What emotion do you find most challenging? For me, it’s despair. I leave myself empty with despair. I used to find it hard to see any value at all in despair. Despair is not like anger—with anger I can motivate myself in constructive ways. It’s not like depression—when I depress myself I often gain valuable insights. Despair is unique because it lacks energy. But there are valuable lessons to be learned from despair.
The word “emotion” means, “to move.” Emotions make us move, stimulate us to take action. That’s their purpose. Those actions can be as simple as expressing ourselves through laughter, or as dramatic as rushing into danger to rescue a person we love.
And whether we talk about the so-called “positive” emotions such as joy and trust, or “negative” emotions such as anger and disgust—what they all share in common is that they contain energy. I move myself (energetically) forward when I experience joy and trust. I move myself (energetically) backward—pulling away, withdrawing—when I anger or disgust myself. With all emotions I feel the impulse to move—except despair.
Despair is unique in that it lacks energy—leaving me empty and hopeless
Yet, I have learned two valuable lessons from the times when I have despaired myself.
- I have discovered deeper compassion.
- And I have experienced greater resiliency.
Compassion for people who experience despair, and resiliency from having lived through my own despair. Despair, like all emotions is temporary. I can go into any emotion and if I move myself—instead of resist myself—then I come out of that emotion.
The reason despair is more challenging than other emotions is because it lacks energy, therefore it lacks expression. And without expression—movement—emotions last longer.
There are a few ways to deal with despair that I have found to be very helpful.
1). Consider that despair is actually a blanket emotion, meaning it is covering something else that I don’t want to feel or deal with. When this is the case I can help myself by finding ways to express my despair. This may involve drawing, writing, speaking. Ask yourself, “What does my despair look like or sound like?” Draw what it looks like or make a sound that conveys the feeling. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but find a way to express your despair and it’s likely that you’ll find yourself in the emotion you have been covering up.
2) Recognize that nothing means anything other than the meaning you give it. So, take whatever it is that contributes to your despair and alter the meaning. Explore some different questions, for example, “What might I learn from this experience? What is this experience asking of me?” Or, imagine a person you know and admire, someone who has passed away and ask, “Would that person want to be alive if they had to deal with my situation?” Another approach, “What would I tell my best friend if they were in my shoes?” The point with all of these questions is to loosen up the meaning you are making and gain a new perspective.
3) Realize that there is a good chance you are being narcissistic. Most people suffering from despair are indulging in their pain. Not everyone, some people are facing terribly difficult circumstance, but not most of us.
Despair is very often a self-indulgent emotion—we indulge in our fantasy of how hopeless our situation is. If in actuality, our circumstances are truly horrific, then other emotions may be more appropriate than despair. So, why despair? Because despair keeps me from feeling what I don’t want to feel. That’s the function of despair. And this is where compassion helps—recognizing that I am afraid of feeling my deeper feelings. As soon as I acknowledge that I am scared, I open a doorway, a way out of despair.
Finally, I believe that despair is an intellectual emotion, not a primal emotion. It comes as a result of thinking too much. So don’t overthink this. Go do something, anything—jumping jacks, take run or a swim, do Tai Chi, dance, or go outside and work in the garden. Plant your seeds of despair in the soil and you may surprise yourself with what grows—you do.