learned helplessness and anxiety
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