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eyes open
"know thyself" is the cure, the answer, the process, the goal, the result


Don't Succumb! Unlearning "Learned Helplessness" Among the Attorney Ranks

A psychologist friend of mine and I were lamenting the antics of a mutual friend. The three of us are in leadership roles in a high-minded fraternal organization. Admittedly, however, we don't always live up to our ideals of efficiency, orderliness and professionalism when it comes right down to it. At any rate, my psychologist friend bandied about the phrase "learned helplessness" in a half-joking jab at our friend, who tends to hang us up until the last minute, and in unpredictable ways. His point, I came to find out, is that our friend's overbearing and unpredictable behavior was teaching us to just "put up with it" rather than take effective action.

The Ravages of a Lack of Control

The concept intrigued me and we began to chat about the phenomenon. Apparently, in researching depression in the 70's, Dr. Martin Seligman discovered that animals do not respond well to situations they perceive as not under their control. A dog, for instance, will recover eventually from the trauma of having electric shock administered to him, if he is given an environment where he can learn that a particular action will consistently grant him a reprieve. Conversely, a dog given the same doses of shock therapy, but in an environment where no action on its part has any effect on administration of the pain of electric current, will eventually lay down passively and take repeated shocks, despite the fact that the animal (once so conditioned) was permitted to simply walk away from the trauma at any time. In short, the dog gives himself up to his fate and enters a semi-fugue, or even catatonic, state. This, in a nutshell is "learned helplessness." Under some particular controls, humans have been demonstrated to react in the same way.

Been there; done that!

Of course, all of us who have worked in law firms already know this! The legal industry has been pretty consistently immune from increased humanity in human management in the corporate world. Thus, lawyers still tend to exist in a milieu of inconsistency and incredible power imbalance where the whims of high-producing partners are catered to, no matter how counter-intuitive and destructive they may be. Indeed, many associates simply learn do keep their heads down, bill, and take what comes, "hoping" they will eventually make partner, or that things will somehow just get more humane. And we wonder where all the lawyers go!

Break Out of the Mold

The good news is that even in the canine world, many do not fit the pattern. A healthy number (but a minority) of dogs subjected to the barbaric treatment outlined above refused to give up and did not succumb to "learned helplessness." In psychological terms, these canines, and their human counterparts, did not "internalize" their trauma. Neither did they succumb to the belief that their condition was permanent. This fundamental belief that the individual indeed has control and that things do indeed change--no matter what evidence to the contrary--is a strong indicator of mental health going forward.

Take Effective Action

The moral? We always, always, always have control in our situations, no matter how bleak they can appear. And this doesn't mean just "walking away" as last resort. Rather, we can as professionals take positive steps within our firms and alongside our "tricky" partners and colleagues, to make terrible situations better. To maintain our effectiveness and our sanity, we must always react to disappointments and complex problems with the attitude of what ACTION we intend to take. Analysis is our stock and trade, but if our "logic" leads us to conclude that we have no acceptable options, we must remember the fundamental truth that we do have options, and we do have the power to act on them.

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