The Paradox of Hope

HopeAt a recent storytelling event ushering in the New Year, audience members were asked about their resolutions: “To give up hope only to regain it,” one woman said.

This echoed something I’d heard just weeks before at a clinical meeting I facilitate, when I asked the staff to share something they were doing for self-care. A colleague who unfailingly sees the best in everyone surprised us all by saying she had given up hope, and was thus no longer so prone to disappointment.

Hope, we are told, springs eternal, so such dissents from the cultural imperative to uphold it are rare. Nowadays it often seems the more difficult things become, the more we are forbidden to feel hopeless. We are urged to look on the bright side, keep gratitude journals, embrace the lessons of hardship. And no wonder: It is difficult to live in despair.

Exercises cultivating resilience and hope can bring genuine relief, broaden perspective, even pull one back from the brink. They can also preserve relationships. Being around someone who despairs is also difficult, and in lieu of outright fleeing, it is tempting to extend a lifeline. Yet who really escapes—the person feeling hopeless, or the person who cannot bear to listen? Those who are unable or unwilling to be coaxed out of sorrow might soon find themselves alone.

Our clients know this (or at least the lucky ones do). They worry about burdening or alienating others, fear wallowing in hopelessness. So they bravely try to focus on the positive, often with felicitous results. Yet the more people feel compelled through internal or external expectations to disguise despair, the more pinched they become. It is as if they squeeze themselves into emotional Spanx to keep everything contained and looking good.

Psychotherapy offers the relief that comes from shedding such constraints, breathing freely, and being one’s natural self. The terrain of hope and despair is tricky, though: therapists must help clients navigate the depths of unbearable pain without stranding them there. Often we see ourselves as the guardians of hope. Yet we must never impose it. We would do well to remember the famous story of a patient in analysis who said that the only time he felt hope was when his analyst agreed with him that it was hopeless, but that they would carry on together anyway.

It is when we make room for hopelessness that hope, too, might find a little space.

What are your thoughts on the balance between hope and hopelessness?
Originally published in Impulse, an online publication of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy


Out of the (Gratitude) Closet

Gratitude closet

I love my colleague Tina for many things, but especially because she drinks her coffee from a mug that announces, “I Don’t Do Perky.” False Positive is the title of an article I wrote for psychotherapists about the downside of positive thinking. And a humorous essay of mine begins, “This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me.”

So it may come as a surprise that I’ve recently begun keeping a gratitude journal.

Call me a hypocrite. I prefer to think of it as similar to the time I went from being a person who doesn’t much like dogs to owning one. I could really relate to canine-indifferent friends who couldn’t express an enthusiasm they did not feel for such lovable behaviors as tail-wagging and that (not so, to them) endearing doggy lean-in.

Likewise, I understand why someone who is suffering can feel even worse when asked to embrace positive emotions. It’s not that I’m a depressive ingrate by nature (at least not most of the time). But I’m wary of efforts to sanitize thought and speech. Too often, expressions of negativity are met with rebuke instead of empathy, and I’ve seen the damage this causes, personally and professionally.  I thus try to champion all those nasty feelings we feel pressure to squelch: anger, sorrow, bitterness, envy, vengeance. Superimposed gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins.

And yet, stubborn resistance is equally problematic.

So during a hard time this summer, I relinquished my protestations and started a gratitude journal, figuring that it couldn’t hurt.

It’s nothing fancy, just an old 5×7” Reporter’s Notebook covered with my daughter’s grade-school scribbles . Every night I write the date and “I am grateful for/that . . . “ Then I list 3-5 things. I try not to repeat myself (though our latest addiction, the TV series Nashville, has made it into several days, and there’s a sprinkling of entries that say “RAIN! RAIN! RAIN!”).

Here are some of the things I’ve jotted down recently:

(And although this isn’t a current event, I’m grateful to my daughters, whose persistent dog lobbying brought Button into our lives for 15 years.)


Two weeks into my gratitude journal, one of the things I wrote was “Feeling way less depressed.” Though the ritual of giving thanks surely helped, there were other things at play as well: I’d resumed weekly therapy after cutting back; the post-cancer scans that always make me nervous were clear; I finally followed through on my intention to volunteer; my weight finally started heading in the right direction; things started to go better for the Democrats; the summer drought of movies yielded to a fresh crop of Oscar worthies; our actual drought yielded (a little) to rain and the promise of more to come.

