The Utility of Hopelessness
How to create hope and what to do if you can’t
(This is the first in a series of articles on meaning-making. I expect some things will sound like heresy for a therapist to say. I hope so.)
The purpose of therapy is to create the conditions for hope so that you can create and sustain your own meaning.
That statement is my current operating principle. And I’m going to explore why working from a position of hopelessness can make what you do so powerful.
I feel hopeless. Not all the time. But often. Maybe at some point each day.
It’s more exact to say I experience feelings of hopelessness. I think I always have. I’ve taken ownership, and accept co-existence with them. They’re not all encompassing. It’s not depression, or self-harming in a blunt sense, but it is tiring, tedious, and limiting.
It means that things can feel pointless, or too heavy, or out of reach, and even though in theory I have the skillset to reach them, the ability doesn’t appear to be available to me in practice. In short: I perceive barriers that aren’t necessarily there in the way I’m experiencing them.
This hopelessness makes meaningful change difficult. Why?
“See it. Believe it. Achieve it.” Or…
I believe that change is possible for you. I know it. I see my clients change themselves through our work day in day out. I love this work.
I know that change is possible for me. But when the hopelessness is present, I don’t feel it’s possible. Even though I’ve experienced it. Even though I see it daily. Even though I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. My mind knows it empirically. But my feelings do not. And knowledge is only rumour until lives in the body.
So, the core of it is this: My heart doesn’t believe for me. As a consequence my will is very strong. Will power is a muscle to be worked and I’ve developed the ability to act in the absence of hope. This has resulted in a lot of use of the stick rather than the carrot because I don’t ‘believe’ in the carrot.
Curiously, this results in me being described by others, and myself, as ‘having heart’. My heart won’t do it for me, and so I will be my own heart. I will be what my heart needs. And the conversation between us proceeds: You can’t do it, so I will do it for you. You can’t carry it, so I will carry it for you. I will do it, and I will do it with and through grit and imagination, and if you can feel joy then feel it: if you can trust me enough to allow yourself to feel joy then feel it, and maybe one day you can trust life enough to feel an even fuller joy. But right now, you can’t do that, and that’s OK, because I’m going to do the work anyway. There isn’t a space of comfort I can enter. And that’s OK, I can work in the absence of that comfort. It can feel grueling, but if the nourishment available comes in the form of gruel then so be it, let that sustain me.
Importantly, this hopelessness is not an absence of longing. In fact it increases the tension between current situation and desired outcome: the desire is greater but the traction that hope would provide is lacking, so it can feel heartbreaking.
Can you relate to this?
And should I admit this, as a therapist? Should a fighter admit they’re scared of getting hit? Well, my soul is stronger than my bones, so yes this is the place to say ‘physician heal thyself’. Over and over. Like eating your veggies, drinking your water, cleaning your teeth. It’s not a one-hit wonder. You’re hungry, you eat. Do you complain the next day about being hungry again because you ate yesterday? Cognitive Hypnotherapy may be one of the closest things to magic that I’ve experienced but it isn’t a magic wand for all change (although it is for some).
Organizing principles — or ‘a bigger Yes’
What I’ve found I’ve needed are organizing principles. For the last 2 years I haven’t had one that’s stuck and it’s been tough. It was only a few months before gaining my Master Practitioner level that I first admitted to a friend that I have feelings of hopelessness. I was afraid it would undermine my credibility and efficacy as practitioner, and lovability as a person. In fact it has enhanced all of these.
When a deficit is a means
There are practitioners who teach because the thing they do comes easily to them. And there are those who teach from a place of needing to write Left and Right on their hands before they begin. Both can excel.
There are people who are naturally happy and funny. And there are comedic performers like Robin Williams, Billy Connolly, Susan Calman and many others who work within conditions of depression and create joy for others.
So, as a therapist, the futility I feel becomes the utility I offer. I am my first client. And I am well practiced.
OK, so what are the conditions of hope?
