If life where an onion and you peeled it down to its last layer, what you come to is choices. Life is about the choices we make, while the meanings we ascribe to these choices are secondary. A sense of hopelessness arises when we encounter pain and difficulties based on a series of choices we made and we have come to believe that there are no alternatives.
Perhaps we believed that these choices would lead us down a path of happiness (as is often the case) perhaps we have come to believe that these choices which led us to our current predicament, are the only path we could have taken to fulfill happiness. The latter is a primary and recurring cause for feeling hopeless.
Consider another analogy, you are traveling down a path in a cave, and you come to a dead end. There is no where else to go, there is a slab of rock in front of you, to the left of you, to the right of you and behind you. Such a scenario is highly improbable, (except if you fell into a deep hole in a cave) which most people (if not all) in that scenario would feel hopeless. Yet, this is the illusion people create in their heads that results in the feelings of hopelessness. There are three reasons for this, and they are as follows:
Believing Your Choices are Your Identity.
While the choices you make in your life, definitely influence whom you are as a person, they are certainly not you. So a doctor, a boxer, an engineer, an uncle, etc. are nouns used to describe persons who engage in certain professions, and relationships. They are under no circumstances genuine descriptors of a person’s identity. When people become enmeshed in certain choices they have made, be it a profession or a relationship, they often resort to a sense of hopelessness when things in regards to their choices don’t work out. This is because this choice has become (falsely) an integral part of their identity, making it difficult for them to thoroughly consider other options.
Social Status and Pressure.
Then there are others, who have done a good job of separating the choices they have made from whom they are. However even when they find themselves thoroughly unhappy with a life decision, they remain hesitant to change due to social pressure and perceived status they have earned from adhering to certain norms via the choices they have made. In these situations, it is not the specific choice the person has made that keeps him miserable, it is the choice to give into social pressure that keeps him miserable. Further, as long as he continues to hold unto the beliefs that encourage the pursuit of status, when faced with life changing decisions he will see no options better that the choice he made, which he is currently unhappy with.
Lack of Knowledge.
The third reason some people struggle with hopelessness is simply a lack of knowing. In worse cases, the person may not even have a clue that a better life awaits him or her other than the life he or she is currently experiencing. This third reason is the most predominant when it comes to feelings of hopelessness, because until we know what we don’t know, our frames of references will remain limited.
When I work with clients who struggle with depression, I always encourage them to consider that there is a brighter alternative to the path they are currently taking. Further, in order to consider this brighter alternative they have to practice keeping an open mind and taking accountability for unhealthy thoughts which create fears for them and keep them stuck.
At the end of the day, we are our own prisoners and consequently our own liberators.
The number one cause for hopelessness is living a lie. This lie is usually a narrative you were raised to believe in from a very young age and thus your brain over the years has become wired to look for signs and signals that support your belief in this false narrative, leading you to make daily decisions which support this lie.
The problem with lies is that when we make decisions, or attempt to solve problems based on a lie, (aka problems that don’t exist) nothing changes. Take for example, there was once a young man who was being treated by his family physician for irritable bowel syndrome. During treatment, his condition remained the same for a long time and then took a turn for the worse. It was only when things got worse, that the young man explained to his doctor that he had been abusing laxatives, as part of his diet plan. Now that the doctor and the young man where no longer making decisions based on a false narrative, they could get him the appropriate help he needed for abstaining from laxatives.
This story is a concrete example about how we spin our wheels when we attempt to live our lives on false narratives. A false narrative is a logical fallacy, where the solutions we attempt to apply to our perceived problems make sense, if only the foundation were true. In the story shared in the previous paragraph, only the doctor was in the dark about what was the true cause of the problem. Perhaps some might argue the young man to some degree was also in the dark because he might not have made a connection between his use of laxatives and his stomach issues. Most people who experience hopelessness have no clue that they are attempting to live a lie.
