In Defense of Hope: A 5-Step Exercise to Access Hope

In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to spend the next few posts talking about mental health. This is a subject close to my heart as I have struggled with depression for 13 years, survived two suicide attempts, and suffered four major psychotic breaks with reality. My aim is to offer what I have been able to find helpful to others who struggle.

I understand all too well how hard support and help are to access. Like so many other blogs and social media posts this month, I will encourage you to reach out for help if you are in crisis. I understand if you’ve repeatedly tried to find help before you may feel exhausted and disillusioned with the whole mental health system. I get that. But I promise, as someone who has been there, you can make it out of this. If you only take one thing away from these blog posts let it be this: Hope is real. Even if you don’t feel hope, please take just one little hopeful baby step.

I firmly believe, no matter where you are or what lies ahead, that the future is worth fighting for. Thank you for reading.

Having Hope is Hard. But I Can Make it More Accessible

Have you ever repeatedly body-slammed a closed door only to realize the door said, “Pull”?

I feel that way about a lot of things in life lately.

It’s not that I expect things to be easy. But there is “HARD” and I know how to approach this, I know the end result will be all the more fulfilling, and I know this is just a challenge that I need to break down into tangible steps…

And there is HARDand I am frustrated that nothing I try seems to make any impact, I expend so much effort and energy that it is painful, and I feel hopeless.

And here’s the thing, I “know” that good thoughts make a difference. I have heard (repeatedly) from counselors and loved ones that hope is a choice. Big bad nasty thoughts are “just a lie.”

I even have talked a little bit about the value of hope on this blog. But I gotta admit, hope has often felt like gritted teeth, screaming until you’re hoarse, clawing, crying, and body slamming a closed door. I “knew” hope worked, but when I did not know how to feel or believe it then the feelings of hopelessness would rush in.

So it came to pass, one Thursday morning, I was feeling dismal, dark, and destructive hopelessness. I had been here a while and I was on the verge of a potential crisis. On a whim, maybe with a tiny sliver of exhausted but real hope, I googled “feeling hopeless all the time.”

I opened nine blogs and articles, one right after the other, and skimmed through them.

Predictably, I saw a lot of things that I did not find helpful, and which reinforced my cognitive distortion that the whole dang mental health system is totally out of whack and professional advice is shoddy and worthless… Yada yada, blog for another time.

But I did find one article with a couple of truths that resonated so well, I was able to construct an exercise that helped me reframe EVERYTHING.

Now, I think I finally understand how to actively choose and access hope.

I will give an obligatory disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. B-u-u-u-t, I am someone who has struggled with depression and hopelessness. And while we’re being honest (honesty is very important to this whole exercise), I have often found the advice and counsel of mental health professionals to be lacking either because it is unhelpful at best or kind of framed in a detrimental, harmful way at worst. There have been good exceptions (we are honest here) but my main point is that this helped me make a HOPE BREAKTHROUGH and I know how valuable that could be to anyone out there stuck in a cycle of hopelessness.

With a couple of key points from the article I found, I constructed a 5-Step exercise for myself. I then wrote like 14 things that I felt hopeless about and performed the exercise for all of them. I did not get anything else done that morning, BUT I moved from a space of extreme hopelessness to a space of tangible hope in a way that felt authentic and accessible for the future.

In performing my exercise, it FINALLY CLICKED:

  • Why choosing hope is effective.
  • How to frame and understand hopelessness so that I could choose hope.
  • And most importantly, how I could create a path with hope to my most desirable outcomes.

When I finished the exercise, I was elated, weepy, happy, and so, so excited to tell people. It felt like I finally saw the sign that said, “Pull.” And the door I’d been beating at for ages just OPENED.

I am sharing this because I really think this might help someone else. You might “know” these things as well. But perhaps my framing, explanation, and exercise can help you find that CLICK.

The Purpose of Hopelessness

This article in Very Well Mind originally inspired this blog. While there were a number of points in the article that resonated and helped me to construct this exercise, there was one prong of their argument that felt misaligned.

