The Random House College Dictionary defines hope as “the feeling that what is desired is also possible or that events may turn out for the best.”
It’s certainly easy to have hope when everything is going your way–you just landed a great job, met the man/woman of your dreams, lost a lot of weight or won the lottery. But what about when things aren’t running so smoothly–you’ve been out of work for a long while, you can’t seem to find a friend or lover who “gets” you, you’ve gained a significant amount of weight, you or a loved one have been diagnosed with a serious illness or you’re coping with a significant loss. How do you hold onto hope during these times?
The answer lies in developing or strengthening your “hope-holding” capabilities. If you were raised by caregivers capable of providing hope when you felt disappointed or discouraged, you would most likely have learned to “hold hope” during trying times. But if you were raised by pessimistic, down-beat, or down right negative caregivers, you may have never learned how to hold hope when the going gets rough. Unable to hold onto hopeful thoughts, you learned long ago to minimize your expectations so as to avoid disappointment. Perhaps you believe that the future will be a carbon copy of the past and you give up hope before you give something your all. Maybe you’ve developed convenient “excuses” to cover up the hopelessness and to keep you from experiencing any more discomfort, discouragement and loss:
“There is no point in dating anymore–all the good men are already taken.”
“It’s just too difficult to find friends in this city. I’ve tried hard in the past and came up empty-handed.”
“I could never lose all this excess weight–I’d have to live on lettuce leaves and have zero pleasure.”
“I can’t get over the loss of my husband/wife/child/beloved pet–I will never be able to move forward with my life.”
Without hope you may be living a life of quiet desperation. Perhaps you’ve given up on your dreams and goals. You’re using food, alcohol, sex, shopping, working and drama to fill up the emptiness. These activities distract you and provide some degree of pleasure, comfort and soothing. Unfortunately, none of these distractions will teach you the skill of holding hope when things seem bleek.
I know in my childhood I had to fight to hold onto hope. My mother often said things couldn’t be done or poo-pooed things I wanted to do. She’d say “You won’t be able to…” or “It’s impossible to…” or “Don’t even try to…” In my teens, I rebelled against her pessimism with a defensive brand of optimism. “Oh, yes I can” or “You’ll see” were my motto. But in my twenties, I found myself ill equipped to deal with life’s necessary ups and downs. Sure, as long as things went my way, I was able to remain optimistic and hopeful. And even when they didn’t, I could sometimes resort to that defensive optimism that had previously worked. But when I began to encounter more challenging “adult” disappointments, like relationship breakups or job dissatisfaction, I would sink into depression and at times, despair. There it was–the hopelessness that existed in my childhood home–the hopelessness I had fought so hard to guard against. Emotional eating became my way of coping, but it always came with a big price–more hopelessness.
So, how do you go about developing or strengthening your “hope-holding” capabilities? Here are a few steps you can follow:
Step 1: Make a list of all the areas in which you feel hopeless. Be honest with yourself. Do you feel hopeless about love or work prospects, your weight, your partner’s drinking, your mother’s health? Just get them all down on paper. Change begins with awareness and acceptance of where you are at today.
Step 2: Pick one area to focus on and write down all your hopeless, negative thoughts about this issue. My client Sue wrote down ” I feel hopeless about my weight.” “I don’t feel that I could ever trust myself to stick to a healthy eating plan.” “I’ve never been able to keep weight off.” “I’m lazy and undisciplined.” “I’ll never like this body.” “I fear that I’m going to live a life of hating my body and always feel unfulfilled.” “I’m really sad about all this.”
Step 3: Suspend your “voice of reality” for a brief moment and write about this issue as if you had hope. Try on a child-like imagination of anything being possible; write about the version of you that you’d like to be. Sue wrote “I believe in myself.” ” I can lose this weight and I can stick to a healthy eating plan.” “I love myself and I can trust myself to make healthy choices.” “I’m not lazy and I make time for exercise most days of the week.” “I’m procrastinating less and feeling better about myself.” “I’m pleased with the results and am more comfortable in my body now than I have ever been.” “I really like the way I’m looking and feeling.”
Step 4: Write down the emotions and thoughts that surface when you “try on” hope. Are you noticing any fears regarding positivity and optimism? Sue noticed that she felt more possibility open up when she tried on hopeful thoughts. Even though they felt foreign and didn’t totally feel “real,” she did notice a shift from feeling frustrated and unmotivated to having a teeny, tiny glimmer of hope. And while this felt good, this state of hope brought with it fear and sadness–the fear of holding hope and later being disappointed and the sadness that she hadn’t been raised by hopeful parents. Sue had experienced quite a bit of disappointment in her life and things “never turned out as she had hoped they would.” She was not moving forward in her life, in part, because she was constantly guarding against the experience of disappointment. Meanwhile, she was constantly disappointed with her stagnant life.
Step 5: Write down a few positive statements about your ability to hold hope. Sue wrote “I am willing to practice suspending my “voice of reality” more often and try on hope and imagination.” “I can learn to be more hopeful.” “Even a glimmer of hope feels better than the depth of hopelessness I’ve been living with.”
Step 6: Practice, practice, practice the above five steps. The good news is that holding hope is just a skill and you can learn it. And because this skill won’t magically appear in your skill set, you’ll need lots of practice to gain mastery.
Step 7: Surround yourself, as much as possible, with genuinely positive, optimistic people. Hope and optimism are contagious. If you don’t know anyone like this, consider a series of sessions with a coach or therapist.
My hope for you is that you reconnect to the hope that resides deep within you. It is there inside all of us; it is our birthright, there for the taking.
Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT. If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.