Hopelessness is a thread that weaves through all our lives.
At some point, everyone will experience hopelessness—a place where no light can be found and a better future is unthinkable.
Whether through the isolation of personal struggles, global challenges, or adversity, hopelessness can burden even the most resilient of people.
Yet, within the darkness of this emotion lies the profound opportunity for growth, self-discovery, and transformation. Far from being a void of despair, hopelessness can serve as a gateway to a better understanding of the world and the people around us.
In this exploration of hopelessness, we delve into the causes, appearances, and consequences of this emotion that can be both a burden and a catalyst for change. We hope to show the relationship between hope and despair so that you can learn how to stop feeling hopeless and move on to brighter things.
By the end of this article, we hope that you will be able to see hopelessness as a pathway to personal growth and transformation rather than feeling hopeless about life.
What is hopelessness?
Hopelessness is an overwhelming emotional state characterized by a profound lack of optimism for the future.
This complex emotion surfaces when a person feels trapped in seemingly impossible challenges. It may be that the person is facing a situation where positive outcomes seem impossible to achieve. Individuals may feel powerless, defeated, and unable to see a way out of their predicaments.
Hopelessness can arise in different areas of life, including personal, professional, and social aspects. It can stem from a wide range of circumstances, such as chronic illness, financial difficulties, relationship problems, loss of a loved one, job insecurity, or witnessing repeated injustice.
The emotion can be transient, arising in response to a specific event, or it can become a persistent state, leading to feelings of depression or despair.
A distressing part of hopelessness is the effect it can have on your overall well-being and mental health. Hopelessness can lead to feelings of sadness, anxiety, lower self-esteem, and helplessness.
People feeling hopeless often socially withdraw, contributing to feelings of isolation and loneliness which further reinforce the feeling of hopelessness. You may even not care if you die.
Though hopelessness is challenging to navigate, it is a natural part of being human. Everyone will experience situations that cause these difficult emotions sooner or later. However, we must remember that hopelessness does not define your present or future potential.
The theory of hope as a vital need.
In 2009, psychology professors Henry B. Biller and Anthony Scioli published the self-help book “Hope in the Age of Anxiety”. The book explores the concept of hope as a virtue and how it helps people excel in life. Therefore, hopelessness prevents people from pursuing the kind of life they want to have.
The authors link hope to the following needs:
Attachment: a hope for social relationships, intimacy, emotional bonding, and community or spiritual bonding.
Survival: a hope for overcoming adversity, illness, becoming tougher, loss, anxiety, and physical challenges.
Mastery: a hope for accomplishments, satisfying work, productivity, and learning.
When these needs are fulfilled, we can operate from the mindset of the abundance of hope versus the scarcity of hopelessness.
The abundance of hope reinforces self-esteem, allows us to tell ourselves we are worthy, and provides motivation toward our goals.
On the other hand, scarcity injects fear, negatively affects self-esteem, and otherwise makes it more difficult to hope and strive for better. A lack of hope can go so far as to cause physical symptoms of therapy or even facilitate suicide.
The Nine Types of Hopelessness
Hopelessness from different causes feels different from person to person. There are many unique ways that a person may feel hopeless. However, Biller and Scioli suggest that there are nine core types of hopelessness which are at the root of all other types. These types of include three categories of three types:
- – forsakenness, lack of inspiration, alienation
- – doom, captivity, helplessness
- – oppression, limitedness, and powerlessness
The most effective method of overcoming hopelessness is to identify, reframe, and address the cognitive distortions they create.
You may have been or feel as though you have been abandoned by people that you thought cared about you, whether that’s personal relationships or a group you belonged to. These feelings often cause the person to self-isolate and distrust others which further fuels the hopelessness of feeling forsaken.
2. Lack of inspiration.
Inspiration drives creativity and emotion. A person who lacks inspiration is unable to feel the stimulation of creativity which often brings along with it endorphins and dopamine. This may occur if you have an artist’s block or stop creating.
It certainly is not limited to art, however. Creativity is required in many aspects of life, particularly problem-solving for work or life problems.
To feel alienation is to feel socially ostracized by one’s peers or society. Your differences may make you feel as though don’t belong anywhere so you have a more difficult time finding a group to be a part of and bonding. People who feel alienated may avoid social situations and reject people before they can be rejected.
Doom encompasses the feeling that nothing is ever going to work out for you. You may feel as though there is absolutely no way that you will be able to accomplish your goals.
Mental illness, physical illness, or early childhood trauma may all create these feelings. Abusive relationships in which your self-esteem and self-worth have been torn down may also contribute. The goal of certain types of emotional abuse is to make you feel so bad about yourself and your potential that you don’t try to leave, seek help, or find something better for yourself.
