This article is part of a series that explores the ways that specific “clusters” of depression symptoms manifest to create different experiences of depression. The previous article in this series discussed the anxious or agitated experience.
Hopelessness can be a passing part of a depressive episode, or even a brief, normal aspect of grief. But hopelessness can also be a long-term pattern of thinking and feeling.
People with this type of depression experience expect the worst from life, other people, and themselves. They may expect to fail what they try, to lose what they have, and to have no chance of getting what they want. Prospective activities may seem like too much effort, too little reward, or even potentially disastrous. The world often feels bleak and dark.
When hopelessness is a long-term pattern of viewing the world, and exists without many other depression symptoms, it is probably part of a personality style, rather than an illness, and it is almost inevitably the result of trauma. In fact, all of the long-term types of hopeless outlooks I describe below are likely the result of traumas that occurred in childhood, or sometimes even adulthood.
Beliefs About Hopelessness
Sometimes people believe that life—in general, or for them specifically—is about suffering and pain, and those things are all they can expect. Whether they see this as due to a curse, the idea that good people suffer and bad people enjoy, or God’s will, their hopelessness is tied to this belief about life. Generally this belief comes from traumatic lessons learned from caretakers during childhood.
Others find an intellectual stance to support the hopelessness they feel. They may believe that anyone who is intelligent, educated, and perceptive must come to the conclusion that life is hopeless. They find that existentialism supports their sense of meaninglessness in life. They see everything with a cynical, critical eye. They see people as stupid and deluded, little value in what most people contribute, incompetence everywhere they look, and feel both superior to most people and grim about living in a world surrounded by people who are ruining their chances for happiness.
One interesting version of hopelessness I see fairly often in my office is the tendency for people who have left-wing political views to see the world as getting worse and worse. It’s hard to feel hopeful when everything you read and hear tells you the people in power are conspiring against you, global warming is destroying the earth, water and oil are running out, and economic disaster is inevitable. Reading that the world is doomed cements this hopeless point of view. Even when people mired in hopelessness devote themselves to activism to try to change the problems with the world, they may fundamentally believe the world is crumbling despite their efforts.
Sometimes people who feel hopeless express their feelings in creative outlets. Traditional country music, for example, often expresses a sense that a broken heart, poverty, bad luck, and other miseries were inevitable for the singer. This can be a healing way to work through the traumas behind hopelessness. Nurturing, protective relationships can also be healing, as can psychotherapy for resolving trauma, particularly using EMDR treatment.
Our collective reality is that things change all the time, and sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad things happen. How much of each we get certainly varies from person to person and group to group, but everyone has opportunity for some pleasure and good fortune, and everyone experiences suffering and bad fortune. How much hope people can muster from their circumstances is mostly a consequence of how much resilience they have.
Trauma and Hopelessness
Unresolved trauma reduces resilience. This is partially due to the fact that when people experience trauma, they often come to conclusions about themselves and life that make sense in the context of the trauma, but are a distortion of reality when they are still held later, out of their original context. For example, a child whose mother dies suddenly in a car accident may conclude that there is no point in loving or depending on people, because they will leave you when you need them most. This child may grow up feeling hopeless about ever having love in her life.
Another example is a child whose parents repeatedly tell him he’ll never amount to anything—that he’s stupid, and worthless, and no one will ever see value in him. Most children believe what their parents tell them repeatedly about themselves. These beliefs may later cause him to be grossly under-employed or to not even try to date or have friends. These traumatic experiences could leave him feeling no hope for anything more than a lonely, unsatisfying life.
Holding onto Hope
These days, many people feel hopeless due to the economy. They are out of work, their house is under water or gone, or they see these things happening around them and feel doomed. Yet somehow, people survive all these things, and some people even continue to thrive. People who can hold onto the hope of what is still good in their lives—love, health, flowers, whatever it takes—and the faith that there will be better times ahead, don’t live feeling hopeless. The main difference between the hopeless and the hopeful is not the circumstances they are in, but how much inner resilience they have. People are born with varying amounts: good enough parenting cultivates resilience, and healing from traumas creates resilience.
Living feeling hopeless is very painful. It undermines motivation, separates people from others, invites addiction to anything that can give temporary relief, and can create a spiral of feeling worse and worse. Short term hopelessness is generally easy to treat. Long-term hopelessness often takes more time. You have to chip away at the causes until the hopeful person inside can be revealed.
© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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