A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. Saul Bellow – Nobel Prize Winning American Author
Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 6 is:
I am no stranger to avoidance. When I was still practicing in a law firm, I once let conflict of interest waiver letters to two clients – letters I had already signed – sit on my desk, unmailed, for three weeks. For all that time, I did work for both clients. Each day when I arrived at work, the letters would be the first things I saw. All I had to do was mail them – even those increasingly older dates at the top probably wouldn’t have mattered. But I didn’t, and didn’t and didn’t, until finally, I did. Fortunately, there was no harm. The conflict was only “potential,” the need to do anything else never arose, and the only blip on anyone’s radar was on my own. However, things could easily have gone very very differently, with consequences to everyone that would not have been good, or easy to justify.
All these years later, my behavior in this and several other similar instances remains largely inexplicable to me. Did I not take things seriously enough? Was there some unconscious explanation? You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was invested in ignorance. I behaved stupidly and I could have paid the price.
As a bar exam tutor and law school faculty member, I see law students’ avoidant behaviors all the time. They tell me that they are unable to study because it makes them “too nervous.” They put off submitting information to the State Bar that they need to turn in to become lawyers. They don’t show up for class or for private tutoring, don’t turn in assignments on time, break counseling appointments. I’m not talking about real conflicts with other obligations, or legitimate emergencies. What I’m talking about is not doing something for no good or even articulable reason.
The great tragedy is that the avoidant bar exam repeaters that I’ve worked with have not only avoided studying, they have also avoided passing. And the great irony is that, absent a miracle, until they change, they will be unable to avoid taking the exam over and over again. When I pick up an avoidant “vibe” from a first-time taker, it makes me very concerned.
In an interesting article in Psychology Today psychologist Alice Boyes calls this type of behavior “avoidance coping.” She believes that: “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” As a (hopefully) analytical lawyer and a lifelong “overthinker,” I recognize myself in these words: “When people engage in … overthinking … they are typically trying to think their way out of uncomfortable emotions” One emotion Dr. Boyes cites is “uncertainty.”
She has three prescriptions for beginning to overcome avoidance:
– Recognize that it doesn’t work.
– Recognize its costs.
– Learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and thoughts.
I would like to add some prescriptions of my own:
– Remember how successful you are, and then “fake it ‘til you make it.” You may have paid the price for avoidance in the past, but that didn’t stop you from getting pretty “high on the food chain.” Even in this wonderful and prosperous country, relatively few people graduate from college, let alone law school. You have it in you to prepare for and pass the bar examination. Even if you can’t do it all the time, act successful by promptly tackling each problem for as long as you can last. The odds that you’ll follow through once you start are definitely better than they would be if you did nothing.
– Recognize when you’re uncomfortable. I completely agree with Dr. Boyes’ suggestion that we “avoidants” learn to tolerate emotional discomfort. But, with respect, I’d pull her back one step first. That’s because, in my case, it was only after the fact in each instance that I recognized that I had been avoidant because I was uncomfortable and uncomfortable because I was avoidant. In the moment, that avoidance felt like just another annoyance not to pay attention to, like not getting a seat on the bus to work. That kind of thinking can hurt you though. Even if you’re not ready to “tolerate,” you may be ready to “recognize.” And if you are, you should.
– Admit you have a problem. Then forgive yourself, but don’t excuse yourself. It is heartening to me when a student concedes that he or she is avoidant. And it helps a lot. That’s because, with the issue out in the open for examination and discussion, it can become just another one of the issues that can be dealt with before the exam.
So, if you think you might be avoidant, don’t delay! Start thinking about this challenge, talking to others about it, and seeking help. And … from one avoidant person to another – Good Luck!