One of the actions they recommend is that you think about what you “gain” from hopelessness. They provide two examples of ways your hopelessness might be maladaptive. This part did not resonate and even felt a little icky to touch because I disagreed with their two examples. Furthermore, I think framing it in the way that they did can be unhelpful or hurtful to someone feeling hopeless.

I do agree with what I think they were trying to say, which is that hopelessness does serve a purpose.

I will give their two examples, and the reasons I disagree. Then, I will give two examples of my own that I feel better fit the nature of hopelessness.

VeryWell Mind’s Example 1: Being hopeless protects you from being disappointed. If you don’t expect anything good to happen, you don’t have to feel disappointed when nothing good happens.

I disagree because: Disappointment often precedes hopelessness. You typically get knocked down first and then you start expecting nothing good to happen. To add insult to injury, even when you expect nothing good to happen you can still feel immense disappointment when your prediction comes true.

VeryWell Mind’s Example 2: Being hopeless might help you feel all right about not taking action. It protects you from creating change or doing anything differently.

I disagree because: This one felt personal because it has been leveled at me by multiple therapists, counselors, and some well-meaning loved ones. I’ll state it another way so that you understand why I believe this is an unhelpful way of framing hopelessness. This one says, “You are hopeless because you are lazy.” For starters, this is a personal attack on character. This says you are failing because, on some level, you are comfortable and don’t actually want to try. This is so, so cruel to say to someone who is hurting. There are many situations in my life where I desire change and I fight for change every possible way I know how. Being told I’m “not even trying” makes me feel even more hopeless. Remember body-slamming the door that said, “Pull”? Sometimes, throwing more effort and energy at the problem is not the most effective solution. And while the answer might be deceptively simple, you have to be able to access it. If you can’t read, are blind, or the door doesn’t have a sign on it that says, “Pull” and someone yells at you to try harder, how hopeful do you feel? This idea also ignores how paralyzing hopelessness feels in itself. It saps you of your ability to enact change.

Listen, if it helps you to frame your hopelessness in either of the above ways, by all means, frame it that way. I found both examples to be inadequate, but I was able to think of two ways to frame my hopelessness that both helped me explain the purpose of my hopelessness to myself and how I could find my way back to hope in the midst of them.

My example 1: Hopelessness validates your feelings of grief, loss, or frustration. If a situation seems difficult or unfair, then hopelessness is one way your mind can acknowledge something really hurts.

My example 2: Hopelessness inflates the value of what you want. If you look at other potential outcomes to a situation as undesirable to the point of hopelessness, then it makes the thing you desire feel superior. In this way, hopelessness can help direct you toward what you want. Understanding this about my own hopelessness led to a major lightbulb moment for me. I will cover this in my exercise.

A 5-Step Exercise to Access Hope

Step One:

Start by writing down the situation that makes you feel hopeless.

I feel hopeless because I am afraid something I have wanted and dreamed for myself for a very long time will not come to pass. This makes me feel hopeless because I do not feel like I could ever be happy if I do not have it.

Step Two:

Ask yourself what the full truth of the situation is. Incorporate all the facts. Consider all the evidence. Imagine all the possible outcomes, even if they feel unlikely.

Here’s something to remember and consider: Sometimes things feel unlikely because of cognitive distortion and not because they are actually unlikely.

Consider my example. I said that I did not feel like I could ever be happy if my dream did not come to pass. But what’s the full, nuanced truth? This is where the lightbulb moment happened for me.

It’s a beautiful dream, but realistically very few people get to have it and furthermore, in honesty, they are not better people or living better lives because they have it. Acknowledging that the future can look different than what I want does not cheapen the dream or make it less beautiful. My desires are good, but not getting the things I desire is not bad or wrong. There are many paths to a beautiful, happy life and fulfilling existence. It is not true that I am broken if I lose it. It is not true that I could not be happy if my life took a different direction.

Step Three:

Now, ask yourself what all the possible outcomes of your situation are. What’s the worst thing that could happen AND what’s the best thing that could happen?

In example, let’s say you feel hopeless because you really want to have a significant other and you fear you won’t ever have that.

What are the bad things that could happen? Well, you could never meet anyone and feel miserable about it.