There is always more to come.  Assuming El Nino delivers on its promise, I look forward to jotting down my gratitude for SUN! SUN! SUN!

That’s how it goes, the chiaroscuro of darkness and light that makes up life’s full spectrum.

I’m grateful for it all.


Ever felt (or promoted) the prohibition on negative feelings? How’d it go? What are you grateful for?

The Pull to Be Positive

happy and sad face“Fake it till you make it.”

I thought of this adage when I took a friend who had never been backpacking into the wilderness years ago. We encountered a stream crossing that involved balancing on a log high above the roiling waters below.  I was terrified, but I never let on. My confidence was key in helping my friend safely across. It also helped me become as light-hearted as I had pretended to be.

Three years ago a cancer diagnosis thrust me again into the territory of needing to go on despite my fear. I wanted to lead everyone who cared about and depended on me, especially my children, through the treacherous waters without raising undue alarm that I’d go under, taking them with me. My darkest feelings were confined to my journal, my therapist, my husband, and a couple of trusted friends. For public consumption, I presented a sunnier side, writing breezy blog posts about wigs and Chinese medicine, stressing my gratitude and good fortune. It wasn’t a stretch: I was tolerating chemotherapy well, and felt truly lucky about early detection, great health insurance, an excellent prognosis, and lots of support.

The plaudits poured in.

“You’re so strong!” I was told all the time. “You’ll be fine because of your positive attitude.”

The implication that it would be my fault if things didn’t turn out fine always brought me up short. But being strong for others helped me be strong. Inspiring others kept their and my own spirits from flagging. I loved and needed the admiration.

I also hated it. For what if my spirits sagged? If I expressed too much doubt and fear, would I be letting down my fan base?

More important, would people desert me?

No one means to withdraw, but it happens: the involuntary recoil, the averted gaze, not knowing what to say, so saying nothing. I couldn’t bear the burden of people’s fear and helplessness. I couldn’t bear my own. So I tried not to add to it. Besides, who doesn’t want to flee the quicksand of negativity? Emphasizing the positive truth, even if it wasn’t the whole truth, was an act of self-preservation.

Only much later, long after treatment had ended and I knew I was fine, could I fully let in the darker side. It reminded me of the time years ago when I tripped and fell carrying my newborn daughter, asleep in her car seat. The seat, with Ally in it, landed hard on the concrete walkway. Fortunately, it remained upright, my baby safe and unperturbed.

“Oh, thank God,” I’d silently gasped, brushing myself off, scooping up Ally in her car seat, and continuing on, barely registering the close call.

It was only later that I could allow in the terror, all the What ifs? Ally is 24 now, and I am still overcome with dread whenever I think back to that moment.

Cancer is never over in a moment. Even when it’s gone, the possibility of its return menaces. Of course I celebrated leaving treatment behind. Yet the more chemotherapy’s protective shield of poison withdrew from my body and faded into the past, the more vulnerable I felt.

As previously disavowed feelings of fear and sadness bubbled up to the surface recently, I happened to tune into a TED Radio Hour about fighting cancer. A hospital chaplain who herself had gone through the ordeal stressed that only well after treatment has ended can survivors even begin to process their cancer experience.

Finally! Someone willing to challenge the platitudes about looking forward, not backward, the claptrap about cancer’s gifts. I listened eagerly as the chaplain described meeting with a woman a year after the latter had been declared cancer-free.

Revealing the suffering and fear she’d repressed during treatment, the woman remarks, “I felt like I was crucified on the cross.”

I waited expectantly for the chaplain to enlighten the TED audience about the isolation of cancer; the need to express what it’s really like; how crucial it is to listen to what’s hard to hear.  Instead, the chaplain recounts what she said to the woman:

Get down off your cross.”

My worst fears were confirmed: Fake it till you make it, or you may find yourself having to make your way alone.


What’s your experience with the pull to be positive? Upsides and downsides? What’s your best (or worst) “Fake it till you make it” story?