On Monday we wrote,
“Hope can be defined as a feeling of expectation, or a desire for a specific, positive outcome. It encompasses a feeling of trust, optimism and even confidence.”
But what if you are not an optimistic person, nor have confidence or trust in positive outcomes? How then do you move to hope?
Of course, the answer to this is multilayered and complex, and it depends on multiple factors: the root of this lack of optimism, genetic and environmental factors…as well as X, Y, and Z. I am not going get into all of those, one would need years of study and have to write a book, but I want to share what I have come to learn.
When I was younger, a lot happened that I felt I had no control over. Over time I began to internalize this lack of control to the point that I could not even see a life past the age of 21. I could not envision it. I had zero feeling of expectation.
At some point I came across Dr. Martin Seligman’s now well-known “Theory of Learned Helplessness,” I actually remember thinking “Ah, that explains a lot!”
According to Courtney Ackerman on the Positive Psychology website:
“Learned helplessness is a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it. Eventually, after enough conditioning, the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain at all—even if there is an opportunity to truly escape it…When humans or other animals start to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless.”
It comes down to a belief system we have learned.
Something learned can be unlearned.
Another concept in psychology is also relevant here: the belief about whether what we do will have the desired impact, whether what we do matters; the idea of internal versus external “locus of control”.
"A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)," Philip Zimbardo (1985)
If we believed nothing we did or tried to do, had any impact on improving our circumstance or bringing about the life we wanted, then helplessness, despair, and resignation, all make sense. It would be hard to carry hope.
That is what I used to believe.
Now I believe we always have control. Changing this belief has changed my life.
The problem has been in trying to focus externally on what we control. When we do that, we can feel a lack of agency, because the truth is, shit happens, and we can’t always control whether or not shit will happen to us. However, there is something we can reliably control, and that is our interpretation of things that happen. We can control how we think about things, how we act, and react.
We are not bound to react in a certain way to a certain situation, and how we react can often change the situation moving forward. For example, now this is a true story:
I was once running (late…of course) to an appointment, and as I got out of my car, my handbag (which is usually a little bulky) hit the car parked next to me. I didn’t notice as I was focused on being only 9 mins late instead of 10. I also did not notice the owner of the car my bag banged was still in his car. It was an old beat up car, don’t ask me what model, because I do not notice these things. Anyway, he gestured with an angry face and flailed out his arms as I passed. I had no idea what I had done to make him angry and I was about to write it off to him being a young angry dude, and just go about my day. But then I stopped and thought, “is that who I want to be.” So, I went and knocked on his window, and when he rolled it down, I asked, earnestly, “I am sorry, but did I do something wrong?” He started to rant, “you hit my car with your bag, you should be more careful, you guys drive your fancy cars and don’t care…”. I let him rant and then I said, “I am so very sorry, I really did not know, I absolutely would not have wanted to hit your car, I would never have wanted to do that. I apologize.”
I think I left him in a bit of a shock. His face said so. He did not seem to know what to make of me or what to do.
So, I left, completed my appointment and came back to my car about an hour and a half later. I had almost forgotten about the bulky bag hitting the car incident until I opened my car door and a note fell out. It read, “If you really want to make it up to me, let’s have dinner” and he left his number. Ok totally creepy, BUT, the point is, in the moment I decided to change my reaction, his reaction toward me changed.
And no, of course I never called. Again, creepy. And my husband will be reading this.
The moral of the story is everything is action reaction, reaction action. We are one part of that chain. A cog in the system. Sometimes, not all the time, when we change our reaction, we can change the system.
I remember a night when I was a first-time mom with an infant who had colic. Remember those nights? I remember one particular day walking around trying to bounce her in my arms, but she would not stop crying. I kept walking, bouncing, being still, bouncing, singing, shifting the way I carried her, trying various things to no avail. Finally, reaching exhaustion, I decided to give myself a break and sit down. I sat still holding her as she cried, and took a deep breath closing my eyes to try settle my mind and nerves. And she stopped. And she settled. I was stunned. I realized she was sensing my anxiety. All I needed to do to calm her was to calm myself. I couldn’t make her stop crying. But I could change me, and that changed her. We are intertwined with each other – a web of action reaction.
