In past blog posts, we’ve talked about how to use mindfulness and acceptance to cope with uncomfortable thoughts, sensations and emotions. The take-away message is that in order to avoid unnecessary suffering, we must let go of any ideas about the way we wished things could be and instead accept the way that we are in the present moment. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. This allows us to shift the behaviors that we control and take steps towards the fulfillment of our goals and values.
“Creative hopelessness” is tool used to promote acceptance by encouraging people reflect upon what they have been avoiding in their lives in their efforts to avoid distress. The logic behind this focuses on the theory that these avoidance behaviors make pain and suffering worse over time. For instance, not taking part in meaningful activities can trigger depression and anxiety, which makes pain and distress feel more severe. The heightened pain and distress then further decrease motivation to engage in activities. This cycle can be powerful, leading many people to believe that they have to wait until their unpleasant life circumstances go away before taking steps toward fulfillment.
If you have ever been caught this trap, thinking “I’ll start [positive goal] when [unpleasant current circumstance ends]”, creative hopelessness could be useful for you. The important thing to remember is not to conflate feelings like “anxiety” or “sorrow” with “suffering.” Equating uncomfortable emotions with suffering can easily make us feel tortured by those emotions. Consistent anguish and torment will ignite the hopelessness that adds fuel to the cycle of avoidance and misery.
Creative hopelessness encourages the use of acceptance to acknowledge struggles for what they are. It goes a step further by asking the questions: “What you would do if your struggle never goes away? How would you live your life differently?” Chances are, you would find ways to take steps toward whatever bring you joy and purpose, even if you have to bring sadness or anxiety along for the journey.
To practice this yourself, think about your goals (or learn about how to set effective goals). Ask yourself what avoidance behaviors have prevented or slowed down your progress toward these goals, and what that avoidance has cost you. Then, make necessary adjustments to those goals by accepting what you cannot control and identifying what behaviors you do have control over. Although it may not be the path you initially envisioned, getting “creative” with hopelessness can be a powerful tool in helping you decide what path you were meant to travel.
Carolyn Moriarty, LPC