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Lawyers: Toxic Thoughts May Be Hurting You (And Your Practice) More Than You Know

By Gray Robinson

Toxic thoughts are just as poisonous as toxic food.

Most of us acknowledge that a steady diet of fast food isn’t good for our health. But while toxic food damages our physical health, toxic thoughts damage our mental and emotional health. Toxic thoughts may be worse because most of us don’t realize how dangerous they can be — especially for lawyers and legal professionals who already deal with unrelenting stress.

Chronic exposure to toxicity, whether physical or emotional, can have long-term effects on health and well-being. It may contribute to the development of chronic diseases, mental health disorders and overall reduced quality of life.

What Are Toxic Thoughts?

Toxic thoughts are negative and self-critical thoughts that cause fear, stress and anxiety to overwhelm our minds. The following are some common toxic thought events:

Worst-Case ScenarioObsessing over the worst that can happen to anticipate what could go wrong, and assuming it is going to happen.
OvergeneralizationUsing words like “always,” “every time” and “never” to describe a condition or situation.
Fear of the futureAssuming the worst is yet to come and we are victims of the past and the future.
MindreadingAssuming people are thinking about us negatively.
Common types of toxic thoughts.

The Dangers of Chronic Toxicity

The long-term toxic effects of negative self-talk are more destructive than most people can imagine.

Constant exposure to negativity, stress and abusive behavior can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and other psychological disorders.

The problem is that the brain can’t tell the difference between what we imagine and reality. So, when we think toxic thoughts, our brain reacts the same way as if the thoughts were real threats. It automatically activates the sympathetic nervous system (what I call Warrior mode), and adrenalin and cortisol flood the body. If the toxic thinking is chronic, our health is compromised.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I’m not that negative. I know lots of people who are more negative than me, and they seem to be doing OK.”

The truth is that chronic toxicity can result from long-term exposure to even low levels of negative, toxic thinking. (Think of it like smoking — where the effects may be delayed for years.) And if you looked more closely at those negative folks you think are “doing OK,” you would probably see they aren’t thriving at all. 

‘The Call Is Coming From Inside the House’

Remember those scary movies where someone home alone answers a threatening phone call, and when the police trace the number they learn, in those ominous words, “The call is coming from inside the house”? This is a powerful metaphor for how we self-sabotage with the toxic thoughts that flow unchecked through our minds.

If someone from the outside were barraging us with negative thoughts and messaging, hopefully, we would have boundaries strong enough to push back and create distance.

But how do we escape when the barrage is coming from within?

Breaking the Toxic Thinking Habit

What we consume can influence our behavior. Toxic thoughts (“I’m not good enough.” “I guess I deserve this.” “Why even bother trying?”) can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, such as procrastination, avoidance, or engaging in harmful habits, mirroring how consuming unhealthy food and drink can lead to poor lifestyle choices.

On an encouraging note, a recent University of Cambridge study found that suppressing negative thoughts and fears improved overall mental health among the study’s participants.

Toxic environments or relationships can have a significant impact on mental health. Toxicity in social interactions can result in strained relationships, conflicts and a lack of trust. This can affect our ability to form meaningful connections and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Toxic work environments and academic settings can hinder productivity, creativity and overall performance. Factors such as excessive pressure, bullying, harassment, or a culture of blame can contribute to stress and burnout.

Consistently engaging in negative thinking patterns can reinforce pessimism. Studies of neuroplasticity — the ability of neural networks in the brain to reorganize and change through growth — show that experiences such as trauma, stress and substance abuse can affect the way neurons connect. Once negative thinking becomes habitual, it is difficult to stop it without intervention. The good news is that you can create new neural pathways that support more positive thinking.

Here are a few steps to get started:

‘We Have to Talk’: The Intervention

Just as ending a toxic relationship or conquering unhealthy addictions can be extremely difficult, breaking free from toxic thought patterns requires conscious effort and intentional intervention. And who is going to make this intervention happen? You are!

Check the Negative Thoughts Coming from ‘Inside the House’?

Monitor damaging, toxic thoughts like you would your home security system when your most valuable things are inside. That is the level of vigilance you need to move forward.

Start a Pocket Journal Tracking Your Thoughts

The objective is to become aware of your negative thoughts so that you can begin to dismantle them and replace them with positive counterparts. I suggest buying a notebook that is small enough to take with you everywhere.

Begin Listening to Your Mind Differently

What is your mind saying to you most frequently? Do you harbor destructive thoughts about yourself, about others, about the world around you? You may be holding on to more negative thoughts than you realize. The more aware of them you become, the more that you can begin to counter them with positivity — but you may need outside help.

Action Item: When toxic thoughts begin, use your lawyering skills to cross-examine the bully inside your head. Challenge negative thoughts and bury them under a mountain of positive ones.

Images Licensed under the Unsplash+ License

The Lawyer, the Lion, and the Laundry book cover

Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos

By Jamie Jackson Spannhake

In this bestselling book written for lawyers, former Biglaw litigator Jamie Spannhake helps you clarify your desires and set priorities so you can reclaim your time and enjoy your life. Available in soft-cover and digital format.

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Gray Robinson Gray Robinson

Sir Gray Robinson is a lawyer, writer, speaker, mentor, consultant and coach for lawyers who are struggling with their practices. He was a divorce lawyer for 27 years, handling hundreds of divorces, custody and support cases. Gray quit in 2004 due to stress and burnout and has devoted himself to helping lawyers and clients deal with the pressures of practicing law. Gray is the founder of Lawyer Lifeline, a restorative program that guides legal professionals through anxiety and stress to fulfillment and passion. In. 2023, he was inducted as a knight of The Royal Order of Constantine the Great and St. Helen, an organization that has existed since 312 ACE. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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