How did I get here?

I'm stuck in a box, like a dog that's been shocked into submission.

Published April 1, 2003 8:42PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

You know that experiment where they shock dogs who try to escape a box, and then the dogs stop trying to escape, and then they don't even have to shock them anymore?

This is like my life. I am stuck in a box; nothing holds me back anymore, but I still cannot get out. There is not really anything terribly painful in my past, just a case of being extremely shy and anxious, not speaking to people some years, never making eye contact, that kind of thing. I just can never help myself, it seems. I am Kafka's roach, you know? Why am I 29? I did nothing to get here. I ought to have evaporated long ago, you know?

Jack in a Box

Dear Jack,

Perhaps you are referring to this experiment performed in the 1960s by psychologist and author "> who wore beads in the 1970s and is now a prestigious professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The point of the experiment, so I take it from reading the abstract, was to show that helplessness can be learned. I completely believe that. I have seen learned helplessness in many people. And it sounds like you have diagnosed yourself correctly. You haven't had some huge trauma. You're not a basket case. You just managed somehow, over a period of years, to learn a pattern of helplessness.

Now, I didn't follow up in the academic stuff to find out how you unlearn it, but in my own experience how you unlearn helplessness is you assiduously cultivate the achievable. What is achievable today? Depends on where you are. You start wherever you are. If you're a drunk, homeless, living in the gutter, you start out with a cot in a shelter. There's your achievement. A cot. Instead of the street, you're in a shelter on a cot. And you start out with not drinking for one full day. There's another achievement. And you go into a roomful of people and you tell your two achievements out loud and all the people applaud and maybe you're thinking they're a bunch of suckers for applauding but at least you know you've got your cot. Doesn't sound like much, but that's how you unlearn helplessness: You achieve the achievable.

You do this every day, and it becomes a habit. After a while, you begin to notice certain structural similarities between getting a cot at the homeless shelter and applying for a job as a journalist or for a research grant in biochemistry or starting a relationship: You make your intentions known and understood. You communicate your qualifications. There's a period of mutual evaluation. There are little promises that must be kept. There are schedules and expectations. And it all starts with getting to your cot at the shelter on time. It starts with wherever you're at.

Where you're at, my friend, happens to be in a little box. So the achievable in your case would be to leave the box today and return to it, just to prove you can do that.

But you might ask why you should leave. What's out there that you want? What's the point? So on your first day, you sit down in your box and think what is your favorite thing in the world that you can buy or get for free just by leaving your box: an ice cream cone, a walk in the park, a swim, a hamburger. I know there is something, some modest pleasure that can be had, and I know that you know what it is. Fix your mind on that thing. Make a plan how to get it. If it takes money, put money in your pocket. Now leave your box, get your favorite thing, and bring it back to the box. Just do that. Leave your box, get your favorite thing, then go back into the box.

When you get back in the box, take stock of your situation. Take note of the fact that you have made a successful excursion. Mark this day on a calendar. Day 1 of liberation from the box.

On Day 2, again, decide on something you really want, something you enjoy that makes you happy that you can get. Leave your box, get the thing, come back to the box, take note of your success, mark it on a calendar. Don't expect it to be easy. Don't expect to change overnight. You may feel panicked or full of despair. Big deal. That's OK. If you have to stop in the store and feel waves of panic, go ahead and feel the waves of panic. Just do your excursion.

The next step is, from the safety of your box, look out on the world and try to determine if there are potential allies out there.

Have you ever noticed any women hanging around the little opening of your box, looking in, jangling their car keys, shining their little key-ring flashlights in there or trying to poke around in your box with a stick? If you've noticed women poking around, there's a good chance that one of them is trying to lure you out of the box.

Often men such as yourself who live in a box and think of themselves as laboratory animals turn out to be sort of cute, mixed-up, skinny bass players who wear obscure Japanese furniture T-shirts. Other times they turn out to be preppy Midwestern boys who wear corduroy and Oxford shirts. Both men are often of interest to a certain kind of woman who has charms all her own, and who may, in fact, also live in a box. All you have to do then is come on out of there, blinking in the bright sun; rub your eyes; all those things can be cute gestures, the blinking in the bright sun, the rubbing the eyes, the looking around like you're not sure where you are. It is a wonderful thing for the box creatures to meet. It isn't that terrible to admit that you live in a box, especially when you find a woman who also lives in a box. You just have to know your limits. Avoid bright sunlight and excessive exertion.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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