The practice of law can feel like a solitary pursuit. As barristers, we judge our performance on a daily basis, we ‘eat what we kill’ and often consider ourselves to be only as good as our last case. In short, we are harsh self-critics.
Aside from the glorious victories, there are times when we doubt the quality of our submissions, the effectiveness of our cross-examination and our ability to ride the choppy waters of self-employment. Notwithstanding experience, expertise or sheer enthusiasm, the reality is that sometimes we are brought to our knees by the sound of our critical voice telling us that we’re not good enough or quick enough to make it at the Bar.
As members of a profession famed for its fearless pursuit of justice, we rarely discuss the tone or content of this inner critical voice – something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree. So what is it, how can it affect us as practitioners and how might we seek to tame it – to some extent at least?
A familiar tune?
The inner critical voice is perhaps best described as the familiar negative tune that the mind starts to hum in order to remind us of how inadequate it deems us to be. It’s the voice of disgust or disappointment that can appear almost audibly like a soundtrack on repeat. It’s the judgemental way we speak to ourselves in a tone we would never use with a friend. We live alongside it and end up depleted or exhausted by its content. The inner critical voice can inhibit our professional development as advocates by persuading us to shy away from particular cases, positions and appointments. It is often a symptom of stress or exhaustion.
In the workplace, the critical voice might try to convince us that we’re not popular or that we will never attain the professional heights we seek. It might whisper to us that ‘life is elsewhere’ and that we’re not good enough to get what we think we want, in order to feel satisfied. Some people view it as a necessary evil to drive them on to achieve better results, but in reality, it serves only to reinforce a sense of unworthiness. No one is immune from the critic’s ability to diminish self-esteem and impact negatively on rational decision-making.
How do we seek to tame it?
The first step is to notice its arrival. This is easier said than done as we’re so used to it being an intimate part of who we are that we rarely question its existence.
This is where the practice of mindfulness can help. Mindfulness has existed for thousands of years and involves paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose. It’s about dropping into our present moment experience and being aware of what we’re doing, while we’re doing it, with a non-judgemental attitude. It’s about experiencing the ‘here and now’, rather than hankering after how we would like life to be.
The practice of mindfulness trains us to observe our thoughts as they arise, without over-analysing or over-identifying with them. At its core, it invites us to approach life with an attitude of gentle curiosity and kindness towards ourselves.
Mindfulness can be practised in different ways. One way is to learn mindfulness meditation, which involves paying attention to your moment-to-moment experience with acceptance, patience and kindness to yourself. Another way is to use ‘daily mindfulness practices’. These are instances where you pause, breathe and bring moment-to-moment awareness to an aspect of your everyday life, such as the brewing of your tea or the taking of your morning shower. By pausing in this way, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the sensation of the water as you take in your experience fully.
Just as it helps us to notice the coming and going of our thoughts and strong emotions, mindfulness can also help us to notice the moment our inner critical voice starts to speak. Rather than automatically believing its content, we begin to recognise that our inner critic may be unhelpful, hurtful or even inhibit our progress if we pay too much attention to it.
In short, mindfulness helps us to develop a greater awareness of what we tell ourselves and whether or not it’s true – or fair. It enables us to step out of stress mode (‘fight-flight-freeze’ mode) and engage what’s known as our parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and digest’ mode). This reduces the harmful levels of stress hormones released into the body when the fight-flight-freeze response is activated. Engaging this part of the nervous system is a reliable way of regulating the impact of stress.
Befriend your mind
So, the next time your inner critical voice appears, whether it’s in chambers, in court or on the tube, see if you can hear what it says, notice how often it visits and how it makes you feel.
You might want to label it in some way, such as ‘negative voice telling me I’m not good enough’ or ‘self-defeating voice of doom before I’ve even started’. In response, choose to acknowledge its presence and gently invite it to leave. Noticing how vicious your own commentary can be often provides a much needed moment for reflection.
Ultimately, by befriending your mind and understanding its habits, you become less vulnerable to the impact of your inner critical voice when it starts to speak up and less prone to being trampled by the demands of your own perfectionism.
Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister at the chambers of 9 Bedford Row. She is also the founder of Practical Meditation (www.practicalmeditation.co.uk) and author of Mindfulness at Work and Home (Reddoor Press, 2019). Gillian designs and hosts in-house workshops at law firms and chambers on mindfulness in the workplace. Contact: Gillian.firstname.lastname@example.org