What are the good things that could happen? You could meet a really great person, get married and spend the rest of your life with that person. OR you could find happiness and fulfillment in life without a significant other.

Step Four:

Now, ask yourself, if you had HOPE in this situation, what would you do?

For my example of the significant other: You might try going on dates or exploring new avenues for meeting people. You could also seek to find joy and fulfillment in being alone or spending time investing in platonic relationships.

Step Five:

Now, and this is the most important part, TAKE ACTION AS THOUGH THERE IS HOPE.

EVEN IF you don’t feel hope.

ESPECIALLY IF you don’t feel hope.

A therapist said to me once that sometimes you have to believe something before you feel it internally.

When I heard that, it definitely resonated. I could see how it would be effective. But I’m only just now realizing how to enact it practically.

The Key Lessons About Hope and Hopelessness

Three lessons I learned practicing this exercise:

  • One: The least desirable outcome is often improbable, or I am looking at it through a cognitive distortion. Furthermore, being paralyzed by hopelessness actually makes it more likely.
  • Two: While it is true that hope does not guarantee my most desirable outcomes, approaching the situation with a mindset of hope lifts my spirit and helps me to enact a path to a desirable outcome.
  • Three: What I want/desire/picture is good, but I need to be open to looking at things I did not originally want/desire/picture as good possible futures as well. This does not cheapen my dreams, it merely opens my mind to finding happiness in things I did not originally dream.

The third item was the big lightbulb. DING. I think I figured out something fundamental about the nature of desire, dreams, and happiness. This is where my second example of how hopelessness is maladaptive comes into play. In elevating the worth of the thing that I want, hopelessness for other outcomes gives me direction. This could be helpful. When I don’t want something, I don’t feel bad when I don’t get it. When I do want something and I am able to attain it, I can potentially feel even greater reward in getting it. The problem comes in when I do not get what I want. Accepting that things could still be happy or okay initially feels really bad. But why? Because my hopelessness for other outcomes has falsely elevated my perceived value of the thing that I want and letting go feels like cheapening my dream.

When I looked at it that way, I could frame it with compassion and understanding. It is true that loss hurts and not getting what you dreamed really hurts. I may even have to mourn for a time. I can thank my hopelessness for giving me some direction and clarity, but I can also understand that it has obscured some good truths. I can be happy again.

There’s a difference between understanding those key things about hope and “I’m going to scream into the darkness that I have HOPE even if I feel very much like things are hopeless!” (Body-slamming the door.)

The Hopeless Backlash- And How I Escaped That Too

Before I close this blog, I want to be fully honest and make a confession.

I wrote the majority of this post on March 9th, 2023, the day I first constructed the exercise. I had plans to post it sooner, but in the following week, I suffered what I will call “a hopelessness backlash.”

You see, imagining the future as good in the absence of what I really wanted felt like kidding myself after a week. I realized that the most likely outcome of that future was that maybe I would be able to find joy and fulfillment on some level, but twenty years from now I would still wake up in the night and find myself crying because my dream did not come to pass.

And that felt like a future that would not be worth living at all.

In that headspace, I didn’t want to post this blog. I didn’t want to finish my short story, “Drowning” because that story was all about finding hope. If everything fell apart, then I wanted to be able to fall apart too. I wanted to totally flatline.

Well, three days ago, I did the exercise again.

I realized that yes, a big loss like the loss of my dream would hurt and it might even hurt for the rest of my life. That is a future I still deeply fear.

But, Step 4, if I had hope, what would I do?

I would keep fighting for my dream while it is still possible. I would post this blog, I would finish “Drowning.”

And while those felt somewhat insurmountable in the moment, I encouraged myself to do Step 5, and take one little hopeful baby step.

I reached out to a trusted loved one and let them know that I didn’t feel totally okay. I took a bubble bath. Then I sat down and wrote for a half an hour.

And the hope door opened again.

Again, I realized that hope is a powerful, effective force. If you feel hope, you can be safe with yourself, you can feel optimism, and you can move forward to whatever the future may look like.

I pray that you can access hope too. Thank you again for reading.

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Until next time, my glorious herd! Imagine, dream, and believe.

🦄 ❤️AllytheUnicorn❤️ 🦄