The Black Swan Effect: Perfectionism and The Bar Exam

“I just want to be perfect!”  That line in the movie Black Swan still haunts me. The main character Nina drove herself mad by demanding her own perfection.  Though extreme, Black Swan illustrates a common problem for bar students – perfectionism.

Many of my students tell me “I have to know everything” or “I can’t stop until I feel like I know it all.”  These unrealistic standards feel motivational, but can instead be destructive.  Perfectionist thoughts come from your “inner judge” – the little voice that evaluates and punishes you.  Most people experience self-judgment to some degree.  It’s not the judgment itself that hurts bar performance, but how we respond.

In the movie Nina responded by complying with her inner judge’s demands – by dancing harder and longer and making herself feel constantly deficient.  Complying is a common way to respond to inner judgment.  During bar study, complying could mean studying harder, or longer, or never allowing yourself to feel good about your work.  You feel guilty about a low MBE score and then push yourself to study without a break.

Your inner judge is never satisfied.  So complying then leads to more judgment and a downward spiral that lowers your confidence and can drive you to burnout.  Unrealistic standards also cause unnecessary fear and anxiety, which hinder studying.  When strong emotions dominate, your brain learns new information slower.

Here is a basic practice that will help you start to cope with perfectionism:

  • Start to notice that voice in your head that’s judging you – your inner judge.
  • Pay attention to the effect that voice has on you.  How do you feel when you notice inner judgment?
  • Write down what your inner judge says.  Then, with the intention of letting it go, throw the paper away.

Black Swan illustrates the dynamic between a woman and her inner judge and the destructive consequences of pushing too hard.  Nina literally lost touch with reality, driving herself mad.   Although perfectionism in bar study may not drive you mad, it can cause you to lose touch with reality.  Remember that in reality, it is impossible to know it all and you don’t have to feel 100% confident to pass.

By learning to work with inner judgment you can increase your chances of passing by directly dealing with the feelings that adversely affect bar study and cause test anxiety.

How do you cope with perfectionism?  Have a story to share?

Want to conquer your inner judgment?  Lauren Fire is the founder of the Mind Over Bar Course, an innovative course that focuses on the mental challenges of the bar exam.  The course teaches in-the-moment practices that help students cope with inner judgment from the inside out.