Needs, Wants, Joy — and a specific catalyst that I’ll get to at the end
A year ago to the week I was reading Pia Mellody’s work on co-dependence and addiction, and in what was almost a throwaway line she stated that meeting one’s needs and wants results in joy. What? I have a feeling that this may be one of those things that other people just instinctively know but was a revelation to me. I really questioned it. Really? Just like that? Is that the equation?? And I’ve learned from the work of Brene Brown that joy results in hope, extending the equation.
NB. So much has been written about this, and I will go into more detail in later articles, but the following questions are the tips of the icebergs I want to mention here, and are for you to consider what’s true for you, rather than my attempts at providing answers.
1. How do you know what you need?
As a starting point, yes, we can refer to Maslow here, sure, and you’re welcome to reorder those things, because even when we only have very basic physical needs met we’re still after meaning. Humans are meaning makers & story tellers.
I refer you to Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, where he states “The last of human freedoms — the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
It’s a powerful book. And that’s a nice line. Also powerful. Oft quoted. And not quite true. Sometimes whether or not something’s true doesn’t matter, as long as it’s useful. But in this case, as in others, something ‘not quite true’ applied inappropriately is harmful.
You may not have the capacity to imagine a different / better / more survivable meaning for or attitude towards your circumstances. This could be due to any number of things including depression, exhaustion, or limits to your imagination, which sounds like a horrible thing to say, but most of us readily accept that our perception is limited by our mental processing. The same is the case with imagination.
“Logic can take you from A-B. Imagination can take you anywhere.” Einstein
Again, a nice quote that’s bandied around, but not quite true. We all have our unknown unknowns: If you have not known healthy connection, how can you, in isolation, imagine it? You may hit on aspects that match, you may be able to get a feeling of it through the wonders of your mirror neurons, but you cannot know viscerally what you have not experienced. So, in identifying our needs, we may need help with the leaps, the connections, the opening of awareness to possibilities we don’t even know exist. Ditto with wants.
2. How do you know what you want?
Not everyone knows. Elizabeth Gilbert has graciously acknowledged that not everyone has one single overriding passion so speakers who do have that and who commend that to others (as she once did) are actually creating more difficulties and feelings of unease. Instead, start by paying attention to what you’re curious about. This applies to the small stuff as well as the big. It probably seems silly from the outside, but I had to learn that the way to figure out if I wanted something was to try it and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to have or do more of it. Like dating your wants. *It’s OK*. Meet. Like. Don’t like. Don’t like enough. OK, tried it, not what I want, moving on. I don’t have to marry my initial thought or decision.
My hopelessness makes me ask: do I really want that? Is it really worth doing? What’s the point? And that means that I’m often not confident in my wanting. Part of that is because wants keep evolving, and part of that is about fear. Knowing what I want — and owning that — requires trust. Trust that it will be ok if I get it, and that I will be ok if I don’t, that I can ride out the loss of wanting and not getting what I want. And that I’ll have the energy to follow through if I do get what I want — because working with hopelessness is tiring and I have to remind myself that that energy used to battle will then be available for joy with the want met.
And it is you who meets your want, I would suggest, like you meet a friend, evenly, as equals. Not as something that you are not worthy of (‘my big dream’) or that is not worthy of you (‘oh it’s so small it doesn’t matter’). You matter. Your want matters. Meeting each other matters.
3. How do you experience joy?
When I really experience joy, I’m not sure what to do with myself. For example, I have a friend with a dog of the loveliest temperament, always so ecstatic to see you like you’re the best thing since mud and sticks and dog biscuits and bacon (well, maybe not bacon…) and it’s like she doesn’t know what to do with herself she’s so happy — so she wiggles — not just her tail but her whole body like she’s going to explode. A full body experience of joy. And so I’ve started wiggling with her (my friend, and the dog). It feels silly, and funny, and vulnerable. It’s a risk, and I have to trust that it’s going to be OK to feel and express this.