They feel hopeless about their situations, because they have reached the conclusion the path they are taking is the only sure way of getting their needs met. It’s like someone who believes that he can walk through a wall, and repeatedly bangs his head against the wall with the expectation that the wall will eventually give in. Eventually, the person gives up, slums against the wall while massaging a wounded head. Hopelessness feels the same way, you keep tackling the same problem with solutions that make sense, but to no avail. Eventually you begin to lose faith in yourself, and when you see others whom you perceive are doing a great job in getting their needs met, you begin to see yourself as a failure and you start to develop a pessimistic view about your ability to thrive in life.
But what if the problem, or set of problems you have been desperately attempting to tackle, have never been the true issue at all? What if your core beliefs are foundationally based on myths? If you struggle with feelings of hopelessness, then this is good news. It means that there are other ways for you to get your needs met, but first you must go through great pains to revise your beliefs.
Most people who are genuinely lost in regards to where to start in revising their belief systems, would benefit a great deal from a seasoned therapist, who can guide them in addressing all aspects of their lives.
Hopelessness is a dangerous feeling to experience, this is because once feelings of hopelessness begin to set and fester, people start reconsidering their existence. When clients share suicidal thoughts and feelings with me, I have responded by asking them if they have left “no stones unturned.” Leave no stones unturned is an old figure of speech for searching and exploring all possibilities before considering another alternative. For example, if you lost your keys and you strongly suspect it is in your house. To leave no stone unturned would be that you thoroughly search your house before considering a search at another location.
So if you are experiencing bouts of hopelessness, and you are contemplating your existence, to leave no stone unturned means that you thoroughly explore every possibility to address your situation. In my fifteen years of counseling there are always several things people have not considered, and when they do consider and follow through, their lives improve.
In truth, nothing is worth ending your life over, I have counseled people who experienced feelings of hopelessness over the death of a loved one, people who received a medical diagnosis which changed their lives, breaking up with a romantic partner, experiencing a significant loss of wealth and not experiencing success or loss in reacquiring wealth. In all of these examples there were three recurring reasons which induced feelings of hopelessness. These reasons were all connected to the beliefs and values of the persons, mainly their relationships with these beliefs and values. Given that most of what we believe comes from our formative years, sometimes without realizing it, we sometimes enmesh our old beliefs with our sense of identity. Which makes it even more difficult for us to reconsider revising the beliefs we hold. So, the reasons people struggle with hopelessness are as follows.
Grief and Loss
The loss of a loved one can be an especially painful experience, particularly when that person passed away before his or her elderly years. However, grief and loss is not limited to the loss of a loved one, it also deals with the loss of income, the loss of a relationship, the loss of perceived status, and the list goes on.
I have noticed the pain of grief and loss is especially unbearably for parents who have lost children. In cases where this was the only child or first child of the person, the grief appeared to be so unbearable that they had almost stopped functioning in their daily lives. The loss was a situation they never contemplated and refused to accept. I have never been a fan of the stages of grief model, which involve denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This is because the first four stages typically occur together, and what keeps the person from coming to a place of acceptance are the beliefs they hold in relation to the grief. So if I am working with a client who lost her only child, and she continues to repeat that a parent should never bury a child, the statement is a testament to what she believes, which is keeping her sick. In truth, it is a sad day when a parent buries a child, but the statement, “a parent should never have to bury a child is false,” because there is no force or entity that can guarantee the prevention of such a tragedy. In truth this client can come to peace and make a new meaning of her life, even though the pain from the loss might never go away.
Pride may seem like an odd reason, but I rank pride as number two on my list because it is very common. Human beings are innately wired to function in a hierarchal structure, this means for most people who are not aware of this, from the cars they drive, to the clothes they wear, a certain level of status within a micro and macro hierarchal system is being communicated. For those who are not aware of this, and for those who are aware of this and cherish it, when there is a loss of status, due to changes in the person’s life, a sense of hopelessness can set it. This sense of hopelessness is often due to a set of beliefs which state that the person can exist and function in no other state other than the previous state he had grown accustomed to. This is called pride, so in maintaining consistency with the term, leave no stone unturned, an effective solution would be for the person to explore what it would be like to actually live his or herself without his perceived status enhancer.
