10/11/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

When Hope Hurts

One day an emotion called Hope walked into the Last Chance Saloon. All of a sudden the mood shifts from dark to light and everyone is happy as they've all absorbed some hope. Everyone is laughing and hugging one another, and the future looks great. But then it's time for hope to leave. The patrons beg her to stay, but she says she must move on. The mood becomes somber.

Ten minutes later an emotion called Despair walks into the bar and the emotions turn from somber to very dark. Despair is beyond tears, everyone feels crushed as though something beautiful was torn from their grasp and now there is no future. Despair walks out, but in their anguish they barely notice.
You know what happens now. Hope returns and the mood lightens. And this time they beg her to stay and tell her all about Despair and how she must keep him on the outside. "I can't do that," she says with her soft smile. "That guy out there is my brother. Wherever I go, he follows."

Personally and professionally, I've seen hope ruin people's lives.

When I first became a quadriplegic 34 years ago, the doctors told me I shouldn't hold out hope that I would ever walk again. In hindsight, that was a gift. Some of my fellow patients at the rehab hospital were told that they should never give up hope that they would someday walk again. Many of them went home and waited for some breakthrough in science. They wanted their days and nights filled with the kind of hope that will lighten their mood and release them from despair: instead, they discovered that wherever there is hope, despair follows close behind. My hopelessness was a painful truth of my life that I had to face squarely. Yes, I had a period of clinical depression, great fear and insecurity. Fortunately, these were short-lived.

In my office, I watch couples have the same argument with each other repeatedly. I watch as adults argue with their aging parent -- the same argument they've had for decades. And in this process, everyone is frustrated or angry. What keeps them locked in this argument is hope -- hope that if they say the right word or say it loud enough, the other person will finally "get it" and change their behavior or attitude.

Several years ago, I saw a 35-year-old man in consultation who came at the insistence of his distressed mother. He had a long history of severe social anxiety, OCD and agoraphobia. It has become so severe that he rarely leaves the house. He is bitter and filled with self-pity. He resented coming to the consultation. And so he began our session with an angry monologue that I am sure he has repeated many times. "You don't understand, my life is miserable and it will never change. I've been through all sorts of treatments and they have all failed. I am not going to get better..." And he went on for several more minutes with a tone of anger. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and interrupted him: "Will you be quiet and just listen to what you've just said!" He looked a bit startled but I had his attention: "You just said there is no hope. Just listen to that truth. No hope. Okay, I get that and I am inclined to agree. No hope. What now?"

He wrote to me one year later and said those final two words were the most valuable he'd heard in many years. He thought a great deal about "What now?" knowing he would have this for the rest of his life. He stopped fighting. He joined an online group of people with anxiety disorders and began to do some volunteer work out of his home. Slowly but surely he got out of the house. He is still pretty debilitated, but feels much better about his life.

After loss or trauma, most of us wish that tomorrow would look the same as yesterday did before all of these difficulties. If we are lucky, we give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: "This is awful,and I don't think it will change. What now?"

For more by Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D., click here.

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