Thoughts from the Couch – Holding hope through hopelessness

Hopelessness is an emotion which is characterised by a lack of optimism, passion and hope. It makes us wonder if life is worth living. I understand that there are times when my role, as their therapist, is to hold my clients losses, hurt, fears and despair, shouldering the burden of them for a while, as they work through whatever has left them feeling hopeless. At the core of my work is the belief in the possibility of therapeutic change, which is vital when working with hopelessness. I see myself as a guiding light, as my clients find their way back to the hope that there is a life worth living after all.

To move forwards after our lives have been shattered, and we find ourselves suspended in mid air with no landing in sight, more often than not, demands that we let go of who we thought we were and how we had thought we were going to live our lives. As with all things, hopelessness can come in all shapes and sizes. Our lives can be sucked into the vortex that descends into hopelessness in a single moment. The unexpected death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, home, country or safety. Or it can be a slow descent into agony as we lose sight of what has in the past made our lives worth living.

Although at the time, hopelessness might feel as if it consumes every cell of our bodies, it is useful to introduce the idea that there is also a part that holds hope. Although hard for clients to remember at the time, the powerful human experiences of hope and hopelessness live side by side. As a therapist I marvel at the human beings ability to switch between the two as I often witness fleeting moments of hope within hopelessness. I am mindful of the how the room can feel devoid of air when someone feels a sense of deep hopelessness, as they battle with no expectation of future improvement. In those moments I remind myself to breathe as, like quick sand, it is easy to follow hopelessness.

One of the things that drew me to training as a Gestalt therapist was the use of creative and experiential techniques as a means to enhance awareness. Gestalt therapy recognises that a change results from what is rather than forcing a person to change. The empty chair technique is a quintessential gestalt therapy exercise. It is important to understand and validate that to be human is to have moments where we get in touch with the ‘hopeless’ part of ourselves. By focussing on the here and now we can explore the feelings of hopelessness, and in addition, allow clients to reconnect with parts of themselves they may deny, ignore or forget exist in moments of distress, in this instance hope.

It would feel remiss to not acknowledge that there are millions of people living in extreme suffering. Death, war, poverty and fear are just some of the things that many face daily and as a result those lives do feel helpless and hopeless. There are then others who have little or no control in their lives as relationships end suddenly, a diagnosis changes the course of a life, an accident, job loss, financial hardship all take their toll. It is with this in mind that I reflect on Viktor Frankl’s ‘A Man’s Search For Meaning’ and his belief that one can remain positive despite tragic circumstances: “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, 1985, p.86)

The idea that we each have the ability to decide how we should conduct ourselves, no matter what we are living through is vital to remember as we go through dark times. It is easy to forget when we feel that life has happened to us. At the heart of therapy is the ability to engender hope and by staying present in the face of hopelessness, my clients can choose the stance they take towards their suffering. For each of us, when faced with loss of hope, we can take comfort from Frankl who spoke, often, about the concept of the defiant human spirit. How, for as long as there is life, there is hope, and how we have the chance to transform the worst of experiences into honourable achievements.

Frankl, V. (1985). Man’s search for meaning: Revised and updated. New York: Washington Square.

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