Managing Self

Think again – challenging catastrophic thinking

Written by Allison Wolf

Ever had one of these thoughts?

I have completely ruined this.

I’m hopeless at this.

I’m not cut out to be a lawyer.

These kind of pessimistic thoughts come up for many of us from time to time. They are known as “catastrophic thinking” when our mind turns adversity into overwhelming disaster.

The good news is that these thoughts are just that – thoughts in your mind. And you have the ability to change your mind.

The starting point with changing your mind is to embrace this key point: Don’t believe everything you think.

Once you know that your mind can play tricks on you, and you are willing to question your thoughts, you are well along the path to thinking again when the catastrophic thoughts arise.

One lawyer shared this story with me:

Several years ago, Colin was one of several defence counsel on a serious, large and lengthy trial.

In the course of the trial, Colin cross examined a witness and at the end of his cross, he asked the witness what he described a “one last question”, and got an answer he didn’t expect. In Colin’s mind, by asking that question, he had made himself look stupid and made the witness look good.

He thought his cross examination was horrible and he might have just lost the case. He was so overcome by emotion that he could barely function for the rest of the day.

At the end of the day Colin spoke to his co-counsel, expecting to hear something like “you shouldn’t have asked that question”, but in fact he hadn’t noticed anything wrong with his cross.

He sees now that it was such a big trial that nothing he did on that one day could ruin the entire case.

He recently ran into the other counsel on the case who remembers all the good things about the trial, while all Colin remembers was how bad he felt on that day.

What to watch out for:

The signal that you are falling into catastrophic thinking is something known as the “three Ps”. The three Ps stand for thoughts that are:

Personal – It’s entirely my fault or failing. Colin thought he was stupid and that he personally would be responsible for losing the case.

Permanent – The consequences are irrevocable. Colin thought the case was lost.

Pervasive – This failing or fault runs through everything. I always mess up my cross examinations. I am hopeless at this. I am never going to be able to do this.

What to do:


Take some slow deep breaths.

Watch the thoughts running through your head.

Do you see any of the three Ps at play? That’s a clue that you need to think again.

How did Colin overcome this thinking? And how can you?

The key to his change was recognition that he was engaging in catastrophic thinking. He then slowed down his thinking, identified the facts, and looked for perspective from others and from his past experiences.

To break that down to what he actually did and still does:

  • He meditates, consistently, daily, or sometimes even more than once a day. This has helped him develop his ability to pause and to notice his thoughts instead of being his thoughts. It has also helped him learn to regain his calm when he feels his stress levels rise.
  • When he is beginning to engage in catastrophic thinking, he looks at the facts to challenge his perceptions. He looks for the evidence. He asks is this true? Is this absolutely true? What else could be happening here? How might I be exaggerating the outcome here?
  • He talks to others, seeking their perspectives and listening to how they have handled similar experiences.
  • In talking to others, they reassured him that he could do something about it.
  • Articulating the situation, with others, or even just by writing it down, helped him to slow down, identify the facts and be engaged with more than just his own thoughts.
  • He looks back over the different times he had engaged in catastrophic thinking to see that in the end things worked out.

Finally he said that he was dedicated, persistent, and patient. He said it takes time.

And this is time well spent.

To learn more about catastrophic thinking and the three Ps read Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism.


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.

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