This is our third essay on the theme of hopelessness. In their Hopelessness Theory, Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy (1989) and Abramson, Alloy, Hankin, Haeffel, MacCoon, and Gibb (2002) report that this sense of having no hope for the future comes from three sources: 1) the thought that negative life events now are absolutely stable in that they will continue; 2) the thought that negative life events will lead to even more such events; and 3) the thought that negative life events occur because of one’s own unworthiness and deficiencies. I would like to give you the opportunity to challenge these three thoughts. To do so, we will look at four different approaches that, if you practice them, could eliminate these three lies that you might be continually telling yourself. I expect the results to positively change your life.
The three lies above, which you perhaps are telling yourself, center on the idea of generalization. In other words, a thought about a specific event becomes stereotyped as if the specific is going to always occur.
There are four patterns of generalization associated with positive and negative valences:
1. Generalizations that are negative and true. This kind of thinking can be helpful. For example, when we touch poison ivy in one woods, we characteristically contract this skin irritation. It is wise to avoid this plant in the next woods….and the next.
2. Generalizations that are positive and true. This kind of generalization can be helpful (“Good things have happened to me in the past and are likely, at least at some point in the future, to be good again.”). Such generalization helps one avoid unnecessary discouragement.
3.Generalizations that are negative and untrue. This kind of generalization, if it becomes routine in a person, can cause psychological harm (“I am in a bad situation and this will always continue without exception;” "I did X and this makes me a bad person and I always will be a bad person."). For one thing, we cannot predict the future with such certainty. This is the error of presumption. It can foster hopelessness and a sense of one’s own worthlessness, which can result in the challenges of depression and unnecessary anxiety.
4. Generalizations that are positive and untrue. We are not addressing the fourth pattern—generalizations that are positive, perhaps even excessively and unrealistically positive, and untrue—because this can be a sign of narcissism, which is beyond the scope of this essay.
Let us now examine the four approaches for resisting negative and false generalizations (point 3 above).
You Have Worth
The recurring audio-recording in your mind about who you are needs to be challenged if you make such generalized and negative statements as these: I am not much as a person; I am less than others; I deserve what I get. These are false because, regardless of your past thoughts that are negative and generalized, you are special, unique, and irreplaceable. Do you want proof? Here is one piece of evidence: You have unique DNA. There never was anyone like you on the planet and when you no longer are here, there never will be another person quite like you. You are unique. You are irreplaceable. This makes you special, very special. It then follows that you have worth, an unconditional quality that cannot be taken from you despite any unfortunate circumstances you face. Your circumstances do not make you who you are. Your essence of being special, unique, and irreplaceable makes you who you are.
I challenge you to counter the negative script in your mind with these thoughts: I am a person of worth and I will not believe the lie that others throw my way. I will resist the tendency to think of myself as less than I am.
Did you know that you are a person who can love? In my book, The Forgiving Life, I make the point that the essence of our humanity is to love and this comes from thinkers in philosophy, theology, and the social sciences. If this is correct, then this statement is both true and a generalization: “I am someone who can love and can be loved.” I will prove it to you: Think about one incident some time in your life in which you gave love to another person and this person gave love back to you. By love here I mean a sincere attempt to serve another person for that person’s sake. Name one specific incident in which this happened by you and to you. Was this experience fulfilling, making you feel more whole and having a sense of thriving? This is why I say that to love is the essence of who you are as a person. Now name one more instance of this. You do have this capacity to love. Such a generalized perspective centered on love, based on sound reasoning by thinkers in many disciplines (see Enright, 2012), may make all the difference in your beginning to grow in hopefulness.
All Other People Have Worth
This one may be more difficult for you, especially if you have been treated in a cruel way by others. Yet, even if you have someone in mind who behaves so negatively that you are tempted to counter the idea that “all people have worth,” here is my challenge: If you are special, unique, and irreplaceable because of your unique DNA, it follows that all people, even those who have treated you cruelly, also are special. They all have worth, unconditional worth. It may take time to convince yourself of this, but it is a true generalization. The lie, as it was in your own personal case, is to engage in the false and negative generalization that a particular person has no worth. Other people’s worth is not defined by circumstances, by their behavior, but instead by who they are in their essence as human beings. A key here is to persevere in the true-generalization-thinking until it is a part of you.
Our next task is to show you the untruth of these issues: Negative circumstances will always generalize and that negative circumstances will lead to even more negative circumstances.
Gratitude as Proof that Negative Circumstances Are Not Forever
Gratitude is the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation. For this thinking exercise here, please think of one time, no matter when that was in your life, in which you had (or now have when you reflect on it) a sense of being thankful for someone or something. What was this situation? Did anyone show kindness or love to you? Who was (is) this person? Why do you have gratitude? In other words, what happened that is positive? Try to concretely name that which is positive.
Now consider one more indication of gratitude toward a person or a situation or both at some time in your life.
Do you see that negativism is not forever in your case? You have gratitude because of some positive circumstances and people at some time in your life. Even if you counter my argument with the idea that this-was-past-but-my-future-is-bleak, please keep in mind Walter Mischel’s observation: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If this is correct, then some instances of the positive, generating gratitude in you, are probably likely to occur for you precisely because you have experienced these in your past. Please cling to that truth based on your past experiences with gratitude.
The Practice of Forgiving Restores Hope
Hopelessness can be combatted by forgiving those who have been unjust to you and we have scientific evidence for this. Our scientific studies over three decades have shown this: As people learn to forgive others who have behaved badly toward them, then the forgivers’ sense of hope can be restored (see, for example, Hansen, Enright, Baskin, & Klatt, 2009; Hebl & Enright, 1993). When people forgive, they do not let the resentments within their inner world consume them. They finally begin to realize that the inner pain is not forever. They now have a tool—forgiveness—for confronting and overcoming anger, sadness, and bitterness as effects from unjust treatment. They come to realize that, as they forgive, reconciliation is possible at least in some cases if the other is willing to change. Others’ misbehavior will not destroy you or even define who you are as a person. Forgiveness aids you in restoring your sense of your own humanity and your sense of the wrongdoer’s humanity.
Hopelessness itself is a temporary attitude. It can be overcome by: resisting philosophers’ attempted persuasions that there is no hope in this world (as we discussed in Part 1); finding meaning in what you are suffering (as we discussed in Part 2); and now in fighting for the true and positive generalizations that you and all others possess an inherent worth, you have had gratitude at some point in your past and this is possible now, and you are capable of forgiving.
Hopelessness itself is a false and negative generalization. It is time to confront it and end it within you. I wish you the best in your meaningful efforts to restore a sense of glowing humanity within yourself and then as you extend this to others.
Abramson, L. Y., Alloy, L. B., Hankin, B. L., Haeffel, G. J., MacCoon, D. G., & Gibb, B. E. (2002). Cognitive vulnerability-stress models of depression in a self-regulatory and psychobiological context. In I. H. Gotlib & C. L. Hammen (Eds.), Handbook of depression (pp. 268-294). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Abramson, L. Y., Metalsky, G. I., & Alloy, L. B. (1989). Hopelessness depression: A theory-based subtype of depression. Psychological Review, 96(2), 358.
Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Hansen, M.J., Enright. R.D., Baskin, T.W., & Klatt, J. (2009). A palliative care intervention in forgiveness therapy for elderly terminally-ill cancer patients. Journal of Palliative Care, 25, 51-60.