Hope Is Harmful in Depression
I've found hope is harmful. I know, the reflex is to disagree with this, but, at least in my case, hope is harmful. I recently found a bit of hope of ending a profound, debilitating depression. I knew feeling that hope was a mistake, but some part of my brain refused to listen to that. And sure enough, it turned out that hope was harmful.
What Is Harmful Hope?
When used as a verb, hope is defined as: "to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence."1
In my case, I was looking forward to my depressing lessening. I was hoping for relief from suffering.
The problem with hope is that the flip side is disappointment. When your hopes are dashed, disappointed is how you feel.
And there are two problems with disappointment in depression that make hope harmful:
- Disappointment feels terrible. Feeling that something good was going to happen (such a rare thing to feel in depression) only to have it taken away from you, typically at the last minute when your hope has been built-up, is incredibly painful.
- Depression amplifies negative feelings. If you've never experienced severe depression you're just going to have to take my word for it: a paper cut of a negative emotion feels like having been cut in half by a katana when you're severely depressed.
In other words, by allowing hope into your brain, you run the real risk of disappointment. Of course, everyone experiences disappointment and we all learn to live with it. The trouble is if your hope was about getting better from a sometimes-lethal disease, and that hope was stolen from you, you actually might not be able to live with the exaggerated pain that might occur as a result.
Why Is Hope So Harmful in Depression?
And this is why hope is harmful. Hope, itself, is okay, I guess. Hope, itself, can actually feel good, sometimes even during depression. The trouble is that we often don't get what we hope for. This is just life and it's okay. The harmful part of hope is how much disappointment turns into despair. When you're hoping to get a break from depression thanks to a new depression treatment, it's soul-crushing when it doesn't work. People have no idea how much more it hurts with each failed bipolar treatment. Hope feels like being lifted up only to have farther to fall when what you hope for doesn't happen. And I'm really not exaggerating to say it can make you suicidal. Depression is pushing you in that direction anyway, and the disappointment just hastens that journey.
What to Do When Hope is Harmful
I wish I could tell you I had a safe way to experience hope. We all want to experience hope, after all, when a situation warrants it. But I don't know a way. I don't know a way to experience hope while protecting against the pain of disappointment.
So what do I do? I try to avoid feeling hopeful, to be honest. That's why I knew when considering this latest treatment I shouldn't be hopeful. I knew it, but its promise got to me anyway. And when the disappointment hit, it walloped me, hard.
So if you choose to avoid hope, I get it. If you scoff at hopeful memes, I get it. If you hate inspirational quotes, I get it.
And what I hope is by reading this, other people will get it too. Because it sucks when people think you're self-sabotaging or that there's something wrong with you for avoiding hope. Rest assured, there isn't anything wrong with you. You are just protecting yourself from the harms of hope. And that's okay.
- Dictionary.com, "Hope." Accessed February 19, 2020
Tracy, N. (2020, February 19). Hope Is Harmful in Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 6 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2020/2/hope-is-harmful-in-depression
Author: Natasha Tracy
I came across your article as I was searching why the hope I am is triggering to past experiences and the feelings of depression I am currently experiencing. Thank you being brave and writing this. You made me feel less alone and that I can breathe a little easier.
Thank you for the kind comment. I'm so glad you feel less alone. None of us is alone with this monster.
-- Natasha Tracy
This is a great article and it has helped me feel less ashamed. So often I've heard how hope is essential to mental illness recovery. But when hope is hard to find, not being hopeful becomes yet another failure.
Like you, I've found hope troubling because there's usually a huge letdown when it falters. Letting go of hope has helped me accept myself better. I still get challenged on this as a harmful attitude, so I don't talk about it much.
This article is a refreshing glimmer of truth for those of us living with Bipolar who understand. Hope, as in the feeling that something good or pleasant will happen, is downright counterintuitive when in depression. Hope, NOT faith, holds empty promises. Faith in holding on to facts about the Disorder is helpful to me. This (insert symptom or mood) will end. I don't know when or how, but it will. I can't hope my way out of this. That's my truth about "hope" and the harm it can do.
Alone for many years, totally alone.
When I find a little bit of hope and it is dashed as quickly as it came, it can take weeks of being so low.
I found myself never believing in hope.
Then I realised I was truly hopeless. But I felt that I was better off without it?
I was completely miserable.
A human without hope is nothing I thought.
