Hello, darkness, my friend! (and guilt, and the bar exam)
July 3, 2014 9:40 PM   Subscribe

The bar exam is in 3 weeks. I'm feeling overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt I'm not studying enough. Guilt I'm not researching and writing briefs for work fast enough. And tremendous guilt that I've been a straight-up asshole with my family and friends. I'm not good at this balancing act.

This is not my first run at the bar exam, so I know what to expect. What I've had difficulty in, is managing my emotions. Namely, this crescendo of guilt coming at me full force.

Also, I am prone to severe anxiety, to the point where talking on the phone with friends can make me want to sh*t bricks. Especially so when I'm entrenched in something like bar study. There's a cruise ship's worth of activities flying around (weddings, birthdays-- most are immediately after the bar exam; friends have cajoled me to get out) and a friend who is going through some pretty severe things at home who has repeatedly asked to vent and chat with me (surprise, I've ignored her). I feel terrible not responding, yet if I respond, I know it's going to propel me further into this vat of guilt.

I know I am emotionally unavailable right now. How can I not be an asshole about this with those in my life? Next week is my last week at my firm before I take off to study full-time. Meditation has helped, as well as some in-home yoga.
posted by chloe.gelsomino to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Make yourself unavailable. It can be a Facebook status or a mass text or whatever, but just say "Hey, I'm really sorry, but I'm in hermit mode until the bar exam is done. Love you all, look forward to seeing you on the other side."

Bar exams are notorious for being major, high-stakes, extremely stressful events. Your friends will understand.
posted by kagredon at 9:59 PM on July 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

Friends who are really friends will forgive you for acting like a jerk when under extreme stress, which includes now. Now is for self care. Later is for not being an asshole.
posted by Sequence at 10:07 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with the idea of letting friends know that you are unavailable until after the exam. Answering machine, email autoresponder, facebook.... Whatever is appropriate. That done you can shelve the guilt as it is unnecessary and a time waster.

Let the friend in crisis know the date you will be available if that would help. If this friend's situation is very dire, or is distracting you to avoid them, you could also call, tell them the situation and that you are also in crisis, and offer 10 minutes of listening to venting every day during your break or a short (20 min max) walk together every day (which could probably help you both stem the anxiety). I have done timed exchanges of listening while with a friend when we were both maxed out and under stress.. it was a kind of "I imperfectly love and care", that just took the edge off for each of us. That may also be wanting to help and be unable and like helping you too!!

You are also facing a serious issue and deserve the support to pass the bar by being given time to study!!! As a lawyer you will spend your life helping people with their daily crisis.. No guilt! no guilt!!
posted by chapps at 10:34 PM on July 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If folks are demanding that you be "emotionally available" right now, they are assholes, not you.

I agree with clearly stating that you are unavailable and that you will check back in as soon as you are done. And then do that.

Shit, I flat out got on a plane and left. About two weeks out, I went to OHare on like 4 hours notice and was GONE. Because that was what I needed to do. I went to a cabin with no internet access, and I went into a cafe in town once a day to check my email. It was the best decision I could have made, because the long term resentment against friends and family that was building would have been far more poisonous than checking out for two weeks.
posted by susiswimmer at 10:37 PM on July 3, 2014 [18 favorites]

Best answer: How can I not be an asshole about this with those in my life?

Be clear about how big and stressful a deal this is, and let people know that you're not going to be available for X months. Be quite explicit about how much work and studying and stress you have to do - those people who aren't familiar with the bar exam might not realise just how big of a deal this is. Set your boundary clearly.

Then just get on with what you have to do, and anyone who is guilt tripping you about stuff can just take a number. For sure it would be nice to go to someone's wedding, but while that wedding is going to be a life-changing event for the bride and groom, it's not as important to you as your bar exam. And that's OK. You are not the one getting married. It's not like you're not turning up for your own wedding. Your priorities in life are not always going to align with other people's. That doesn't make you a bad person, it just makes you an individual.

It hurts that you can't be there for your friend, but you can't put your own life on hold for other people and still expect your life to go the way you want. And it's not really that great if you're the only person she has to vent to. Hopefully she has other people she can lean on, but if not, well, that's her problem to deal with. You have bigger fish to fry. And that's OK too.