Captivity typically refers to being trapped in a situation that you can’t escape. That may be imprisonment or being stuck in an abusive relationship you can’t get out of. The core of captivity is that you were deprived of the ability to make choices about your own autonomy.
This emotion may also arise if you lack the self-esteem to set boundaries with people that treat you badly. You may feel that you deserve bad treatment, so you essentially lock yourself into this negative place.
The ability to stand up for yourself and act without help is an integral part of mental wellness and health. Helplessness is a dependence on other people to do things for you because you don’t feel that you’re capable.
You may also feel as though you can’t help yourself, and no one can possibly help you because you are a lost cause.
The feeling of not being accepted or of being discriminated against fuels the feeling of oppression. That may be a social group, the government, or even management at your company who single you out and make you feel less than because of who you are. A good example is people from minority groups.
You find yourself limited in your ability to pursue your goals by environmental, financial, physical, or social means.
Other examples include being stuck in a dead-end job, having a chronic illness, or having a romantic partner that will not support you in an attempt to better yourself. You may also feel like you don’t have the appropriate skills to accomplish your goal.
Dealing with a loss of independence from a chronic illness is another form of limitedness.
Powerlessness means feeling as though your actions don’t matter. You may feel like your actions don’t matter so you feel hopeless because you feel as though you can’t change anything or make a difference when dealing with authority.
That may include examples like voting in politics or having a manager who just disregards all of your input at work.
Why do I feel hopeless?
There are several reasons why you have no hope for the future. Identifying the root cause of your hopelessness is necessary to find the appropriate solution.
However, there is no universally accepted categorization of hopelessness and there are far too many examples to list out. Instead, we can look at some general categories that professionals may use to discuss and understand hopelessness.
- Situational Hopelessness: Situational hopelessness stems from circumstances that seem impossible to improve or overcome. They may be related to work, health, relationships, or when life gets you down.
- Existential Hopelessness: Existential hopelessness includes a deep sense of despair with the lack of meaning in one’s life. These people may feel that their life has no value or purpose, leading to feelings of depression, anxiety, emptiness, and hopelessness.
- Clinical Hopelessness: Clinical hopelessness is typically associated with mental health conditions such as trauma and depression. The person often feels helpless, worthless, and believes that nothing can ever improve.
- Interpersonal Hopelessness: Interpersonal hopelessness is tied to difficulties in relationships and social connections. It may arise when a person feels isolated, rejected, or unable to establish meaningful connections with others.
- Environmental Hopelessness: Environmental hopelessness is linked to the perception that the external environment or society is unchangeable and that one’s actions or efforts cannot make a difference in the larger context. This may include discrimination by institutions or ostracization of a social group one belongs to.
- Acquired Hopelessness: Acquired hopelessness can develop after repeated experiences of failure, disappointment, or loss. It can lead individuals to believe that their efforts will never lead to positive outcomes and that they can’t better their situation.
- Anticipatory Hopelessness: Anticipatory hopelessness involves a pessimistic outlook about future events, expecting negative outcomes and feeling powerless to prevent them. This may cause the person to give up before they even start because they have nothing to look forward to, so they don’t bother trying.
Types of Hope
Like most emotions, hope and hopelessness are broad yet nuanced. On the one hand, there are different types of hopelessness. On the other hand, there are different types of hope. Though there are no universally accepted types of hope, doctors and researchers have suggested different categorizations.
One such categorization suggested by psychologist C.R. Snyder includes four types of hope.
1. Pathway Hope.
Pathway Hope centers around the agency of the individual to understand that there is a path to success that can be found and followed. They believe that their goal is reachable if they have the appropriate resources and plan.
One example may include finding a new job. There is a process to preparing a resume, applying, interviewing, and being hired. If you just follow the process, sooner or later you should be able to land a job.
2. Agency Hope.
Agency Hope centers around choice and determination. It is the belief that you can initiate and follow through on the actions required to achieve a goal.
One example may include training for a marathon. A marathon is not an activity that can be undertaken overnight. The runner needs to acquire the necessary equipment, develop a training plan, and then actually train for however many weeks or months they may need. It is a long-term goal that the runner must believe they can achieve so they can do the work required to succeed.
3. Positive Outcome Hope.
Positive Outcome Hope is the idea that effort will lead to a successful outcome. The would-be marathon runner hopes that their training will empower them to complete or win the marathon itself.
4. Negative Outcome Hope.
Negative Outcome Hope acknowledges that there will be setbacks and obstacles that come with pursuing one’s goals. However, Negative Outcome Hope includes the belief that one is capable of overcoming those obstacles to achieve the goal.
