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Unlearning Helplessness

Long ago and not so far away I started my first job out of law school. I was expected to work hard, but given very little actual work to do. I suppose the idea was that I would use my free time learning the law and studying precedent contracts. I wasn't at an American law firm where I would be expected to bill huge amounts of time and would be loaded with work, or if not expected to ask for work and then given loads of work. I was at a Vietnamese law firm that didn't understand that I had been groomed with the expectation that I would be given lots of work at the outset. I think there was also an expectation that I would develop my own clients and build my own business despite the fact I had no experience and didn't know the local law yet.

At the same time I was coming back to the country where I thought I had been raped. I was devastated that my options had seemingly dwindled until I was forced to return to the scene of my rape. I didn't really want to go and I wasn't enthusiastic. I was stressed and began drinking heavily. I was in the beginnings of the downwards spiral that would lead to my wandering Phnom Penh crazy a year and a half later. I was not in the frame of mind to proactively fill my time and I spent a lot of hours fiddling around on the internet and sending out resumes (CVs) to other firms in the region hoping to get a job that would improve my situation. Each day was depressing, each day I dreaded because I would spend it staring at the computer screen counting every second. I was miserable and I couldn't think of any way to change the situation but to leave.

I finally got a bite in Phnom Penh. They offered me more money, bookstores, gyms, and the fact that they weren't in Vietnam. I jumped. But the managing partner who hired me was busy and didn't have the time to really delegate. The French partner worked in French and didn't produce work in English. And the other partner apparently had work I could do, but I was already in the mindset of hopelessness from my job in Vietnam and my increasing delusions and didn't seek him out. In addition I was given an office on the newly constructed third floor, alone. Eventually, there would be other attorneys moved there, but at the beginning I was alone there, isolated from social contact, with very little work to do, and starting to use painkillers to dull the despair of coming to work and wasting my time. What could I do? It was the same thing. I was doomed to repeat things, I was doomed to waste my time by coming to work and sitting in front of my desk, bored and alone, while I hallucinated every night and descended ever closer to full-blown psychosis.


After I got out of the hospital I landed a job in Laos. At first, I was the only lawyer in the office, there was plenty to do, I was busy. I was productive, I was even initiating some things on my own. I was happy. And then the larger conglomerate's chief counsel moved to Laos as well. He said he wasn't there to take my job but that's exactly what he did. Instead of being the head lawyer in the office, I became his assistant. The workflow trickled to practically nothing. On numerous occasions I asked for more work but never got it. I was left--despite actually trying--with nothing to do. Just like the last two times. But this time I tried to do something about it and my effodevicesrts resulted in the situation remaining unchanged. No matter what I did, it seemed, I was doomed to being underutilized and left to my own devises for hours every day. The despair set in. I was drinking heavily, smoking pot, experimenting with other drugs. Miserable. I was convinced that no matter what job I might ever get I would end up having nothing to do, dreading every day that required me to go into the office. All I did was think on the keyboard, going over my situation over and over as I typed my thoughts into an every growing Word document. That was how I killed my days. Ruminating on how there was nothing I could do to ever change my situation.

The next few years saw a series of jobs come and go. I would start a job, the first week would be great, but then the behaviors I had learned to cope with the boredom would kick in. I would start drinking or doing some kind of drug, miss work repeatedly, and eventually quit before I was fired. I had learned that nothing I did mattered and that I was destined to have a miserable experience every time I tried to work, that I couldn't behave like a normal employee, show up on time and be productive day after day. I had learned that I was helpless to change the situation, so I didn't change the situation.

Fast forward to now. This week was my second week at work. I was all fixed up by therapy and on the right mix of meds. I was ready to go and there wouldn't be any problems. I was even prepped for the second week of work. I knew that in the past the problems started in the second week. I figured that if I could get through the second week I'd be fine. I would break the chain of the past and be able to actually succeed. And after the first week--which was filled with a decent amount of work--I figured I could look forward to having my day spent in productive and meaningful effort. But then the second week started and I had a list of things to do, but none of them were urgent, nor even a result of instructions from the boss. They were things that I should do to be a better lawyer and to develop business. They were optional, especially in the absence of an internal driving fire to succeed. I spent the day fiddling about, trying not to think about being bored, but accomplishing very little. But it was Tuesday that the shit hit the fan, to use a cliche.

