5 Surprising Reasons Hope Can Be the Scariest Emotion

Can hope feel worse than despair, worry, or regret?

Posted Mar 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan


  • Those who resist hope tend to be defensive pessimists who want to feel "prepared" for the worst.
  • People find hope distressing for many reasons, including feelings of unworthiness and a fear of taking risks.
  • Learning how hope works helps you be less afraid to experience it.
Ron Smith/Unsplash
Source: Ron Smith/Unsplash

When you think of the emotions you'd most like to avoid, you probably think first of "negative" emotions like despair, panic, regret, and guilt. For some people, however, hope can be a particularly terrifying emotion.

Anxious people frequently cope via a style known as defensive pessimism. Some characteristics of this style include:

  • Thinking about potential negative outcomes.
  • Seeking information about the likelihood of negative outcomes and how to prevent these.
  • Planning for what you will do if an option you are currently pursuing does not work out; for example, you research new job opportunities in case you do not get the promotion you are short-listed for.

Here are five reasons people can find the experience of hope very distressing. This applies most to defensive pessimists, but not exclusively. 

1. Fluctuating emotions can be mentally rough.

Defensive pessimism is not hopelessness. It still includes an element of hope. A good way to sum it up is that person "hopes of the best, but plans for the worst." However, within this, the person's hope may fluctuate a great deal. Wildly fluctuating emotions can be distressing. 

Solution: One solution is not to treat the emotion of hope as information. Remind yourself that feeling hope doesn't mean a positive outcome is more likely. However, nor does a decrease in hope mean a positive outcome is less likely. All the objective factors remain.

2. People fear that feeling hope will make receiving bad news harder to cope with.

In some cases, expecting bad news can make it easier to cope with a bad outcome. For example, if you buy a lottery ticket and rationally know that winning would be a one in a million chance, then not winning is relatively easy to handle.

However, most situations are not like this. In most situations, we have enough hope present (even if it's fluctuating, or low, say 10%), that we still feel crushed by bad news. How crushed you feel is more a function of how high stakes a situation is, rather than how much hope you felt or didn't feel.

A defensive pessimist is highly unlikely to be blindsided by a predictable negative outcome that they had not anticipated at all.

Solution: Trust your capacity to handle bad news if it happens. (A lot more on how to do this in the next point.)

3. Defensive pessimists sometimes attempt to "pre-grieve."

Defensive pessimists like to be prepared. Sometimes part of this is that they attempt to pre-grieve a negative outcome by thinking about the possibility in great detail before it happens. 

Beyond some very basic preparation, this is unlikely to work. You're still likely to feel just as distressed if a bad outcome occurs in a high-stakes situation, no matter how much you've worried about it. 

Pre-grieving can also be stress-generating. Imagine you have news coming on a particular date. If it's bad, you may need a few lighter days of work to cope with it. If you are attempting to pre-grieve, you might feel very distracted at work in the days before your news is expected. This may cause you to fall behind and make it harder to take the time you need afterward if you get bad news.

Solution: Try doing some quick, practical preparation for how you might cope if you get bad news. Would you go for a walk? Would you listen to music? Who would you talk to? How could you lighten your workload if you need emotional space to grieve? If you need alone time to process your emotions, how would you get that?

Spend 10 minutes answering these questions. Jot down your answers. Going through this process can help you gain confidence in your ability to cope. Limiting the time you spend on it and doing it in a focused, structured way is likely to be much more effective than doing it in an open-ended way.

4. People sometimes feel unworthy of hope.

Imagine you've learned you might get an amazing work opportunity. If you feel hope and don't end up getting it, you might fear that your brain will use this as evidence you never were equipped to handle the opportunity in the first place. You might reason:

  • "If I don't get it, I must not have been capable of doing it."
  • "If I don't get it, I must not deserve it."
  • "If I don't get it, I must not be as talented as others." 

When you think like this, hope can feel presumptuous. Hope can feel like you're saying to yourself, "I deserve it. I am talented. I am capable." However, if you feel hope and then don't get the opportunity, it's like you had those positive thoughts and were proven wrong. You might feel foolish, or fear feeling foolish.

Solution: Don't make these false mental leaps. Not getting an opportunity doesn't mean you're not capable and talented. Being considered for the opportunity probably means you are.

5. Hope can feel destabilizing. Might you up-end your life if you feel too hopeful?

Anxious folks sometimes fear that hope and optimism will lead to them taking emotional risks, like leaving or starting a relationship, changing jobs or careers, moving somewhere new, buying a new house, undertaking major travel, a lifestyle change like #vanlife, attempting a project that's outside your comfort zone, or attempting to have a baby.

People fear that hope could lead to them taking excessive and unwise risks, and potentially lead to feeling regret or embarrassment down the line.

Solution: Understand that this thinking process is one reason hope feels scary. Balance the risks of doing (emotional risks like loss of support and practical risks like money loss) with the risks of not doing. Acknowledge that you cannot avoid regret by not doing anything, for that too would lead to regret from never attempting your dreams. Often through "bad" decisions, you will learn about yourself, or gain skills or resources (e.g., friendships) in a way that becomes the basis of future successes.

People traditionally categorize emotions as positive or negative, but they're much more complex than this. A "positive" emotion like hope can be scary, and a "negative" emotion like envy can prompt you to take useful actions. The more you learn about how emotions work, the better you'll understand yourself and your thoughts. You'll become less scared of experiencing the full range of human emotions and less distressed by your distress.