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Hope and Hopelessness From a Different Viewpoint

An Internal Family Systems perspective on hope

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about hope and hopelessness. If you’ve been following, you might remember a post from a couple of weeks ago about a different way of thinking about hope, and one from last week that confronted some challenges with that way of thinking.

I thought I was done, at least for now, with considering and reconsidering hope, especially how hope works for people with depression. Then a friend wrote to me to share her thoughts.

My friend Rachel is a client engaged in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. IFS acknowledges that there are many “parts” in each of us, and that the parts relate to each other. An oversimplification of the way that we might experience parts is when I might say something like, “There’s a part of me that wants to be reassured, just to be told that everything’s going to be okay. But, there’s another part of me that thinks that reassurance is a delusion. That part gets really annoyed and cynical when people - or I - just try to say ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’”

Here’s what Rachel said about how IFS might see hope and hopelessness:

“If a person is feeling very hopeless, and possibly experiencing suicidal feelings, then there is a part (or more than one part) behind these feelings. However it looks from the outside, this part has protective motivations - say to protect other, more vulnerable parts of the person from getting hurt again in ways that she has been in the past. The fears may be warranted, or they may be based on outdated information, but the result is the same for this part in the present moment.

If the part is very strong, then for now it also may have completely blended with the person, so the person is not aware that she *isn't* this hopeless part, that she has other parts which are not feeling hopeless (who may be very, very angry or scared by the hopeless part), and that she has a core self that is separate from all the parts and who instinctively knows how to cope.

But the thing with IFS is that parts don't go away, and they can't be ignored or bulldozed. A relationship needs to be cultivated between the part and the core self, as well as eventually between the part and other parts, so that it feels safe enough to slowly relinquish whatever burden it's carrying and cease the harmful behaviors or thinking. It may seem benevolent and rational to focus on hopeful, positive thoughts, or being grateful or optimistic, but if the part feels like its fears are being ignored, then it’s likely to respond with more extreme and harmful behaviors to regain control.

A person working with these issues through IFS will want to spend time getting to know this part from a curious and compassionate place (which can be really, really hard at first), and also getting to know other parts at the same time which may feel like they haven't been heard because the hopeless part has just been so incredibly powerful and loud. In time, when this works, the hopeless part builds trust with the core self and finds more healthy ways of functioning with the ongoing issues that life throws at us.”

Hearing Rachel’s thoughts was helpful for me in continuing to think about how hope does or doesn’t work for people with depression. What did I notice?

  • We work to protect the different parts of ourselves. Hopelessness may feel protective, and it may feel unsafe to push it away or replace it with another feeling..
  • The feelings we have, like our parts, can’t be ignored our bulldozed. This way of acting might just make “negative” feelings stronger.
  • Gentleness with ourselves as we work through feelings of hopelessness is essential.

What I’m left with, at least for now, is a reminder that hope isn’t simple, and neither is hopelessness. We all have reasons for our feelings and thoughts, ways they’ve become ingrained in us and ways that we might work to move them away from us. Like many things, how we experience our thoughts and feelings is a process - one which, as my friend inspired me to remember, we try to should engage in in a caring and compassionate way.

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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