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Skill Sets # 15: Fear, Anxiety and the Mystery of Confidence

Skill Sets # 15: Fear, Anxiety and the Mystery of Confidence


Posted February 1, 2021

“I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days” – Daniel Boone 1734 – 1820


In working with new calls and younger colleagues in law it is not uncommon, but unquestionably unsettling, for mentors to hear expressions of a lack of confidence, twinned with feelings of fear and/or anxiety.  Experts agree that while not perfectly synonymous fear and anxiety are strongly related, and in the workplace can appear situationally (due to a particular circumstance, event or task), or manifestly (due to a persisting state of mind).  In approaching these mental health and wellness conditions I have of course no learning or training, but like other lay mentors I am struggling to fit them into an operational framework that allows me to hope that when needed I can be helpful, and not dangerous.

In the COVID – 19 era, it is increasingly important for all of us, but certainly for those who take on the privilege of mentoring colleagues, to be thinking and watching for the presence and or prevalence of these or related conditions. We tread softly, but tread we must.

You Cannot Add Time to Your Life by Worrying About It

This wisdom from the New Testament,  Matthew 6:27,  is cited by Joseph LeDoux in his book Anxious.  LeDoux notes that fear and anxiety in their normal usages (my focus here) can easily describe as many as three dozen variants of emotions, and are often used together or interchangeably.   Both are, as LeDoux importantly notes, perfectly normal experiences. In distinguishing fear from anxiety LeDoux examines the role of anticipation.  With fear, the subject dwells on whether and when a present threat will cause harm, whereas with anxiety the subject dwells on the consequences of a threat that is not present and that may not occur. As LeDoux also stresses, both fear and anxiety can become “maladaptive”, resulting in excessive intensity, frequency or duration, and causing the sufferer distress to the extent that his or her daily life is disrupted.   When this happens an anxiety disorder may exist, such as but not limited to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a seriously disruptive condition:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by six months or more of chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience. People with this disorder usually expect the worst. They worry excessively about money, health, family or work, even when there are no signs of trouble. They are unable to relax and often suffer from insomnia. Many people with GAD also have physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, irritability or hot flashes”.

Where these more extreme characteristics are noted in our colleagues, it will be important of course to take all necessary steps to assist them in finding professional help.

Short of GAD, we can hope to be involved in assisting colleagues who are dealing with ‘normal anxiety’, which, while not reaching the level of a disorder, is nonetheless difficult to endure and sad to see.  And it is important for us to step up and do so, because the experts are clear that anxiety feeds on itself, the subject becoming increasingly anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a Dangerous Business, Frodo, Going Out Your Door

This line from J.R.R. Tolkien infers confidence.  Colleagues who can freely ‘go out the door’ in the pursuit of an opportunity or a task, are at some level exhibiting self confidence:

“Confidence is a person’s belief that a chosen course of action is the right choice and that they can properly perform that action. As a personality trait, confidence is sometimes referred to as self-confidence. This term describes the attitudes and beliefs people hold regarding their abilities and strengths”.

Like fear and anxiety, confidence can be circumstantial or a state of mind.  Our colleagues may be confident in their ability to participate in some tasks, but lack confidence in relation to others. Or, they may feel certain in their ability to succeed in anything that they face.  We all know, have met or worked with lawyers who are (or certainly appear to be) supremely confident, or, in the other direction, appear to us to be so self-doubting as to lack self-esteem.  We are all witness to these extremes.  And, I rush to add, we are for the most part mere amateurs in our efforts to know others, when we often fail to know ourselves.  Nonetheless, I admire colleagues in the bar who are seemingly not intent on fooling me or themselves, who are comfortable in their own skin and who believe, while knowing this takes hard work, that they will do well in most things they tackle.  Helping the more junior among us get there is a mentors aspirational goal.

You Can’t Step Twice in the Same River: How We Can Help

This well-known reference comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (by way of Plato) who observed in the same vein that “everything flows and nothing stays”.  Because this is the case, because we are not genetically doomed to suffer the repetition of our experiences and mistakes over and over again, experts agree that confidence can be learned and that we can teach it.  Our brains can be trained to be more confident:

“All of our personality traits, including confidence, live in our brain. Our brains are made up of specialized cells called neurons and those neurons communicate with each other via synapses, the connections between them. We are creating and adjusting our synaptic connections all the time. Every time we learn or experience something, those incidents and the choices we make shape us. Sometimes that learning becomes reinforced and it becomes “hard coded” as part of who we are. Or we may experience it and forget about it and it goes away. And that’s all happening at a cellular level in our brain. So, if we make a decision to be more confident and we practice at it, we can reinforce that learning. The more we practice anything, the better we get and the more likely it is to become a habit.

“We know from brain imaging studies that when we are thinking positively, we activate what we call “the value Areas” of the brain in regions including the striatum and prefrontal cortex.  When we feel confident, we engage circuits involved in reward and pleasure and we literally feel good. And not only do we feel good, but those around us feel good too. Confidence leads others to be more engaged with you, be it your troops, your patients, your clients, colleagues, kids, or friends. So, in that way, it’s contagious.”

How then can we create the environment for, if not teach, self-confidence?

To be continued.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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