Now I have a direction. Some support. It's very slow, and hard to allow hope but I find if I do not project too far ahead, a little bit of direction goes a very long way.
It would be remiss of me to not mention Natasha and her insights remind me that I'm not alone, and that I once functioned very well regardless of bipolar.
I do have a little hope that I will find a better routine and lifestyle, and I'm working on it.
Thanks Natasha for helping to open the conversation so that more will understand the complexities of this illness.
Therapists making promises they can’t keep relieve their own anxieties. But they set their clients up for a betrayal of trust. I am glad my docs never promised my treatments would work. Because they didn’t. But we were able to maintain a partnership in seeking for what might help at least a bit.
I think you are on track, Natasha. The genuine hope you offer is that your readers discover there is somebody willing to tell us the truth. And that we are not alone.
I thought about this last night, as I tossed abs turned. So many times I placed hope on the wrong thing, wrong people, unsubstantiated dreams. Like casting a fishing rod into sand.
With bipolar disorder, my experience is that feeling good is inevitably followed by some level of depression. I can’t ever just have a good day and not pay for it later. That’s the nature of bipolar disorder. I’m doing everything I can to keep those swings from happening, but so far it’s what I live with.
The perspective of “hey, it always gets better” comes from a place of privilege, and from those who don’t understand. MLK said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
People with bipolar disorder don’t always have bootstraps. It doesn’t always get better. I do the best I can with what I have, and I don’t give up.
Thank you for saying how hard it is but that you never give up. That's amazing.
- Natasha Tracy
Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I have chronic depression and chronic pain conditions and I too struggle so much with hope and even making long term goals or plans. It completely overwhelms me. But it is so hard to explain to friends and family and even doctors. So, I plan to share this article with them to help them understand how I'm feeling a little more. Thanks again, and keep up the great work!
I, too, get overwhelmed with making plans and goals. Maybe there's an idea for the next article?
I'm honored you would find this helpful enough to share with others. Good luck and I hope it helps.
- Natasha Tracy
It’s really important to read all the way through this article and to read/listen with open ears. This article makes perfect sense to me and courageously dares to discuss feelings and thoughts that a lot of “helpful” people don’t want to hear. The author also says not to abandon hope or healthy habits. This is about dealing unblinkingly with life when you’re never going to “get better” or “be normal.” Also, it is really codependent to suggest that a person or an article would be responsible for someone’s suicide. It’s very likely that many despondent people may read this article and hear a strain of truth that they have never before heard for all the platitudes and facile aphorisms which are constantly thrown at people who are suffering.
Thank you for your comment and your kind words about the article.
I very much hope people will read this and hear something new and honest and it will help.
- Natasha Tracy
Are you crazy? This is going all over the internet. There are people who are hanging on by the thread of hope and because you want a few minutes of fame you make unsubstantiated claims as if you have a PHD in psychology.
I work with suicidal Veterans and cancer patients. Giving them the slightest reason to give up hope could be enough reason for them to pull the trigger. You need to retract your article before someone dies or I begin a campaign to expose you as dangerous author who needs to be banned from publication.
Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your perspective and I know that everyone is different. I wrote about my experiences with a depression that is very severe. I know that my experiences and opinions won't speak to everyone.
I have no intention of telling people what to or not to do or feel. What I'm discussing is what _I_ do and what _I_ feel. Some people identify with this and some don't.
- Natasha Tracy
As someone with severe depression, it is things like this article that explain so well what I'm feeling and help me feel less alone that SAVE me. Not everyone with depression feels this way - some need hope. But people need to understand that many of us get even more depressed when constantly told to have hope that things will get better. It's detrimental to our mental health.
As I read it, also living with severe bipolar, I don't think Natasha means that lack of 'hope' is a lack of anything positive in life. For instance, when I say I have no hope, I'm referring to the actual dictionary meaning of the word hope: "a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen." I enjoy positive thoughts, feelings, & events in my life when I can. I just don't attach them to results. For me acceptance of what is, rather than expecting the results I want, has saved me from a great deal of suicidal ideation, rather than pushing me toward it. Bipolar has been so brutal that I can't possibly _expect_ things to go my way, particularly concerning the illness. I used to fall even farther over the edge of despair when I'd hoped a treatment would help, and it didn't, or it stopped working, either of which is generally the case due to my case being treatment resistant. I don't need hope to put one foot in front of the other & keep doing my best. I just need determination to go on, no matter what.