Try it in your close adult relationships. Sometimes these systems have had years and years of working in the same way, years of building predictable dynamics and triggers, and that entrenchment makes it harder to change, but consistency over time in shifting our reactions can have an impact. Try responding differently, each time for a long time, and see what happens. It is not easy, but here is a trick I am starting to use: Create space between action and reaction. When something happens and you can feel your nervous system start to rev up, breathe. Take a moment, or 10. Wait. Just wait before responding. Walk away if you need to. Even for a day. Then come back. Ask yourself, “who do I want to be?” “What value should guide my response.” And move from that internal space.
Now sometimes, even when we change, we may not get the resulting change we want to see in others or in the world. We cannot control what is outside of us. But even in this situation, WE would have changed, our perspective would have changed, or options for how we react and how we see things would have expanded, and sometimes that is enough for us to experience the world differently.
This brings me to a related lesson I have learned: Blaming others gives away our power. If you know me, I say this a lot, because, I guess, I am trying hard to live by it. It is a challenge, but when I am able to do it, it shifts everything for me. Accepting our own responsibility in creating a situation, seeing the part we played, allows us the power and agency to do something to change it. If we are not part of the problem, then we have no part in the solution. The moment we accept our own agency is the moment we become empowered to change our lives.
I’ll share a personal example.
My husband and I have very different styles. He is a jump in, know you’ll find the way, learn by doing, act, and get tons done kind of guy. I am a ponder, procrastinate, research all options, find the best solution kind of gal. Given the difference in styles, my husband has the capacity to handle a lot and get a lot done. Instead of being grateful, for many years I ended up feeling “left out” of choices and decisions. I felt uninvolved, diminished and disempowered. Instead of recognizing he was trying not to burden me with a lot of stress by trying to handle things himself, I blamed him for leaving me out and not considering me when deciding things. The other thing about blame is it causes the other person to shut down and stop hearing you. They immediately armor up with full on defensive gear and hope for any change is lost. It leads to much pain and frustration in relationships.
It took a while, but I finally realized I had the power to change this pattern. It was not up to him to fix things for me. This is what I had control over: I could pick the things that were most important for me to feel involved in, tell him in a “I would like” “I need” non blaming kind of way, take ownership and show up for those, then accept the things I cannot do, stop beating myself up for not being able to do them (this point is key…shame is what triggers our defensive need to blame others and is also why self-compassion is crucial to change), and be grateful he was willing to do them for us instead. It is not up to other people to fix things for us. They don’t need to. We have the power to fix our own lives by thinking differently, making different choices, and taking responsibility. Accountability is the route to our own empowerment.
I am not saying what is external to us does not impact us. External events, life circumstances, our history, other people’s behavior and choices absolutely have an impact. I am saying it is not useful to blame others. I am also saying it is not useful to blame ourselves. I don’t mean we should have no accountability or responsibility. I mean blame with its harsh judgement and shaming quality does nothing but hurt, and it changes nothing. It almost doesn’t even matter who did what or who started what, if we change, the system changes and isn’t that what we ultimately want? Being accountable and taking responsibility for ourselves is what allows us to shift our lives. It is the only way we can do that, because we are the only thing we have control over. Change begins from within. We are not bound to see things in one way, and we are not bound to act or react in one way. We bind ourselves, but we can unbind ourselves. We can choose. That is our power. Knowing I have power in this way has brought me a lot of hope.
One last point. This comes from Glennon Doyle, and these are perhaps the 5 most empowering and hopeful words I have come across recently, “We can do hard things.”
There will be things we can do nothing about. Someone will hurt us. We will lose a loved one. We won’t succeed in something that is important to us. There will be a Tsunami. We will be in quarantine for months on end. Here is the thing; we have the ability to survive it. We can endure pain. We can survive hardship. We get through things. We do hard things all the time and come out on the other side ready to move forward again. We are made to do hard things. There is much power and hope in that.