The marathon runner may injure themselves while training, but that doesn’t mean they can’t run the marathon. They can recover, strengthen, condition, and run. It might not be when they expected but they can still do it.
What to do to stop feeling hopeless?
What do you do when you feel hopeless? How do you strengthen yourself and work your way out of it?
What follows are some tips and strategies that you can employ to try to shift your mindset. Keep in mind that it’s never going to be an easy process and won’t happen overnight. Many of these suggestions are things you need to do together and consistently to see their benefit.
If you don’t feel you can do that, you’d be best off looking for a counselor to help support you in your journey.
1. Develop self-care routines to grow your self-compassion.
Hopelessness often causes us to neglect ourselves and our life. After all, if you don’t feel hopeful about the future coming along, then why would you bother to take care of yourself to meet that future?
Not only is it a better idea for your future that will inevitably come, but self-care will help you in the present.
By taking the time to care about and nurture yourself, you can help stem negative thoughts about yourself to make room for positive thoughts. This should also help improve positive feelings if you feel sad and depressed.
2. Practice mindfulness, gratitude, and meditation regularly.
Mindfulness, gratitude, and meditation are powerful tools to help you shift your mindset from hopeless to empowered so you can get out of a mental rut.
Gratitude helps you focus on what you have, what you’ve achieved, and where you come from because everything that’s happened in the past is bringing you to this moment.
Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment, being aware of now and not worrying too much about the future or dwelling in the past.
Meditation is a method of accepting and releasing the current feelings that you have so you can release them and move forward.
These three tools used together can help you create harmony in yourself and facilitate hope. They are also effective if you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or stressed.
3. Work on accepting that life is uncertain. Absolute thinking can fuel hopelessness.
Hopelessness may stem from a lack of certainty about the future. People who desire control reach out for it, try to create it, and try to predict the future so they know what they can expect. But the truth is that you can never know. Your life can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
Instead of focusing on trying to control the future, focus on you right now. Are you capable of problem-solving? Of asking for help? Or looking for answers? It seems that you are since you are currently reading this article about hopelessness, implying that you or someone you love is feeling hopeless. That demonstrates problem-solving.
The beautiful thing about the internet is that there are many solutions to problems out there because someone, somewhere has experienced whatever you’re going through. Yes, you will come across problems you don’t have answers for in the future. However, you also have a world of information at your fingertips to try and find the answer. Professional help is always an option too.
4. Set realistic goals to see that you can accomplish things.
Some hopelessness stems from the belief that you can’t do anything about your situation or make a change. Sometimes this is driven by setting unrealistic goals that are impossible to reach. That creates and perpetuates hopelessness because you are essentially dooming yourself to a cycle of failure.
Instead, reexamine your goal-setting process. Are you reaching for reasonable goals? If not, set some. Are you setting any goals at all? If not, create some. The setting, pursuit, and accomplishment of goals helps boost endorphins, positive thinking, and self-worth. Accomplishing goals can inject some positivity when you feel sick and tired of life.
And if something doesn’t work out? That’s alright! Just set a new goal. The best part of not succeeding at a goal is knowing what doesn’t work.
5. Find or create a support network of positive, understanding people.
Creating a network of supportive people is difficult. Reaching out to friends or family may not yield the kind of results you’re looking for, particularly if they aren’t exactly positive or understanding people themselves.
You may want to consider looking for a local support group if you’re lonely and don’t have those kinds of people in your personal life.
6. Reduce exposure to negative influences and media.
Garbage in, garbage out. It’s a simple mantra that speaks a lot about how the brain functions.
That is, if you consume a lot of negative media, consume a lot of anger, and hang around with bitter and angry people, you’re going to have a very difficult time being positive.
Take the time to examine what kind of media you consume, whether it’s on social media, television, or some other medium.
If it’s negative, try replacing it with more positive, inspirational, and happy media. Improving what you put into your mind can help you shift your mindset. Challenge the negative thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing them. Try to find something positive that can temper or reverse it.
7. Volunteer and help out to build a sense of purpose.
Helping others can make a big difference for you and them. Hopelessness is often rooted in the belief that you can’t do something, that you cannot effect change in a meaningful way.
But you can immediately prove that wrong if you’re doing volunteer work or even just helping out a neighbor. Not only that, but helping also facilitates self-fulfillment and social relationships that can prove beneficial.
Reach out for help from medical professionals.
Hopelessness is an intense experience that may feel insurmountable. It is often a symptom of a larger problem that may point to mental health issues or a need for a change in life circumstances.
It is worthwhile to consult with a doctor or therapist to get a professional perspective about your feelings to try to identify the root cause of those feelings so you can look forward to a brighter, happier, hopeful future.