When you have major stuff like this going on, it's OK to drop the ball on lesser things. That's how life works. You only have so many resources to use before you run out of them, and all of your resources right now need to be focused on getting yourself through the exam. If other people can't see that, that's kinda tough luck for them. Life will go on for these people.
posted by Solomon at 1:49 AM on July 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I haven't been through a bar exam, but I have friends who have, and I've also had my own high-stakes exams and projects.

Most people understand if you say, "I'm sorry, but I have [x major event] happening right now, and until it's over, I won't be available." If they don't understand, then it's not your fault--they just don't understand what a big deal it is.

But also, be kind to yourself while you're studying. Yes, you should study hard, but research has shown that you will get better results if you take breaks and sleep well. Think of taking care of yourself as part of what you should be doing, not an interruption in what you should be doing. Your brain will work better.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:08 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll go against the crowd here and say that, yes, the bar exam is important, but your friends and family are equally important. I also worked full-time at a firm while studying for the bar, so I feel your pain. Can you schedule an hour or two each day for family and friends? It might help with your mental health to allow yourself to take replenishing breaks from all the work and study. Have that talk that your distressed friend has been asking for one night; go to a birthday party the next. You said that meditation has helped. Think of these as a form of meditation and see if you can focus completely on others for one hour each day, forgetting about all the stresses you're under.
posted by chickenmagazine at 4:35 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

The best thing you can do is set proper boundaries with people and communicate them clearly. Don't agonize about the decisions, make them and communicate that clearly then move on. This is a situation where you need to triage things and the most important things right now are staying sane and studying for the exam in that order.

If I was you I would inform anyone who isn't in crisis that for the next few weeks you'll be out of touch but you'll be more than happy to celebrate with them when the exam is done. This is a high stakes test, and you don't want to have to go through it again, and if you're working and studying you'll probably want to put in serious time to study over the next few weeks.

As to the friend in crisis, I think the friend deserves a response and I think you should make it clear how much time you have to give. You'll need to take breaks from studying because the reality is after a certain number of hours a day you're not going to be retaining much anyway.

Then you should tell your guilt and anxiety that its not productive. People can manage without you for three weeks. The effect of failing the exam is much worse than the majority of problems that will be caused by you being absent for a few weeks and as someone who is also studying for the bar I give you permission to be selfish right now.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 4:52 AM on July 4, 2014

You are going to do fine. No one ever feels like they have studied enough. One thing I found helpful for keeping emotional balance before the bar exam was to find nice places to study. If you have flashcards, for example, take them with you to the park or a botanical garden.

As to your friends, I agree that letting them know that you are really busy -- and are also going through a tough emotional time -- would be helpful to manage their expectations and communicate that they might need to look elsewhere for a few weeks for their needs. I also imagine that after you take the exam, it will be a big load off. Let them know that when you are done (plus a day or two for recovery), you would be happy to be there for them in the ways that they need. As to the events, keep your RSVPs and comments vague, and reiterate that you will have more time to think and commit after the exam. Because you will, I promise. Good luck!
posted by likeatoaster at 8:24 AM on July 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Three weeks is a tremendous amount of time, bar prep-wise. Everyone feels like they haven't studied enough at this point -- several weeks out. You're doing fine.
posted by thursdaystoo at 9:54 AM on July 4, 2014

Best answer: Tough love time. I speak as someone who has passed two separate bar exams (including California) on the first attempt and who now counsels students preparing for the California bar, including repeat takers.

I have to respectfully disagree with some previous posters. If talking to a friend is going to distract you or drag you down emotionally you cannot talk to that person during this time. You have four weeks until this is over. After that time you can be as supportive as your friend needs (and as you want to give), but right now you need to be selfish and focus on what you need to do to pass the bar. That same holds true for anything else with friends. Next year they'll have more birthdays, and you can celebrate then, when you're a licensed attorney.

That also means you have to dial back at work. Frankly I think it's insane to try to work while studying but obviously you can't change that now. Since you are working for the next week, you need to be doing the bare minimum there. I assume the attorneys you work for remember how stressful the bar exam was and won't fault you for being stressed about it and wanting to focus on it. When you come back, be the best associate there is. Right now, focus on doing everything you can to pass. That has to be your top priority. In the long run passing is much more important than any one brief you're working on.

