The California bar exam results were posted and, as with every season, there have been some very high highs and very low lows. Today, I was talking with a new student and re-reading some advice I wrote a couple years back on failing and it struck me how often the words “shame” and “unworthiness” can enter into the picture. Coincidentally enough, this week I also finally had the opportunity to read some books by one of our favorite researchers here at the Bar Exam Toolbox, Dr. Brené Brown. And guess what? Dr. Brown has spent her career delving into just these topics.
Dr. Brown—or just “Brené” as we here at BET call her sometimes (because yes, we casually discuss her work with each other so often we feel like we’re on a first-name basis—even though none of us actually knows her personally!)—is not only a TED speaker, three-time bestselling author and a favorite of Oprah Winfrey, she is also a brilliant researcher on a subject that hits really close to home on some level or another for most of us, but which no one really likes to talk about: shame.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, when it comes to failing at anything in life, but especially when it comes to failing at something big with really high stakes, like the bar exam, shame is exactly what you might feel—and maybe humiliation, unworthiness, guilt, embarrassment all mixed with that special je ne sais quoi that makes you want to crawl under some blankets and never talk to anyone ever again. But you know what? That’s okay. It’s all okay. And you’re going to be okay. Here’s what to do:
Stop blaming everyone and everything and be accountable for your failure
You know what won’t help you pass the bar? Blaming your failure on everything from the graders’ subjectivity to one bad morning without coffee, to missing a weekend of study. If you’re going to navigate the tough process of coming back from failure, you need to (a) acknowledge that this failure wasn’t about anyone or anything but you, and (b) start taking steps to do things differently this time around.
Now, I know sometimes terrible things really can happen during the bar. I’ve definitely heard of horror stories that were completely outside of the person’s control—things that were most likely big contributing factors in the reason they got a “no” instead of a “yes.” However, it’s important to look beyond those (however huge they may have been), and ask yourself, did I do anything last time that I should do differently this time around? Aside from whatever obstacles there were, what about the other stuff? What, out of the things that were in your control, could you change? We can never fully prepare for all unexpected contingencies, but we can get all of the things in our control in order. Work on doing that instead of playing the blame game. It will serve you better.
Understand that the definition of being brave means failing sometimes
As Dr. Brown says, “if you’re brave enough often enough, you’re going to fall.” Being brave means taking risks. Maybe it didn’t feel all that brave to go and take this exam, but in a sense, it was. You put all of your knowledge and hard work on the line for someone else to critique and you risked that you would come up short. And you did come up short, and now you’re dealing with how hard that is, and trying to push through. That sounds pretty brave to me.
So, understand that sometimes falling down is just part of the process. It doesn’t mean you’re any less strong, less deserving, or less capable. The important part is what you do next. Do you face plant (like all of us do once and a while in life) and then just stay down, or do you dust yourself off and try one more time? Remember, success means falling down seven times and getting up eight. Or, if you’ve already taken this exam and failed eight times (which has happened too), pick another number—you get the idea.
Be okay with the vulnerability and use it to be more courageous
Being vulnerable and risking exposing yourself to failure doesn’t mean you’re weak. It’s just the opposite. It means you’re strong. Think about that for a second. So, now that you’re in this vulnerable place of just having failed, maybe even failed for the second, third, or seventh time, the question is: How do you decide your next step? Well, as Dr. Brown so wisely articulates, “he or she who has the largest capacity for discomfort rises the fastest.”
Let’s unpack that statement a little bit. What does it mean to have “discomfort” in the context of re-taking the bar exam? Well, first, it means you have to deal with the very real, highly uncomfortable process of looking at your old exams once you get them back. The first step in rising with strength is figuring out how and why you fell down in the first place.
All too often students think they can skip this time-consuming and terribly uncomfortable first step, but I promise you it’s a necessary component to getting back up and trying again. I would go so far as to say, if you’re not going to review your old exams (in detail) to find out where you went off track, don’t bother taking the bar again. You can quote me on that. After reviewing your exams, ask yourself which study tasks make you the most uncomfortable—then do those.
Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love
You know when you do something you feel bad about, the first instinct can often be to kick yourself for it? According to Dr. Brown, this is incompatible with stopping the spiral of shame that can happen when we fall short of our own expectations. So, the next time you are tempted to say, “Gees, ‘Self,’ how could you be so stupid!?” or “No wonder you failed, because you were never smart enough to begin with,” stop.
Instead, talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you cared about who happened to be going through the same predicament. If your best friend failed the bar, you would never call her stupid. You would probably comfort her, empathize with her, and encourage her. You would probably say things like, “Wow, that really sucks, ‘Friend,’ I know how hard you worked, do you want to talk about it?” or “This exam isn’t about how smart you are, you can do it, I believe in you.”
Check out your internal monologue. How are you treating yourself when you feel bad about failing? If you’re being mean or negative, cut it out, it’s not helping.
Share your “shame story” with people who have earned the right to hear it
When sharing our struggles, no one likes to hear responses like, “Oh, you poor thing, I feel so sorry for you” or “You think that’s bad? Listen to what I had to deal with…” These are ideas Dr. Brown discusses in her books. She also says, shame can only live in the dark.
If you want to get through the bad feelings that go along with failing this exam, share your story—but only with people you trust to love and support you and lift you up instead of tear you down. Sometimes, talking with someone who has been through the same experience can help. Or, maybe the key is just pouring your heart out to a person who will listen without judging. The important thing to realize is that the more you bottle up these negative emotions you might be having, the more they will thrive—and the more likely they will be to come out to torment you when you don’t have the patience or strength to deal with them (like on the morning of the next exam).
So, own your failure right now. I know it’s not easy, but it’s a necessary step. Say to yourself (or others in your life who are supportive), “You know what? I failed, and that’s okay, and that doesn’t mean I can’t pass next time,” or “This test doesn’t define me or how good a lawyer I will be.” The more you start believing these things, the quicker you will get off the shame detour and onto the road toward recovery and success.
What about you? Have you survived failing the bar exam? Have you heard of Dr. Brené Brown or used any of her insights in your fight to pass? Let us know in the comments below.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Failed the Bar Exam? How to Be The Ultimate Sore Loser
- Why Did You Fail the Bar Exam?
- I Failed the California Bar Exam! Here’s Some Encouragement to Help
- How Can Parents Help Their Student Who Failed the Bar
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