Tuesday dawned just like Monday. I had my list, but I didn't have any work from the boss, no assignments, nothing that had to be done. I began to stare at my computer, my eyes began to glaze over, and I began to feel the tendrils of despair creep into my heart. Several times the thought that I should give up, that I should just quit and go back to how things were before, came into my head. There was nothing different about this situation and nothing I could do would change it. I was doomed to experience day after day of utter nothingness, a soul wasting destruction of the mind and spirit. I was helpless to change so I might as well just lay down and accept the inevitable.

But after six months of therapy, I wasn't quite the same person as I'd been the last time I tried this. I had coping skills. I had learned that I wasn't a victim who was acted upon and who had no control over his life. I was an actor. I was in control, after all, and I could decide how to react. The problem was, this situation struck me as unique from the things I learned in therapy. This was not a distorted thought. This wasn't one of the 13 cognitive distortions that I'd learned from Victor. This was something else, something more ingrained, something that needed a different strategy than what I'd learned. I even went through the process that I had learned, identified the thought and the emotions it caused, and decided I was catastrophizing--one of the 13 distortions--but that didn't seem to help. I was still on the edge of despair, desolation, and giving up. I needed something new, something I hadn't learned, something I didn't know about yet.

Using my "scientific mind", I decided I would experiment and do some research. First I had to identify the problem and then once I knew what was going on I could figure out the best way to fix it. I consulted Google. Search after search led me closer to the answer. I toyed with the idea of the Zen concept of Beginner's Mind as a solution, that if I looked at my work situation as if I hadn't experienced it before maybe I could find contentment, but that didn't quite fit. I kept searching. I changed the search terms and suddenly found something that seemed to fit. The concept was called "learned helplessness" and as I read more and more about it I realized that this was exactly what I was experiencing.

Back in the 60s and 70s, a group of psychologists in Pennsylvania gave a bunch of dogs electric shocks. One group of dogs were given a way to control the shocks, the other group was made helpless and had no control over the shocks. Subsequently, all the dogs were put in a situation in which they could easily escape the shocks by jumping over a short wall. The first group of dogs, the ones who could control their shocks, quickly jumped over the wall and escaped. The second group, the ones that had no control over the shocks, simply laid down and let the shocks continue. They had learned that there was nothing they could do to stop the shocks and so they did nothing. They had learned helplessness. And as more and more studies followed up on this discovery, the researchers determined that learned helplessness was essentially the cause of most, if not all, depression other than that caused by chemical imbalances.

This was the answer. I had learned helplessness. I had learned after numerous experiences, and especially the job in Laos, that nothing I did would change the situation. I was convinced that I was destined to have nothing to do, to be left to my own devices day after day, and watch my mind rot into depression. The concept resounded so clearly with me that I knew that this was my problem and that now I needed to find a solution.

The search terms for fixing learned helplessness were easier to narrow down than the terms for finding my problem. It was a short while later that I found a website that introduced me to Martin Seligman and the concept of positive psychology. Decades of research subsequent to the dog studies showed that the primary cause of learned helplessness was a pessimistic explanatory style. This was described as having a negative way of explaining events to oneself. Different from self-talk, it was the way a person thought about something that happened. The boss gives me a bad comment in a review. Instead of seeing it as a result of one incident it becomes a pervasive sentiment that applies to everything I do. And because I can't succeed at work I can't succeed at anything else. And that quickly affects everything I do and I'm suddenly depressed and don't know why. The reason it's so terrible in its effect is that it's the way a person responds to everything that happens. Not just the bad comment from the boss, but every event, it's going to last a long time, it's going to affect everything I do, and it's my fault. By applying this pessimism to every thing that happens I create a negative mood and eventually end up on Prozac without much hope of actually changing my situation.

