Shanice* lets out a long sigh and picks at her fingernails. Although she’s silent, it’s as if I can hear the whir of her thoughts scrambling through her mind.
“Where did your mind go just now?” I ask. She continues to pause, trying to find the words to describe her emotions in all of their complexity.
“Everything just feels really hard,” she begins. “Like, life feels really hard sometimes. I thought it would be easy to do everything I’m ‘supposed to’ do like find a job, get a boyfriend, whatever, but it’s just all so… hard.”
I sit back in my chair and allow the room to be silent as I collect my thoughts. Where do I go next? We could discuss what, specifically, Shanice finds difficult about these situations or what obstacles she perceives to be in the way. We could explore why she values things like getting a job or finding a boyfriend, or what people or things have contributed to the obligatory “should” she uttered. All would be viable options. And yet, when I read between the lines, what I hear Shanice saying is: I’m feeling hopeless about my future.
Shanice isn’t alone in this experience. Unfortunately, I’ve worked with countless people of various ages, ethnicities, genders, or social locations whose concerns have revolved around expressions of the same theme of hopelessness.
And so, today I thought I’d remind us all about the power of hope and how we might be able to instil just a little dose of it into ourselves when we need it the most.
First Thing’s First: What’s “Hope” Got to Do With It?
“Hope” might be a frequently-used word in our culture, but it can be surprisingly difficult to pin down its meaning. Nonetheless, my favourite definition comes from Jevne & Miller’s Finding Hope, wherein they explain that hope is illusive because “you can’t touch it, but you can definitely feel it… hope doesn’t weigh anything, but it can ground you and anchor you.”
What we do know about hope is that it can be powerful for the body and mind. Research in the medical field has documented that patients who believe in a positive future for themselves are more likely to take action towards their recovery, experience a decrease in psychological symptoms, and have higher levels of resiliency. Further, patients have shown better outcomes in therapy when their therapist is able to maintain a degree of hope about their abilities and resources.
As Jerome Groopman adds in The Anatomy of Hope, hope also has the power to change our neurochemistry! Indeed, it can release endorphins and enkephalins in the brain that can help block pain by mimicking the effects of morphine.
Signs & Symptoms of Hopelessness
Despite how important hope can be for our wellbeing, it isn’t the easiest to maintain. Threats to hope can include: lack of support, inability to envision a positive future, repeated failures or setbacks, and personal limitations, according to a fantastic paper on hope by Ashleigh Mutcher.
Signs that you’re experiencing hopelessness can include:
Frequently asking yourself “what’s the point?”
Refraining from participating in activities or hobbies that once brought you joy
Feeling like every task, no matter how big or small, is impossible to overcome
Underestimating your capabilities
Having extended periods of “empty time,” which may be filled by ruminating, sleeping, watching Netflix, eating, etc.
Having beliefs about yourself, others, and the world that are disproportionately negative (i.e. “things will never get better,” “the world is full of awful people,” etc.)
Using words like “always” and “never” in your vocabulary frequently (see previous point)
Hopelessness can also be a very physical experience. For me, witnessing hopelessness is like watching a balloon slowly deflate: slowly but surely, you watch someone’s spirit wilt away, along with any semblance of optimism or problem-solving abilities. You try to pick the balloon up, only to feel a limp pile of latex in your hands. Hopelessness, I’ve noticed, is also one of the most contagious emotions I’ve experienced in session.
How We Can Become More Hopeful
So, what are we to do if we’re in a hopeless place? The good news is that hope is an emotion and therefore something that can ebb and flow (in a good way)! Here are some strategies that I’ve used on myself and countless other people that have proven to be successful:
Remember your end goal—and why it’s important to you.
I’ve noticed that a key symptom of hopelessness is hyper-fixating on negative details and thus losing perspective. Although it can be easy to start thinking “things will never get better” as a result, this is a form of overgeneralizing. Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion—or unhelpful way of thinking—where you focus on one small thing excessively and make inaccurate, broad conclusions. Not getting an interview for a job you applied to becomes a sign that “you’ll never be employed” or going on a bad date means “you’ll never be in a relationship.”
I’m a huge sucker for overgeneralizing to be honest and find myself doing it quite frequently. Personally, the most helpful thing I’ve learned to do in such moments is (a) recognize that I'm doing it and (b) zoom out (or looking at the big picture). So if you’re feeling discouraged about finding an apartment after seeing a plethora of hideous basement apartments, gain some perspective by saying, “In the grand scheme of things, looking for an apartment for an extra couple of weeks won’t kill me. I know I’ll find something eventually.”
I’ve also found it useful to remember why I’m working so hard to achieve a goal in hopeless moments. Why is it so important to me? What meaning does it carry? What positive difference will it make in my life when the goal is achieved? Reconnecting with my values can make all the difference.
2. Use your imagination for good rather than evil.
I've noticed that hopelessness has the power to bring very powerful images to the surface. When we worry about not finding our dream house, we start picturing ourselves in a gaudy shack filled with cobwebs and rats. Our brain starts throwing countless “what if” situations our way: what if you never find a house? What if you have to live in your tiny one-bedroom apartment for the rest of your life? What if you become a crazy cat lady who loses all of her friends!? You are not doing yourself any favours whatsoever when you're thinking this way. My brilliant supervisor calls these “train to nowhere” thoughts—thoughts that have no answers but leave you feeling like crap.
My advice here isn’t to start practicing inauthentic optimism; it’s to just be balanced. For every negative what-if, counter it with a positive one. Every time you think, “What if I’m going to die alone?” try countering it with, “What if I unexpectedly meet someone I really like this year?” Again, this isn’t about wishful, rainbows-and-butterflies thinking, it's just about thinking in a more balanced way. After all, imagining every single negative outcome is just as ridiculous as naively imagining every single positive one.
