In the 14th-Century epic poem, Dante’s Inferno, the sign over the gates of Hell reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” It’s commonly thought of as a warning: that the inhabitants of the inferno have no hope of salvation, no hope of release, no hope of any improvement or escape from their punishments.
While holding on to hope is something we typically see as desirable if you genuinely want to make a change in your life – mainly when things feel the most challenging – abandoning all hope is actually excellent advice. One of my clients found herself in this very situation and giving up hope is what finally got her the breakthrough she was seeking.
Ivette is a chiropractor in Silicon Valley. For the past several years, she was averaging around 20 patients a week, and the number of people who came back was low because she was so good at remedying their issues. Her business goal was to see 50 patients – including 4 new patients – weekly.
Ivette’s challenge wasn’t her abilities, nor her marketing. She had a decent website, strong reviews on Yelp and Google, and patients consistently referring to her new people. But Ivette was also a mother of four growing kids, and her home life kept her just as busy as her business. She spent years treading water with her practice and hoping that eventually if she just kept at it long enough, she would hit her goal.
Riding on this sense of hope for her business for years, Ivette kept it going until she discovered that several of her schoolmates were succeeding well beyond her. Their practices were, and they had people working under them. At least one person also had several locations, while another had sold their practice and retired early.
Ivette’s success was modest by comparison, and the situation left her feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed, and regretful. For weeks, she wallowed in these feelings of self-pity and feared she was falling into a depression. Then one day, all of those feelings were replaced by a state of being that eclipsed the others. She felt hopeless.
It was in this state that Ivette found me. After hearing her story, I congratulated her on her new found hopelessness. Expecting the confused look she gave me, I explained that, from my perspective, we are better off without hope.
By definition, hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” It gives us the “strength” to endure unlivable situations, to adapt to people and places that make us unhappy, and to feel comfortable even in the darkest of times.
Neurologically speaking, a feeling of hope is a chemical cocktail of endorphins and enkephalins which actually mimic the effects of morphine. Feeling hopeful can block the feelings of pain and play a protective role against anxiety (S. Wang, 2017). While having greater hope is linked to reduced feelings of depression (R. Rajandram, 2011), it’s a survival mechanism of the mind that serves for us to survive, but not thrive.
We are told that hope is our beacon in the dark. It allows us to persevere and protects us from falling into despair. However, baked into hope is the idea that we are not enough; that we need something outside of ourselves to occur or to change so that we may finally thrive. For hope to be our strength or our protector, we must view it as our hero, and conversely see ourselves as a victim to our circumstances, in need of rescue. And ironically, it’s not possible for us to hold the hope that something will save us without also harboring the fear that nothing will.
What hope lacks is agency – specifically our agency. Hope is not about taking action to change a situation; instead, it is more akin to waiting for something to change – the exact opposite of action. When we hold on to hope, we are longing for a future condition over which we feel we do not have any control. With hope we are at the whim of circumstance.
When we lose hope, we are essentially giving up the idea that someone/something outside of ourselves may come to rescue us. Without hope, we are forced to put our awareness on the present moment and recognize the control and agency we do have to make changes in our lives.
When in this state of hopelessness, we have nothing to lose, there’s nothing to risk in taking matters into our own hands. Without hope, there is no one but ourselves we can depend on, and it’s this feeling that often prompts us to take action to change things for the better.
When hope dies inside you, there’s an old part of you that goes with it. It’s the part of you that felt like a victim to your situation, that felt like it didn’t have any control, or didn’t feel like it had a responsibility to change things. Just as hope cannot live without fear, fear cannot live without hope. By giving up on hope, you are turning away from your fear and towards action.
To break free of the shackles of hope, consider the following techniques:
- Get Real with Yourself: When evaluating a situation you long for, ask yourself the tough questions, such as; “Am I looking for someone or something else to save me?”, “Am I waiting for something to happen that is outside of my control?”, or ”If nothing were to change externally, what would I need to change internally to make this happen?”
- Replace Your Hope with Intention: Hope requires an outside force to act on your behalf. Setting an intention puts the onus of effort squarely on you. While stating an intention is still putting the focus on the future, it implies you and no one else will be taking the necessary steps.
- Stop Hoping and Start Doing: Action is the best antidote to hope (and fear). When we take action, no matter how small, we are demonstrating to ourselves that we are responsible and in control of our own situations. Even if the action turns out to be ineffective, by merely moving in a direction we take ourselves out of hope’s comfort zone.
- Eliminate Hope from Your Vocabulary: As Yoda famously said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Using the word hope lacks the same accountability as saying “try.” By restricting yourself from using the word, you consciously force yourself to reframe your desires in terms of the actions you can take, and that agency seeps into your subconscious as well.
As I explained all of this to Ivette, I could see the gears turning in her mind. The idea that feeling hopeless was not the end of the world was more than a relief to her; it fueled her with a sense of empowerment, even if at the moment she didn’t know how to act on it. Over our next few sessions, we developed strategies that she would employ to point her business onto a track for growth. Because she felt she had nothing to lose – that there was no hope a knight in shining armor was going to rescue her from her personal dragons – she took the steps necessary to turn her business around herself. Within six months, she had surpassed her goal of 50 patients a week and was looking to expand.
This week, consider a situation in your life that you are enduring despite the unhappiness you feel. Whether it’s a relationship, a job, or a societal mainstay, consider the role hope plays in keeping you stuck or sedated to the situation. Then, consider employing one or more of the techniques listed above to snap yourself out of hope’s seductive embrace, and take action towards changing your world for the better.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie, American writer, and lecturer (1888- 1955)