Overcoming the 9 Types of Hopelessness


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I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the topic of hope because, if anything is going to help me climb out of the Black Hole of depression, it’s a sense of hope. In their book, “Hope in the Age of Anxiety,” psychology professors Anthony Scioli and Henry Biller discuss hope from a variety of different perspectives, combining psychology with philosophy, biology, anthropology as well as the literary classics.

I went straight to chapter thirteen, of course, and read “Overcoming Hopelessness: Escape from Darkness.” The authors argue that there are nine forms of hopelessness, each related to the disruption of one or more of the basic needs that comprise hope; attachment, mastery, or survival. The authors present three “pure forms” of hopelessness resulting from breakdowns in one of these three needs or “motive systems” (alienation, powerlessness, doom). There are also six “blended” forms of hopelessness which results when two needs are challenged. We can overcome hopelessness by first recognizing which of these nine types we are confronting. For each form of hopelessness, they present a mind-body-spirit treatment cocktail, involving a restructuring of thoughts, accessing the right kind of hope-sustaining relationship, and specific spiritual practices. Armed with these prescriptions we can summon the light back into our lives.

Here are the nine types of hopelessness and just some of the strategies recommended by Scioli and Biller. For the whole treatment package, consider getting your own copy of “Hope in the Age of Anxiety.” (Reprinted from Hope in the Age of Anxiety: A Guide to Understanding and Strengthening Our Most Important Virtue by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller (Oxford University Press).© 2009 by Oxford University Press.

1. Alienation (Attachment)

Alienated individuals believe that they are somehow different. Moreover, they feel as if they have been cut loose, no longer deemed worthy of love, care, or support. In turn, the alienated tend to close themselves off, fearing further pain and rejection.

2. Forsakenness (Attachment and Survival)

The word “forsaken” refers to an experience of total abandonment that leaves individuals feeling alone in their time of greatest need. Recall Job in the Old Testament, crumpled over and covered with sores, pleading with a seemingly indifferent God.

3. Uninspired (Attachment and Mastery)

Feeling uninspired can be especially difficult for members of underprivileged minorities, for whom opportunities for growth and positive role models within the group may be either lacking or undervalued.

4. Powerlessness (Mastery)

Individuals of every age need to believe that they can author the story of their life. When that need is thwarted, when one feels incapable of navigating one’s way toward desired goals, a feeling of powerlessness can set in.

5. Oppression (Mastery and Attachment)

Oppression involves the subjugation of a person or group…. The word “oppressed” comes from Latin, to “press down,” and its synonym, “down-trodden,” suggests a sense of being “crushed under” or “flattened.”

6. Limitedness (Mastery and Survival)

When the struggle for survival is combined with a sense of failed mastery, individuals feel limited. They experience themselves as deficient, lacking in the right stuff to make it in the world. This form of hopelessness is all too common among the poor as well as those struggling with severe physical handicaps or crippling learning disabilities.

7. Doom (Survival)

Individuals weighed down by this form of despair presume that their life is over, that their death is imminent. The ones most vulnerable to sinking into this particular circle of hell are those diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening illness as well as those who see themselves worn out by age or infirmity. Such individuals feel doomed, trapped in a fog of irreversible decline.

8. Captivity (Survival and Attachment)

Two forms of hopelessness can result from captivity. The first consists of physical or emotional captivity enforced by an individual or a group. Prisoners fall into this category as well as those help captive in a controlling, abusive relationship. We refer to this as “other-imprisonment.”…An equally insidious form of entrapment is “self-imprisonment. This occurs when individuals cannot leave a bad relationship because their sense of self will not allow it.

9. Helplessness (Survival and Mastery)

Helpless individuals no longer believe that they can live safely in the world. They feel exposed and vulnerable, like a cat after being declawed or a bird grounded by a broken wing. Trauma or repeated exposure to uncontrolled stressors can produce an ingrained sense of helplessness. In the words of one trauma survivor, “I was terrified to go anywhere on my own … I felt so defenseless and afraid that I just stopped doing anything.”

Overcoming Alienation and its offshoots (Alienation, Forsakenness, Uninspired)

[Pure Alienation] This form of hopelessness may be fueled by cognitive distortions such as mind reading, overgeneralization, or all-or-nothing thinking. … Many who feel alienated assume (wrongly) that absolutely no one is, or ever will be, in their corner. The antidote for mind reading is to examine the emotional evidence. This requires courage in the form of trust and openness to survey how others actually experience you.

If you feel forsaken, it is important to get outside of your head to see if your inner reality is an accurate reflection of the outside world. Most people who feel forsaken are overgeneralizing from a relatively small sample of experiences. With more extensive sampling, it is highly likely that they will encounter more hope-promoting responses from others. The antidote to all-or-nothing thinking is thinking in shades of gray–opening oneself up to the continuum of possibilities for one’s life.

Overcoming Doom and its offshoots (Doom, Helplessness, Captivity)

Those who feel doomed as a result of a medical or psychiatric diagnosis may “jump to conclusions.” The best antidote for jumping to conclusions is “examining the evidence.” If you are diagnosed with a serious illness, do your homework and get the facts. For example, Harvard anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with a rare abdominal cancer at the age of 40. When told that the median survival time for someone with this disease was only 8 months, he did some research. In his essay, “The Median Isn’t the Message,” Gould shared how his knowledge of statistics helped him to “examine the evidence.” He was able to tell himself, “Fine, half the people will live longer. Now what are my chances of being in that half?” After factoring in his age, his relatively healthy lifestyle, the early stage of diagnosis, and the quality of healthcare available, Gould arrived at a far more hopeful prognosis. In fact, he lived another 20 years before succumbing to an unrelated illness.

Overcoming Powerlessness and its Offshoots (Powerlessness, Oppression, Limitedness)

Three cognitive distortions frequently underlie feelings of powerlessness: discounting the positive, personalization, and labeling. When individuals cannot appreciate their talents and gifts, they are prone to discount any evidence of personal success or effectiveness. Examining the evidence is a good strategy for dealing with discounting the positive. One way to do this is to make a list of successes, particularly in the general domain you are discounting. For example, if you are prone to discounting a good grade on an exam, write down any past successes of an intellectual nature. If you tend to discount a work or social achievement, reflect on past occupational or group-related achievements.

It is common for those who are oppressed to engage in personalization and self-blame. A strategy for counteracting self-blame is reattribution. This involves considering all the likely causes of negative emotions.

When individuals feel limited because of a perceived physical or intellectual disability, they may fall prey to labeling. To attack harmful labels, “define your terms.” For example, if you feel or are labeled “stupid,” reflect on the actual definition of the term. Are you always “making bad decisions”? Are you always “careless” and “unable to learn”? Unless this description, taken directly from the “American Heritage Dictionary,” applies to you, then you are not “stupid.”

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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