As for the anxiety, in some ways that's your biggest issue. So much of the bar is having confidence. If you go in believing you'll fail, you almost certainly will. So that means you have to somehow believe that you can pass. Some of that is studying enough of course, but I also think that means positive self talk and visualizing yourself passing. Every time you think about the bar, tell yourself you're going to pass and refuse to entertain any thoughts to the contrary.

Note that this is not to say that you should be studying 24/7. You need to set aside times for renewal, be that an hour of your favorite tv show, working out, taking a walk, talking to someone *who will be positive and not drag you down,* whatever you want to do to make you happy.

You *can* pass the bar. It's doable. But that needs to be your sole focus for the next four weeks. You cannot let anything else distract you from this.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 10:39 AM on July 4, 2014 [11 favorites]

As you can see, everybody has different experiences with the bar exam, partly because exams in some states are brutal and place you at serious risk of failing, while bar exams in other states are primarily to weed out people who won't buckle down and take it reasonably seriously. Furthermore, some people do well with cramming; other people don't.

It's fine to take care of yourself. It's fine to tell your friends you need time to study. But you do not, in fact, need to spend every waking minute studying simply on principle and to avoid guilt that you're not working hard enough. If you can spare even an hour for your friend over the space of three weeks, I suspect that will feel far better than simply asserting the right to ignore her completely. What I think you need -- no better or worse than what anybody else thinks you need, which varies so widely -- is to work on the guilt part, so that you can extend a bit of kindness, even for ten minutes or a half-hour, and then say honestly that you have to study and stick to it.

It sounds like you feel so guilty setting any kind of boundaries that it has to be all or nothing: you shut yourself in a room and talk to no one, because when you engage briefly and then draw a line in the sand, you feel terrible, and you feel better not seeing people at all. I totally agree that you have the right to prioritize your studying, but remember that everyone in adulthood has conflicts and problems and other things they have to deal with, so your bar exam today may be your friend's baby or sick parent tomorrow. You have the right to take care of yourself, but the bar exam is not magic, in that your friends don't have to consider it more important than their own obligations, and aren't necessarily going to write off things that are really inconsiderate (like ignoring them entirely) just because it's the bar exam. So at least talk to them. Treat them the way you hope they'll treat you when they have something big going on. Don't make it something it isn't; it is a big project, but you don't have to lock yourself in a tower unless you have some reason to believe it will help, and maybe not even then. This is in your control. You can handle it.

Everybody has obligations. Trust your friends to understand your limitations, but don't convince yourself that there's automatically some huge advantage in sitting in an empty room doing nothing but studying, because that isn't what everyone needs. Don't let guilt make you feel obligated to cut yourself off. Don't let guilt make these decisions at all. Figure out what you need for yourself and what you can spare for others, just the way you would normally, and go from there -- even if what you need for yourself is more than usual.

The bar exam is a piece of life. Don't make your self-worth about the bar exam at all, let alone about your study hours.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:22 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Send out a mass email to everyone saying that you are in final study mode and will not be picking up the phone, responding to emails, chatting, etc until after the exam. Include an apology in advance for not being a friend over this period. Then study and take breaks as you feel appropriate.

While I question your coping strategies in general, three weeks before the bar exam is not the time to work on that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

what i did was take time off from work. They'll understand.

I had a digital watch with a countdown feature. I set it for 55 minutes. I started at 9 AM and from 9-12 I studied for 55 minutes and then set the timer for 5 minutes and played Age of Empires 3. I took an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner and studied until 9 PM then slept and started over again. 2 weeks later I was ready to take and pass the bar. And I did.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:33 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Valium. Or Xanax. Seriously, you need something to take the edge off and get you through the next 2 weeks. After that, therapy for anxiety.
posted by yarly at 7:13 PM on July 5, 2014

Response by poster: Alright everyone, "no guilt" is my official mantra for the rest of July! Thanks for all the kind, and very introspective, responses.

I think/hope a good amount of the anxiety will dissipate ever so slightly once I take time off from work. I'm comfortable engaging in some boundary-drawing with those in my life who will respect them (this is mostly everyone). I've one or two friends who are needy/borderline toxic and I don't anticipate they would respond appropriately if I told them to leave me be. Unfortunately, this means I have to go radio silent on them.

Oh, @susiswimmer-- AMAZING. Seriously. Bar takers, take heed: GTFO dodge!
posted by chloe.gelsomino at 7:32 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Good luck with the exam!
posted by Solomon at 3:43 PM on July 22, 2014

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