When You’re Nervous (Think Like A Lawyer)

Don’t believe everything you think. At least not straight away. 

I’ve been known to disappear inside the vortex of Netflix from time to time when I get particularly engrossed in a series. The television legal drama Suits is one of those series that has a way of reeling me back in. The quick witted banter between big time corporate lawyer Harvey Spector and his talented college dropout Mike Ross who manages to secure an associate position without ever attending law school is easy entertainment.

But I know you don’t care about my latest Netflix review so let’s get to the point.

One of the reasons I love watching this series is the epic showdowns that take place in the courtroom. There’s almost always a moment when a witness takes the stand with their testimony that threatens to unravel the entire case. You can feel the tension through the screen. Sometimes, you even start to believe them. You wonder how Harvey and Mike could ever come back from this…and then the cross examination starts.

A witness can appear to be telling the whole truth until they are challenged. Everything can seem true until it gets put under the microscope. When we get nervous, an instinctive thought or belief can feel true in our mind, but can it stand up to a cross examination? American jurist and expert in law John Henry Wigmore described cross examination as ‘the best legal engine ever created for the discovery of truth’.

When we are nervous, whether it’s before a big presentation or an uncomfortable conversation, we enter the court room of our mind and our thoughts get called to the witness stand. They state their case. It usually sounds something like ‘I can’t make a mistake’, ‘I can’t stuff this up’, ‘things need to go to plan?’ These are all perfectly normal thoughts, I think the problem is that we too quickly believe them.

What if the next time this happens you decide to ‘think like a lawyer’? What if, rather than just believing every thought, you choose to cross examine them? What if you decide to challenge the unhelpful beliefs or irrational thoughts? What if you call out the lack of evidence that these beliefs hold and put them under the microscope? That’s what I mean by ‘think like a lawyer’. 

Next time you’re feeling nervous here’s three ways to cross examine your thoughts. Ask yourself: 

1.   Is this thought helpful? 

2.   Is this thought logical? 

3.   Is there evidence to support this thought? 

If there’s no evidence to support it, if it’s not logical or if it just isn’t helpful, then it’s a thought to be reframed. These questions aren’t new, they are the foundation of most cognitive behavioural therapy approaches to challenging dysfunctional thinking. (If you want to learn more about CBT you can read Avy Jospeh’s book).

When you can get control over your thinking you’ll find that you have more control over your life. When your internal world is at peace it is very quickly reflected in your external world.

So next time you feel nervous, don’t believe everything you think too soon. Think like a lawyer and give it a good cross examination.