People don’t like doing hard or difficult things, especially when the prospect of engaging in a difficult task does not guarantee any favorably outcomes. For example, a gold digger is less likely to dig for gold in an area where there is no evidence for gold. Or a high school senior is less likely to apply to attend a college or university if he or she does not believe that a college degree would be beneficial in their life. Given that change is a constant in our lives, it is inevitably that we will all come to crossroads in our lives where we have to consider committing too hard and difficulty work in the hopes of an outcome that improves our lives. If the work is hard and time consuming and the reward is not guaranteed, this can be discouraging to some people and influence the onset of hopelessness. A solution to this would be to explore the belief of promised or guaranteed outcomes. In truth, nothing is guaranteed, however the work we put in helps to add meaning and purpose to our lives, as well as experience.
Hopelessness can be overcome; it is a matter of moving past our difficult feelings and revisiting the messages we have come to believe.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC
In a previous post, I wrote about understanding anxiety and depression in the concept of a person’s thinking being constrained within a box. This is how feelings of hopelessness develop, people come to believe that their lives should only progress in a linear and specific way and when things go wrong they become depressed.
Hopelessness is a learned state, theoretically it’s a state of mind you get into when all hope for survival is lost. With clients who struggle with depression, a reoccurring theme I learn from them is a persistent feeling of emptiness they experience. They usually will then proceed to inform me about how this feeling of emptiness doesn’t make sense given that things in their lives are going smoothly. However, upon further processing, I discover that there are a number issues with the manner in which they are handling their affairs and commitments. This lead to a brief scenario in the therapeutic relationship of helping the client determine what is causing the other, their feelings of emptiness or their lack of follow through with commitments. It’s usually the latter, which usually turns out to be a continuation of unaddressed issues.
Regardless, if you find yourself experiencing hopelessness, here are four key strategies you can start practicing right away to experience hope and optimism in your life.
Envision Your Future
With this strategy, you write down three or more major things you would like to change in your life. They could be as concrete as you want them to be or otherwise. Here are some examples;
You want to own your own home.
You want to have more friends.
You want to experience less anxiety in public.
Don’t hesitate into going into a much detail as possible, i.e, the color of the home you want to live in, what neighborhood you will be living in, e.t.c. This allows to believe in your vision becoming more of a reality.
Develop a Plan
With this strategy, you take the first practical step of putting your vision down on paper. A plan on paper allows you to pre document what specific steps you are going to take towards seeing your vision or visions to reality. Often times, when we write down our plans, the realities and obstacles of what we are trying to achieve jump out on us. This actually provides the motivation we need to solve problems on paper that we anticipate we will encounter towards realizing our vision.
Commit to a Set of Routines
Once you have developed a plan towards realizing your vision, your next step would be to identify specific things you have to do on a daily basis as you build up towards realizing your vision. For example, the aspiring realtor who needs to pass an exam in to be licensed as a realtor will develop a study plan every day to study for the exam, until the day of the exam. Or someone who seeks to build a social network will engage in certain habits on a daily basis as she works to build up her network of friends.
With a set of routines documented, you will be able to identify certain habits that bring you closer to your vision, and certain habits that pull you further from your vision.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
While different strokes may be for different folks, you are not the first person in the history of mankind to be struggling with feelings of hopelessness. I usually will encourage clients to enroll in local support groups to connect, trade ideas and receive support from others who are in a similar situation as themselves. Another chief benefit of a local support group, is that you will get to meet with people who have overcome hopelessness and learn from them what worked and what didn’t. You can then apply some of these strategies you believe will work best for you.
So there you have it, four strategies you or someone you care about can begin using immediately to overcome feelings or hopelessness and start experiencing genuine hope and optimism in your life today.
So what are your thoughts and feelings about these strategies?
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling private practice located in Tucson AZ.