You’ve had a string of awful dates, and you’re convinced that you’ll never find your person.
You’ve repeatedly asked your spouse to work less or spend less or drink less and after promising to make a change, they still haven’t.
You have depression, and nothing seems to be helping.
And, so, you feel hopeless.
And you assume that this feeling of hopelessness carries with it some significant truth: your circumstances won’t improve, you should just stop trying, you might as well give up.
“Clients who are feeling hopeless often view their situation in a polarized, black and white way,” said Chris Boyd, a psychotherapist in Vancouver, Canada. His clients tell him things like, “Nothing I do is making a difference,” “My circumstances will never improve,” “What’s the point of even trying?” “The pain is never going to improve,” “I’m in a dark place and can’t get out,” “I’ll never be happy,” “I’ll never find love.”
Maybe these statements sound all-too familiar.
But these hopeless sentiments couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Kate Allan in her uplifting book, You Can Do All Things: Drawings, Affirmations and Mindfulness to Help With Anxiety and Depression, hopelessness is simply “a misbehaving brain doing misbehaving brain stuff. It’s like a bug, a glitch.”
Allan, who has anxiety and depression, understands first-hand what it’s like to deal with a sinking sense of hope. When she feels hopeless, she instantly tells herself, “You are depressed. This is depression.”
After many years of therapy, Allan has realized that her feelings of hopelessness are a sign—not “that life is bad or that my problems are impossible,” but “a weirdly dramatic notification from my brain that I am not keeping up on my self-care, and that I need to reach out and connect with somebody.”
This is when Allan turns to her mental health checklist, and asks herself: Did I sleep well? Have I eaten? Did I connect with anyone today? “If the answers to any of these are ‘no,’ I know I then need to be more careful with myself. It’s a signal that my defenses are down, and it takes little for my mental health to spiral into severe depression.”
You, too, can use your feelings of hopelessness to check in with yourself. What do I need? Am I meeting those needs? What am I telling myself?
California psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, noted that hopelessness can point to a real limit or an irrational self-limiting belief. Maybe the reason you feel so hopeless isn’t rooted in reality, but instead in a false narrative about your abilities or circumstances. Maybe you tell yourself that you don’t really deserve a raise, or loving friends. Maybe you tell yourself that you’re not that smart or creative or capable.
These kinds of stories not only hamper your sense of hope, but they create situations that make it seem like you’re hopeless and can’t do anything right. They lead you to take actions that aren’t helpful. Which is why another strategy for bolstering your hope lies in revising your self-limiting beliefs (these tips and insights may help.)
Below, you’ll find other expert suggestions for building hope.
Ask for help. Howes frequently tells his clients that “hopelessness is often just a powerful reminder that we can’t do it all by ourselves. Many situations that feel or truly are hopeless to an individual suddenly becomes doable when other people get involved.”
Maybe you can ask your loved ones for help or a different perspective. Maybe you can talk to members of your church or synagogue. Maybe you can join an online or in-person support group.
Change the goal. “If the situation is truly unchangeable, is there a way to change the goal?” said Howes, co-creator of the Mental Health Boot Camp, a 25-day online program that helps to strengthen your well-being.
Howes gave these examples: If you can’t leave your job, your goal becomes to make it enjoyable and meaningful for you. If your spouse won’t change their ways, your goal becomes to change yourself, your routines and/or your friendships so you can meet more of your needs. If you can’t change a life-altering diagnosis, your goal becomes to face it with dignity, self-compassion and strength.
Focus on purpose. Boyd, also co-creator of the Mental Health Boot Camp, stressed the importance of focusing on what gives you meaning and purpose in these four areas: connection, passion, cause and spirituality.
That is, how can you connect to your partner, friends, family and colleagues? What creativity-fostering hobby or interest can you pursue? How can you help others? How might you ease their suffering? What fulfills you spiritually? Is it praying, meditating or spending time in nature or doing something else?
Think in moments. Maybe you feel hopeless about the future, about a year from now or a month from now. So focus on this very moment. Focus on this very minute. As Therese Borchard beautifully writes for readers with depression, “All you have to do is persevere for 15 minutes at a time and be as gentle with yourself as you would a scared child in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
Remember change takes time (and many steps). For instance, an illness like depression doesn’t dissipate with one or two changes, Howes said. Rather, you might need to change your sleep habits. You might need to start moving your body. You might need to take medication and to see a therapist. You might need to do these things for some time before you see significant results.
“If you can take things one-by-one, day-by-day, and stay patient, you’ll gradually begin to see change,” Howes said.
Seek therapy (or a different therapist). You can go to therapy at any time, Howes said, and it’s especially important when your hopelessness is affecting your ability to work, to appreciate things you’ve always appreciated or to spend time with your loved ones. (Your hopelessness might be a sign of depression.)
Maybe you’re already working with a therapist, but it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. Voice your concerns. Always be upfront in therapy about how you’re feeling, and what is and isn’t working. (Here’s some insight into red flags that a therapist isn’t right for you.) And maybe you need to work with someone else.
If you’re taking medication that seems ineffective, maybe you need a different dose. Maybe you need a different medication, or a different combination of medication. Maybe you’d like to work with a different doctor.
And “if hopelessness has led you to start thinking about harming yourself or ending your life, please make seeking help your top priority,” Howes said. “This includes calling 911, if your impulse or wish to harm yourself feels beyond your control.” Or you might contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or the Crisis Text Line and text HOME to 741741.
It’s vital to also remember that hopelessness is a feeling, not an ultimate reality, Howes said. And feelings are fleeting, he said.
Plus, just because you think change isn’t possible, that doesn’t make it true. Boyd noted that all of us have the ability to rewire our brains. “How we choose to focus our minds and act can change the pathways within the brain and help improve our mental and physical health.”
As Boyd added, “This is a profound message of hope, rooted in sound science.”
Sometimes, it feels like your sense of hope is so shaky, so fragile. But this shakiness, this fragility may be pointing to a false story you need to revise. It might be pointing to a change you need to make or a goal you need to adjust. It might be pointing to an unmet need.
In other words, that hopelessness isn’t a sign that you need to give up. It’s a sign that you need to pivot or redirect—which is something you can absolutely do. And there’s real, tangible hope in that.