Eventually, Seligman found that the opposite was also true. An optimistic explanatory style creates a positive mood and increases the quality of life. More importantly, he found that it's possible to change a person's explanatory style. Someone with a pessimistic explanatory style can learn to develop an optimistic one and thus, in large measure, avoid the behaviors that lead to depression. It was not only possible to move from depression to less depressed, in my case helpless, past neutral towards actual happiness. Without even knowing how to make such a change I was hooked.

The website I was on ( didn't stop there. It explained the first step in making this journey was to determine your explanatory style. Like all good journeys, it was important to understand where you start from in order to take the right roads to get where you're going. I later found this test in Seligman's book, but the version on the website automatically calculated scores and removed the need of counting up responses necessary in the original version. Using this easy Excel sheet I took the test and found out that I was vaguely pessimistic when it came to how permanent and pervasive bad events were but that I was extremely pessimistic when it came to fixing the responsible party for bad events.

Without explaining the three vectors of explanatory style, I'll just say that I was pessimistic enough to determine that I would benefit from changing my explanatory style. And that's where the next step on the website took me, through a series of steps that were eerily familiar.

First, describe the event in as clinical of terms as possible without coloring what happened with editorializing your impressions of the event. Then write down the thoughts that occurred as a result of the event. After that, the emotions experienced as a result of the thoughts. The next step is where the power lies. List down evidence and reasons disputing the thought. Finally, celebrate changing behavior based on reason and evidence rather than on faulty thinking or emotional reactions. It was, in essence, cognitive behavioral therapy in a few paragraphs. And it was familiar because I had learned a very similar process from Victor during my therapy.

It was different enough, though, that I saw it as a novel solution. It resolved my worries that what I was experiencing was beyond the coping skills I had learned over the last year. I quickly set about creating my own chart and filling it out. The event was a feeling of boredom brought on by having nothing to do. My thought was that this event was just like what I'd experienced before and that things were no different now despite everything I'd gone through. My reaction was despair, hopelessness, and a desire to give up and go home. My disputation, well, I'll just copy and paste it here:

This is not a symptom of failure, being bored for a day or two. I am capable of identifying and pursuing activities that will further my career and prove I am capable of performing competently. Boredom will pass and I will receive more assignments. This is not a global or permanent event and I am not responsible for the failure to be assigned work. I am, however, responsible for doing nothing with the time left empty.

It wasn't the perfect disputation and Victor would probably make suggestions for avoiding possible cognitive distortions within it, but it was enough. I was now able to fill out the final slot, the celebration of changing behaviors as I began to move from the nadir of Tuesday morning into a positive use of my time.

It's only been a few days, but we're waiting on documents to conduct a due diligence and I don't have anything to do until they come in. That meant that most of the week was filled with time I had to fill at my own discretion. From that Tuesday low, I've moved into an increasingly productive use of my time. I'm focused on my intention--it's not a goal yet--of being a renowned tech lawyer in Vietnam and what I have to do to accomplish this. I'm now comfortable with preparing article after article, either for the firm's blog or publication elsewhere, as writing them requires research and learning, both things which bring me closer to developing a comprehensive understanding of issues related to technology law. It helps with business development as well, by promoting my knowledge on the blog and in other venues I'm becoming more visible and marketing my expertise. The hope is that this will result in my own clients and more business that I bring in and, to bring things full circle, create the work that will fill my empty hours. It's a virtuous cycle of law kindled by the realization that just because I don't have an assignment doesn't mean I have to crumble in despair.

I've since purchased Martin Seligman's book, Learned Optimism, and am a third of the way through. I suspect there may be additional techniques he recommends for moving from pessimistic to optimistic explanatory style, but he's saved that for the last section and I'm not that far yet. For now, it's enough that I learned a new way to approach changing my cognitive behavior. It's not as detailed as the version Victor taught me--his included the need to identify the nature of the cognitive distortion from a list of 13 possibilities--but it accomplishes the same thing and, in some ways, is capable of broader application. With this technique, it's possible to change behavior without knowing why it's a distortion.

Regardless of the method, the result is the same. I've managed to move past the nightmare of my past and begin to build myself into a new and forward-looking person who isn't lost in despair. I'm once more capable of changing my future and of handling problems that, in the past, had flummoxed me to the point of self-medication and even attempted suicide.

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