When We Feel Hopeless

As human beings, we are gifted with two brain hemispheres: the left and the right. The Left hemisphere is usually based on fact and logic, is useful when we need to plan, problem solve or come up with a strategy, whereas the right hemisphere is much more fluid and connects us to our feelings, empathy and nuance.  

The self-critical, hopeless, and devaluing part of us CAN push us into action, but it’s not very helpful in the long-term.  Essentially, what this does is creates alarm and cortisol in the body (as stated by interpersonal neurobiological expert Sarah Peyton), which will shut down the frontal lobe of the brain (the part that can make decisions, plan, and essentially “think”) and we enter a state of reactivity without our thinking brain online.  

That self-critical voice may not always be conscious.  It can often become the “default mode network” (Sarah Peyton) that our brain takes on, or the “tone” of our thoughts and perceptions.  We can also run into the problem of thinking that if we’re not critical enough of ourselves, we’ll end up a lazy slob who will amount to nothing. Yikes! 

So, what do we do?

We bring in self-understanding (Sarah Peyton) when we’re worried about ourselves and focused on feeling “not good enough”.  It is VITAL that we recognize that self-compassion and self-understanding are not the same thing as “permission to do nothing”.  Certainly, that can be an option if you’re needing to truly unplug, but the majority of the time self-compassion is about being kind to ourselves as we struggle through life.  It’s about saying, “Of course you need a break today, work was crazy!” and taking a minute to breathe and reconnect to the present moment. 

If we are working toward a long-term goal that requires our mental energy and perseverance, we might take a minute to recognize that: “Yes, I’m tired.  Yes, I am afraid (of failing).  Yes, I want to distract and play video games.  Yes, I also want to succeed at X goal”.  

So, what do we do? 

We connect with our values and our needs.  If you value success, career, and relaxation, you may need to be conscious about how you allocate your time.  That might simply mean, coming home from work, tuning out for 30 minutes to an hour to relax, and then dedicating 20-30 minutes towards that career goal.  

If you have a true need for rest and recuperation after a really difficult day and that immediate need is outweighing a long-term goal, that might entail tapping into some radical acceptance of “this is what’s happening right now” and honoring your body’s intrinsic need to rest up.  

We all have “internal boundaries” that we exercise on a daily basis.  For instance, I have a part of me that does NOT want to do extra work and only wants to binge watch Outlander.  I also know that if I don’t get that extra work done, I’ll fall behind and be miserable. 

I have to be able to take in the whole picture of who I am and who I want to be.  I am someone who has opposing parts of myself, one that wants to laze about and the other that is committed to my work.  Because I care about my dreams and goals, I set an internal boundary that doesn’t let the “lazy part” of me to take over all the time. Does this mean I need to eradicate it altogether or scare it into submission? Hell no! That would be engaging in a fantasy and will ultimately lead to disappointment when I realize that this part of me is here to stay.   

Think of another example that’s a little more cut and dry:  You wake up in the morning on a Monday and feel tired, annoyed that it’s so early, and all you want to do is sleep.  You could simply call in sick and stay in bed all day, but in considering the person you want to be and the values that are important to you (like paying rent, affording basic needs), you have to set an internal boundary to not let that part of you take over.  

So, what do you do?

You remind yourself that you have a need to keep a roof over your head, your long-term career goals are important enough to be at work, and you make a deal with yourself to prioritize relaxation after work (and in some cases, after you’ve dedicated a small portion of time to that thing that’s important to you).   

These concepts are often met with, “I get it on paper…it makes sense, but how do I actually DO this stuff?”

One antidote is to recognize that we are NOT the part of us that goes to a hopeless, critical place.  That part certainly exists within us, and in many instances, we can default to believing that what it has to say is the only truth.  How scary, huh? Imagine living in a world where that was the case, that we may only find success if we beat ourselves into submission and shame ourselves into “sucking it up and getting it done”.  That really doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for nuance or connecting to a kinder, more flexible option.  

 Another antidote lies in checking out the facts of our critical and hopeless beliefs.  Can I know for absolute certainty that if I’m not hard on myself I’ll just become lazy? Might we be able to see that we are MORE LIKELY to default to distraction and mindless impulses when a self-critical part is waiting for us just around the corner?  

Imagine if that self-critical part of us was an actual person.  Could you picture it as a roommate who WILL NOT leave you alone? Who would want to start on a personal project if they knew that their critical roommate was going to plop next to them and start railing on what they find wrong or annoying about them?  I know I certainly would make every attempt to avoid doing that very thing, and might simply decide to binge watch a show or start a scroll fest on Instagram instead. At least that voice (or roommate in this analogy) wouldn’t be so noticeable. 

So, what do we do?

Well, first of all it HAS to be our will to make this change.  If we’re only halfway committed to making this change while still believing that our only hope for success is to listen to our inner drill sergeant, it’s going to be a lot harder to let that go.  It’s only when we can see that letting that drill sergeant take over every time actually prevents us from accomplishing our goals (because it puts us in a fight-flight state), that we have a chance of making a course correction.  

 Imagine what you would say to a close friend, sibling, coworker, roommate, who came to you with the exact same problem: “It’s hopeless”, they say.  “I’ll never be able to make a change.  There’s no point in me even trying”.  First of all, what do you notice happening inside of you when you imagine that scenario? I know for me I can feel tension in my stomach, a tight feeling in my throat, and a real tug to want to help this person feel less shitty. 

What I might want to say is, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.  I see you very differently and know that you’re capable of a lot of things.” I may choose to stand by their side and be a gentle observer of their pain, holding them with warmth and care.  

If you’re experiencing a similar reaction, that is your self-compassionate part.  It can so easily be accessed when we are witnessing someone we care about who’s in pain, and often times we think that there’s no way we can direct back towards ourselves.  If it exists and it can be directed outward, then it most certainly can be directed inward.  We just have to practice and see the point in doing it! We also have to redefine what self-compassion is, because if it stays in the realm of “permission to do nothing” or “not holding ourselves accountable” it won’t be very salient. 

Can you take a moment to just connect to yourself right now? Remember, you’re a living, breathing, feeling human being.  You react to the world around you and that includes what’s happening on the inside as well.  Can you recognize that you’re not static, rigid, or fixed to be one thing or another? Might you also acknowledge that you are always surrounded with choices, and that to be a human being means having to make them on a daily basis? 

It’s also imperative to remember that simply making one choice doesn’t automatically make another unavailable (most of the time).  You may decide, mid-way through a choice that you’d rather do something else, like I did yesterday when I decided to make a smoothie for dinner and then four sips in said, “this is gross, I’m going to make stir-fry”. 

When that hopeless, self-critical, and somewhat nihilistic part of us is in full swing, can we at least be compassionate towards ourselves and recognize that this part of us is doing the only thing it knows how: Be critical and when nothing changes, default to hopelessness.  If we can see that hopeless feeling and witness it, that tells us that another part of ourselves is also online. What does that other part want for us?

In the words of Jeff Lebowski, I might respond to that critical and hopeless voice with, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man” and connect to the more helpful and flexible part instead.