I had a weight loss client who said every time she opened the refrigerator, it was after a thought that it was hopeless anyway. She acknowledged that these thoughts of hopelessness led her to feel hopeless about her weight and dietary compliance. What could she do to find hope?
It’s no secret that our thoughts lead our feelings: what we think, then think about repeatedly, has a direct effect on how we feel. In addition to shaping our feelings in the near term, our thoughts also shape our outlook about the future.
So, our feelings of hopelessness are the result of our thoughts about hopelessness, and our current thoughts of hopelessness also are fundamentally responsible for our future beliefs about what’s hopeless. Only, in the future, it’ll still feel like it’s hopeless now, but that belief started before, when we thought it earlier.
Our feelings of hopelessness are the result of our thoughts about hopelessness.
Today, I caught myself thinking my financial situation is hopeless. I have plenty of evidence for this, and a long history of failures (and successes, if I’m completely honest) in this area.
But my feelings of hopelessness don’t just begin and end with my finances.
Again, looking honestly, I quickly realized I also have a history of thinking various relationships are hopeless, goals are hopeless, and possible future plans are hopeless.
It’s a trap.
Current thoughts of hopelessness are a trap: they become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Being brutally honest, there’s no question: any time I conclude something is hopeless, I’m not going to put much more thought, or time, or effort, into working on that area of my life. Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How do we find hope?
Any time we conclude something is hopeless, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy
The funny thing about this is, I know how to overcome these feelings and thoughts. I coach people to do it every day. I’m educated and trained to do it. Yet, like any human, I fall subject to the thoughts my brain gives me. …and, like every human, I have a choice.
We all have a choice in how our lives go.
Here’s the coaching I gave myself.
6 Steps to Beat Feelings of Hopelessness
1. Explore the thought.
I was thinking how my formerly paid off car has become a $30,000 debt after an accident left me needing a new ride. When I chose a new car, I chose one that my physical therapist would be more supportive of for its ergonomics.
I was thinking how I’d paid off all my credit cards a couple of years ago, and now, after a couple of layoffs and getting serious about training to improve my business knowledge and skills, I’ve taken on about $25,000 in credit debt.
I was thinking how my student debt is almost $70,000, and it’s not scheduled to be paid off until I’m beyond retirement age. The payment’s the size of a mortgage, and Ive refinanced it so many times I no longer have access to federal protections or benefits.
I was thinking how the number one thing that prevents people from retiring is … the need to service existing debts, on credit cards, student loans, health expenses, student loan payments, payments to keep their kids in college, or house payments.
I was catastrophizing like I’ll never be able to pay off these debts, like they’re too big, they’ll take too long, I’ll never be able to retire, every time I get something paid off (like I’d had my car paid off), I get another problem that sets me back again.
2. Experience the feelings fully.
When I paint the picture of how big the problem is and how long (forever) it may take to overcome the hurdle, and when I dramatize it by blowing it out of proportion and catastrophizing so it becomes bigger than it really is (about $125,000 in debt, including my credit cards), it’s easy to feel like I’ll have to work forever, I’ll be a prisoner or a slave to my creditors, I’ll never get out of debt, and I’ll have to work until I die.
When I make up stories like this, it feels hopeless, pointless, meaningless, and not worthwhile. It leads me to more thoughts, like “why even bother?”, “what’s the point?”, “who cares?”, “it’s not even worth it”, “it’s not fair”.
When I trace these thoughts and feelings, see the cycle of their interplay, and see the way I create it as a situation I can’t win, I feel powerless, I feel like I have no control, and I feel like a helpless victim.
When I keep looking at it, without resisting the thoughts and ideas, after a while it starts to seem ridiculous. Sometimes I may feel like those things are true, but they stay true only if I make them so.
When I really think about it, I realize there have been very few times in my life where it’s really been hopeless.
When I put my mind to it and look authentically and honestly at a situation, I’ve always been able to see a path forward.
I’ve always been able to find hope in any situation.
3. Reframe it.
Look at it from at least one other angle. Consider how someone smarter than me, with no personal attachment, might look at it.
Ask someone else who’s done it before.
Look at other times in your life you’ve seen and overcome identical or similar circumstances.
I’ve paid off my credit cards and car before. I can do it again.
My student loan debt was formerly $120,000 and I’ve made the biggest dent so far, reducing it below $70,000. I’m past the worst part of the amortization schedule: more of each payment is going to principal than interest, than every before.
$125,000 is about a year’s income. It’s much less than the $500,000 I had at one point. I extinguished that debt nearly entirely at one point. I even had a net worth of $0 briefly, in the past few years, for the first time since I was 16. At 16, I got my first credit card, and it was another 30 years before I had a positive net worth again.
4. Set a goal.
I could (once again) start a debt snowball, and begin paying down the debts, smallest to largest, and pay them off — entirely — in about 3 years.
5. Create a plan.
I’ll start a debt snowball, pay down the debts, smallest to largest, and pay them off — entirely, once and for all.
6. Take action.
I’ve modified my monthly debt payment plan to beat my credit cards back into submission and zero balances. Then, I’ll eliminate my car loan, then my student loans.
- Explore your thoughts of hopelessness.
- Experience the feelings fully.
- Reframe your thoughts of hopelessness.
- Set a goal.
- Make a plan.
- Take action.
- Name an area of your life where your now (or formerly) experienced thoughts of hopelessness, and explore those thoughts. If you have no areas where hopelessness has existed, consider an area where you’d like to get greater results. When did you first experience these feelings of hopelessness or dissatisfaction? What situations resurface them? What other people do you know who experience a similar situation?
- Experience the feelings fully.
- Reframe your thoughts of hopelessness or dissatisfaction, reflecting what else is possible. Consider what other people have accomplished in that area.
- Set a goal in that area.
- Make a plan to meet that goal in several steps.
- Take action on the first step of that plan.
- Write the results of this practice.
Answer these questions in writing, and put the result in your PowerBoard.
- What was most useful for you here?
- What one idea can you put to use immediately?
You now have a goal and a plan to move forward an area of your life you previously believed to be hopeless or unsatisfactory, and you have one more technique on your PowerBoard you can put to use in all areas of your life.
For More Information
- Another story of how I helped a coworker reframe what seemed like a hopeless situation: We needed a miracle.
- Another great story about overcoming anxiety: Lisa Feldman Barrett: You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them.
- Relationship between thoughts and feelings: “Smart but Stuck“, by Thomas E. Brown
- Being with your feelings: see Christian Mickelson’s book “Abundance Unleashed“, or Landmark Worldwide‘s “Creating Happiness” seminar.
- Catastrophizing and other cognitive distortions: see Wikipedia.
- Reframing: see Wikipedia.
- Goal setting.
- Debt snowball: see Dave Ramsey.
- Reflection questions are inspired by The Coaching Habit.