3. Take a break if need be.
If your hopelessness is stemming from a perceived inability to achieve a specific goal, it can be helpful to put things on pause for a bit if you’re starting to feel down. My experience is that hopelessness can be a kind of emotional quicksand, dragging you further and further into a rabbit hole of despair, so removing yourself from the situation sooner rather than later can be a big help.
If you decide to take a break, use the time wisely. Tend to your basic physical health and prioritize getting enough sleep, moving throughout the week, practicing basic hygiene, and eating balanced meals. Here are some other blogs of mine that might be worth reading, too:
4. Surround yourself with hopeful people.
Sometimes I see myself as a hope lender—a person that reminds people that everything will be okay when they truly feel like their life is over. I don’t do this in an invalidating, everything-happens-for-a-reason type of way (the worst), but I might say something like, “You know, Shanice, I’m thinking about how you said something similar to me a few month’s back when you were worried about passing the bar exam…” Together, we’ll reminisce about how hopeless things felt then, too, and how she got through it. It’s a good reminder of, “Oh yeah, I guess sometimes my brain can be a bit dramatic.”
The point is, it’s okay to have multiple “hope lenders” in your life when things are feeling rocky. Sometimes this means chatting with people you know who have overcome similar obstacles. Other times, you might follow people on social media who help instil hope or read biographies of celebrities you look up to (I have RuPaul to thank for this). If something gives you hope in any way, keep it close.
5. Ask yourself, “What’s stopping this situation from being worse?”
If someone felt hopeless about a recent cancer diagnosis, answering this question might help them recognize the different things that have served a protective function in their life. They might become grateful for the experienced and knowledgeable doctor they’ve been working with. They might remember that their friends have been visiting them on a daily basis to keep them company or that their ability to move has allowed them to garden when they need to clear their head.
There’s an expression that says, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, when you’re in a certain headspace, you’re probably going to only notice things that support that headspace. Thankfully, however, changing what you focus on has the ability to change your thoughts and feelings for the better, so if you’re looking for the good stuff, you’ll feel more optimistic, too.
6. Focus on creating small, specific, present-focused goals.
Hopelessness often comes with asking questions that are too big and often unanswerable. Instead of asking m questions like, “How will I ever get a job?”, set specific tasks that can actually be accomplished that day. Here, this might involve: making a list of people you can reach out to for job advice, tweaking your resume, asking to speak with someone at the company you're interested in to learn more about what they do, setting up an online portfolio as a way of marketing yourself, and more. Now we’re talking!
7. Remind yourself about past successes.
Hopelessness has an incredible ability to cloud our judgment. Forget the eight degrees you have, you’re incompetent! Nevermind your friends who have showed you so much love and care, you’re an unlovable gargoyle! When you truly look at the crap Hopelessness feeds you, you can see just how absurd it really is.
To prevent yourself from getting carried away, look at the evidence, specifically those moments in the past during which you pleasantly surprised yourself. When was the last time you found yourself feeling hopeless? How did you overcome the situation? Who did you rely on? What internal skills and strengths did you use to help you get by? You just might find that The Hopelessness is being a bit of an annoying bully more than anything else.
8. Practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion is one of my most favourite tools for supporting mental strength. The three components include: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
Being mindful involves taking a balanced approach to your experiences. This means refraining from either over-indulging the negative emotion (“yes, hopelessness, you’re absolutely right that things will never get better”) and from brushing it away (“I’ll be fine, let’s just brush this under the rug”). It involves having an open, non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings as if you’re a third-party observer. This step of self-compassion might involve saying something like, “I’m noticing that I'm feeling really discouraged about selling my house in this climate and that I’m thinking things will never get better.”
Common humanity involves recognizing that all suffering is part of the shared human experience and that you are not alone in your pain (which is self-pity). This might involve saying something like, “Who isn’t feeling hopeless right now? COVID-19 has caused difficult changes for all of us and I’m sure so many people can relate to the feeling of not knowing how to change their situation.”
The third and final element of self-kindness involves being warm and understanding towards yourself rather than overly critical or harsh. Rather than speaking in black-and-white, negative terms, you allow yourself to see the grey areas and speak to yourself in the same way that you’d talk to a friend. Instead of saying, “I’m such a loser for not being able to sell my house,” you might say, “It makes sense that I'm feeling frustrated; I’m going to be kind to myself by putting this on pause for the rest of the day.” For me, it’s helpful to not just change your thoughts, but change your behaviours in a way that exemplifies self-kindness, too (as you can see in the example I provided).
The Bottom Line
Hope is kind of like love: you know it when you feel it. I’ve also noticed that there’s a bit of a make-or-break element with hope; two people could go through very similar situations, but the degree of hope they have can be the biggest determinant in the outcome they experience.
If you’re noticing that you’re feeling hopeless, I first want to say: this, too, shall pass. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. How many days I've had where I’ve convinced myself that things will “never get better,” only to laugh at whatever felt so upsetting to me a few months later.
Additionally, there are things we can do to help feelings of hopelessness pass through a bit more smoothly, such as: maintaining perspective and keeping our eye on the prize, using our imagination to envision positive outcomes rather than solely negative ones, surrounding ourselves with hopeful people, creating specific, achievable goals, and practicing self-compassion.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been walking with hopelessness for a long period of time, it can be helpful to reach out for professional support and/or or ask your doctor about medications that can help. To book an in-person or online psychotherapy session, please do not hesitate to reach out via the contact form on my website or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*names and details have been changed/amalgamated to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of Fresh Insight’s patients