Hope, a multifaceted and often evasive concept, comes up frequently with the individuals I see in therapy. Often slippery and elusive even months or years into the therapy process, hope can drift out of a person’s awareness as easily as it dives in. I am inspired over and over again by the courage and steadfastness of the people I work with, by their willingness to keep hope in sight, even in the darkest of moments, as they continue their inner work.
As an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapist and trauma and dissociation specialist, I have spent more than 15 years bearing witness to the courage it takes for those I work with to truly step over the threshold from their present state of being and acknowledge and process memories associated with the past.
When folks first walk into my office, the distress they experience often does come from reliving the past, and they often bring with them the (attainable) goal of being able to feel and know, with their whole self, that the danger is over, that the past is not present. In therapy, we work together to keep them one foot in the present, one foot in the past, to keep them from falling back into “reliving” the past, from getting caught in a pattern of “wishing.”
Passive Wishes, Active Hope
Let us consider wishing for a moment. When we wish for something, it may become more difficult for us to accept that some things are simply the way they are. Because wishing is often passive, we might easily find ourselves lost in thoughts of, “I wish this were true,” or “I wish that hadn’t happened.” The problem with wishing is that when we get lost in wishes, we stop taking action. In continuing to wish, we may be unable to accept that we cannot wish something to be different. It is always possible to create change, in our relationships with others and many other aspects of life, by taking different actions and making different choices, but there will always be certain things that cannot be changed—no matter how hard we wish for them to change.
Hope, on the other hand, often precedes action. Both “hoping” and “wishing” describe our wanting of something in the future, but when we have hope, we are often more likely to take action, to act out of this desire. Simply put, hope has an intention associated with it. It has movement. When we have hope, we may be better able to examine our past, see where it has brought us, and identify ways to work with this history and use it to explore what is next for us. Hope is often a beacon—though it may be a small, dim one at times. Some things in life are immutable. We cannot wish these events, circumstances, situations different—they happened, and they changed us. But we always have hope, and with this hope, we can take action in order to heal.
The challenge, then, arises when hoping and wishing become entangled, especially when we have trouble recognizing and separating these tangles. A man I am currently working with—let’s call him Joey—said recently, “I’m really hoping my wife can change her addictive behaviors.” Beyond that wishing, though, Joey was taking no action. Instead of taking care of himself, he was abandoning his own needs in favor of simply wishing she would change. We began to work through this. When he realized the difference between hoping and wishing, when he found he could take care of himself—an action—and still maintain hope in the possibility of her changing, he was able to shift his feelings of inertia from the passive stance of wishing.
Joey then began to act with intention. He started setting boundaries and considering his own needs. He realized he had to accept his inability to change his wife’s behavior: He could hope and wish for her to choose a different path, but he could not control her choices, only his own. What he could do—and did begin to do—instead was acknowledge the reality of the situation and take action to improve it, infusing his actions with the sense of hope he carried for the future.
Some things in life are immutable. We cannot wish these events, circumstances, situations different—they happened, and they changed us. But we always have hope, and with this hope, we can take action in order to heal. Even when our sense of hope is visualized as no more than a thin, nearly invisible thread, we must hang on to it, let it guide us through the challenging, often tumultuous, even heartbreaking steps on our healing journeys.
Trauma therapy involves stabilization, processing, and the assimilation of traumatic material before a person’s system can be brought back into the present. But this process is circular, and people frequently circle back, moving back and forth between these phases, over and over. This type of therapy is not linear, not black and white, and not always logical. I know the process, and I have full confidence in it, but I cannot assume every person I treat also has confidence in it. In order to help, I must know where those individuals I treat draw their hope and courage from so I can encourage them to hold on to both of these, to act from them with intention.
When finding hope becomes too much of a challenge, we can connect with others—family, friends, a partner, even a therapist. The people in our lives can often remind us why hope is important, why having faith in the idea that healing can occur can lead us to take action with intention in order to bring about this change, instead of simply wishing for it.
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