Managing Self

Six strategies for dealing with fear, worry, and self-doubt

Written by Allison Wolf

Originally published on

As we journey through our professional careers, one valuable tool to acquire is a personal formula for overcoming the inner obstacles that often hold us back from taking on vital challenges, rich with learning and opportunity.

Fear and self-doubt don’t just come up for newly called lawyers, they also vex seasoned lawyers as well.

When I think back on this past year I remember of couple of my own brushes with these inner obstacles and the sinking, heavy, feeling that comes with them.

Oh no, I am not up for this.
I am going to fail this.
I am not delivering as I wanted too.

Either I feel heavy or frozen, or I feel a scattered and anxious energy urging me to take action, any action.

Through my training as a coach I have learned a series of practices to implement when these sorts of worries and fears crop up.

I will introduce each of these strategies with an experience from my own professional practice.

One morning I awoke from a nightmare about failing at a presentation I was scheduled to deliver to a group of lawyers later that day. I was caught up in self-doubt and fear and took the following approaches to get myself in a positive state of mind before the event:

  1. I started by naming the emotion and the cause:“I notice am feeling anxious about this presentation.”I didn’t say “I am anxious.” Instead, I made a verbal distinction, separating myself from the emotion, by saying “I notice I am feeling” anxious.This mindful distinction can help get us out of our fight/flight brain back into our executive centre.
  1. Get out of the story and into the physical experience:Our fears and anxieties are tied to our mental stories about not being good enough. It can help to turn off this mental noise by turning our attention to what is happening in the body.That morning, I paused to feel how I was physically experiencing the fear and anxiety.It feels like a hard knot in my solar plexus and a tightness in my shoulders.I took slow deep breaths as I connected to the physical experience. Slowing our breathing sends a message to our brain that we are starting to relax and can help lessen the fear response.The fear will often dissipate when quietly observed this way with a few slow, deep breaths.
  1. Don’t let your fear brain guide your actions:I noticed my inclination to start up the laptop and run through my notes again. My response to fear is “flight” which means I am driven to act when I am scared. This action usually isn’t helpful because, when experiencing fear, I am in the part of the brain called the amygdala, also known as our reptile brain, and it doesn’t usually have the best ideas about what to do.I already had the presentation down, and running through it AGAIN wasn’t going to help.Don’t make decisions when you are in a fear state.
  1. Get into motion or change location:Sometimes just changing your location can help send a signal to your brain to relax. Try taking a walk, or set yourself up in an empty boardroom to work. Or you can try doing something you enjoy like listening to some favorite music.That morning I chose to take five minutes to play with my dog outside.The strategy was to give myself a quick break to do something unrelated to the fear. Playing with the dog outside in the fresh air helped calm me down.
  1. Connect with a trusted person:Fear and shame thrive in the solitude inside our head. It can be very helpful to share what you are experiencing with a friend.I expressed my fears about the presentation to my close friend. She reminded me about what a good presenter I am, and how I often underestimate myself.If fear and self-doubt is tempting you to pass on a learning opportunity or challenge, talk with a close friend or mentor before making a decision.\
  1. Make a new mental map:The anxiety was still with me as I commuted downtown: You are going to bomb. You know this is a tough topic and associates have already heard it all before.I turned to my favourite fear-busting practice — neural re-mapping.I chose to name, quietly in my head, fifteen reasons why the presentation would go well. This strategy forced my thinking into some new terrain. I had to get out of the negative rut, and start mapping some new neural connections about why I was going to succeed.It worked. It took the entire commute to think of fifteen reasons, and by the last one I was feeling calm.This neural mapping exercise is a version of a “what went well” practice from the field of Positive Psychology and can be used in a variety of ways. There is no set number of positive things you need to list. In the standard “what went well practice” you just think of three things, but when using it to combat worry, I recommend upping the number.

    That morning on the train, fifteen felt right. Some days I might need fifty.

    When presented with a fear-inducing opportunity to take on a challenge that you suspect will be good for you and will promote your learning and development, try listing five reasons why you are up for the challenge.

    If you can, writing the list strengthens the practice, but when you can’t, listing in your head works fine.

Next steps:

The next time you feel afraid because you made a mistake, are worried about taking on a challenge, or for whatever reason, pull out these fear-busting practices.

  • Name the emotion and the cause.
  • Pause, and feel into it, while taking a few slow and steady breaths.
  • Don’t take fear-based action – wait until you are back in your smart brain to decide what to do.
  • Do something unrelated – take a short walk, stretch, change locations.
  • Tell a close friend or mentor about what you are thinking and experiencing.
  • Neural map – turn your attention to all the reasons, whether three, fifteen, or fifty, about why it is going to turn out well.

When we push ourselves to take on challenges, fear is a natural consequence. Put these practices to work to help you stretch out of your comfort zone into the scary territory where learning happens.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.