Long Term Recovery –

Discovering the root cause of negative thoughts

In order to better understand how to most effectively deal with what you’re experiencing, you might want to consider that things we “internalize” may be rooted in something that started out as an external force in our distant past. Is there a history of criticism, shaming, invalidation, abandonment or lack of independence? For the most benefit, you may find it helpful to do some extra work and try to explore the genesis of what you’re experiencing. This may take some time, but it could also yield the best results.

Good luck!

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