Counseling Center

November 25, 2020

Creative Hopelessness

Posted by Anne Swenson, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, UWCC

Congrats to everyone for having made it thus far into this unprecedented Autumn quarter! I think many of us entered this quarter feeling a bit prepared by our experiences last Spring, but then were surprised by the many unexpected ways this quarter has been challenging. I hope that you all can reflect back on your experiences, the pleasant and the painful, and hold some appreciation that you navigated whatever showed up and made it through this quarter.

One of the things that always strikes me about being on campus is the many traditions that are connected with being a student at the UW, including traditions at the end of Autumn quarter. Maybe it’s studying late in Ode for finals, a departmental get-together after all the grading is done, or the people you look forward to seeing over Winter break. I know that for many of us, those traditions look very different this year.

One of the feelings you might be struggling with is hope. I am fascinated by how complex hope is as a coping tool. We talk about hope as if it’s always a “good” feeling, but it’s much more complicated than that. Especially during the pandemic, I’ve struggled with hope. Again and again, I’ve been forced to give up hope for something that I was looking forward to and immediately replaced it with hope for a future event in order to cope with this loss. While that helped in the moment, it’s also meant that I’ve gotten caught in a cycle of hope and disappointment that’s been draining and taken me out of the present. What if instead we were to embrace hopelessness?

I’m trying to hold onto a powerful, acceptance-based practice called Creative Hopelessness. This is a concept from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that highlights how we often use hope to control our emotions. And that’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes hope can be a problem. We can keep trying something for too long even though it’s not working, stay inflexibly attached to an image of how we hope things will be without accepting how they are, and miss out on the present while we’re stuck imagining what we hope for in the future.

But when we’re able to hold Creative Hopelessness, we embrace the fact that things aren’t the way we wish they would be. Things are as they are. And this can be painful. But it also opens mental and emotional energy to be creative. Rather than thinking endlessly about all the plans I had for my usual holiday traditions, I’m trying to be creative.  What can I do with the time that I have right now? How can I spend my time doing something I value and not just wait for this time to pass? How many batches of brownies can I make on my quest to find the perfect brownie recipe? I  invite you to join me in this practice of Creative Hopelessness as a way to navigate these challenging times and stay present as you figure out a way to live a meaningful life in spite of all of the losses we face. It’s hard work to do this, but I think it’s worth it.

If you’re curious to learn more about how to use acceptance as a way of coping, feel free to take a look at the brief animated YouTube talk by Russ Harris below, which explains how to use acceptance in the face of COVID. In addition, you might want to check out workbooks such as “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living” by Russ Harris and Steven Hayes.