Much research notes how expressing gratitude facilitates the experience of joy. It’s like savouring. Try the 3 Gifts exercise. Or to expand on that, try this series of questions, again finding 3 things: “What went well today, why, what did it mean to me, and how can I have more of it?”. This puts emphasis on your perception, your values, and your agency, which is a very potent combination.
And joy results in hope? Yes, because if this is possible, then maybe that is too.
Anyone here think all that needs, wants, joy, and hope stuff sounded a bit too…easy, or simple, given the circumstances? Yup. So, what’s the catalyst?
Trust is necessary for hope
Trust is necessary to feel safe enough to let yourself find, know, state, and meet your needs and wants, and to not have to be right about what you think they are or how you think you can meet them the first, or any, time you try. And if you don’t know what or how, then trust is necessary for the ability to imagine something different, giving yourself time and space to feel, to do, and to evaluate the consequences of your experiments. As my heart does not believe for me, I have to earn my own trust, which means:
Step 1: Integrity
Can I trust myself to — look after myself, stick to the plan that will get me to my goals, to not give up, to keep going even though I don’t believe? Tools for the job include self-care, gratitude, rest, good fuel, good movement. And doing the (apparently) small things, moment to moment: what is the next right step? And this requires honesty — the grit in integrity. The hope I’m talking about is not the one that comes with Hollywood orchestras in the background, but the type with dirt under its nails, and usually a shaking in its voice when it is speaking with honesty and courage:
I had a rare nightmare 3 weeks ago. In this nightmare Terror was coming. It arrived .Embodied. Humanoid. Darkest black. Like smoke at absolute density. As it arrived, and as I was shaking, I had the presence of mind to say to it, “I am scared of you, and I need your help.” And I did need its help. And it did help me do the thing that needed to be done. (Yes, I was quite surprised — and heartened — by this moment of enlightenment!).
I honoured its presence and power through acknowledging it. I could have denied it, but denial compresses and exacerbates the difficulties. Sometimes I do have to fight the hopelessness but sometimes I can sit with it, listen to it, and translate and transform. Sometimes we act despite of, sometimes because of. Integrity can be used as an antidote for denial. Therefore:
Step 2: Grab your bullshit by the horns
We all have our disclaimers. Our ‘Yes but…’s. Our “oh I would but I can’t….’s. And baggage that has been accumulated from other people telling us things that aren’t necessarily true or useful. These things have power. And it is our work to hold that power to account.
You can do this work solo, or you can do this with help. To my clients I say bring them, your disclaimers. This is the place for them. They’re useful: they’re excellent indicators of the structures you’ve put in place for self-preservation. And it’s this scaffolding that’s kept you up there until now — and that’s keeping you trapped there from now. Bring the scaffolding. Thank yourself for surviving. And now, gently, we can ease ourselves out of complicity with them, and crack open the tool kit to create the structures for your next evolution and new ways of being.
OK, so what do needs, wants, joy, hope and trust have to do with the creation of meaning and new ways of being?
Hope is necessary for the creation and sustaining of meaning, your Why, your Bigger Yes. If you do not have hope then any meaning you try to make will not stick because it will not be credible to you, and when you recognize that you don’t believe in this thing you’ve tried to create it will likely feel like another loss, fueling the feelings of futility.
Ideally hope would be present at the start of the process of creating lasting, meaningful change. But it can be developed through the process: you can start off without hope, do the work and build your trust with yourself moment to moment. And if you’re tuned in appropriately and looking for the right evidence then you can build your hope as you notice that through your actions the change you want is occurring.
Therapy is a place for the most honest conversations and ways of being that we can experience at that moment. And for imagining and creating better ones. So: the purpose of therapy is to create the conditions for hope so that you can create and sustain your own meaning.
Thanks for reading. If this has been helpful to you then feel free to comment and let me know. And if you found it interesting then please recommend so other people can find and enjoy it too.