Does hope ever turn into something unhelpful? Something bad? In my experience, I would say that it certainly can. You can’t live without hope, but a misplaced hope can steal your life. The Tanakh says that hope deferred makes the heart sick. Continually hoping that something comes to fruition while never experiencing that very thing creates myriad forms of havoc. The hope itself can take many forms, but this is one of the more dangerous statements of hope:
“I hope that it changes.”
What is most likely the most dangerous?
“I hope that s/he changes.”
That’s harsh, isn’t it? That’s a very black-and-white point of view, and I rarely take a black-and-white stance about anything. I live in the gray. As I have moved further away from the day my ex-husband and I ended our marriage, I have enjoyed the privilege of hindsight more and more which renders me somewhat omniscient about certain things in my past circumstances albeit not entirely. I see how much I rationalized. How much harmful behavior did I tolerate? How much ill treatment did I chalk up to unresolved childhood issues? How much did I enable him? Too much. I feel ashamed of it, and I hear from so many men and women who engage in the same behaviors. They hope that their acceptance, tolerance, and limitless patience will eventually amount to something. They hope that something will change. They hope that someone dear to them will change. They live on that familiar gray spectrum hoping that they will never have to take a black-and-white stance because that means that there might not be hope. An ultimatum might become necessary, and that feels intolerable.
Where does that lead you? Into the depths. Gray is comforting, but it is bottomless and without boundaries.
What if you can’t get out, you ask? What if you’re drowning? What if you are in the Laurentian Abyss and your hope is the only thing keeping your head above the water?
What if your hope isn’t really hope? What if what you believe to be hope are really rationalizations?
Well, I have been watching one of my daughters interact with other people lately. She is anxious. Excessively so. It is extremely uncomfortable to observe her. Her social skills are deficient. She tries so hard and seems to miss almost every time. Instead of attempting to intervene and fix something for her, I decided to step back and quietly assess her. Why was I so uncomfortable watching her be an awkward adolescent? What about her social interactions are so viscerally repellent to me?
It suddenly dawned on me that she, like most teenagers, is operating from a belief that she has to earn acceptance and approval from everyone around her, and that reminded me of myself when I was married. She tries and tries in hopes that she will be a part of something, but she can’t quite get there. She is behaving from a place of insecurity. The belief driving her when she socializes is that she is not acceptable as she is. She must somehow earn it by being “cool”, and, as much as I’d like to say that this dynamic disappears once we reach adulthood, it doesn’t; it merely evolves. Consequently, she tries to act in line with the group’s idea of coolness–however it’s manifesting at the time, and this comes off as painfully awkward and disingenuous. It’s like watching someone try on clothes as fast as they can, and the group’s ever-changing attitudes are the harsh fluorescent lights highlighting all her own self-perceived flaws that she is desperately trying to mask.
Most of us can probably recall what that feeling is like–the all-encompassing feeling of self-consciousness combined with the developmental stage of the Invisible Audience. We feel constantly critiqued and observed by others and ourselves at the same time. It is excruciating, and we feel as if we are at a constant disadvantage. Why? We never feel acceptable. Feeling approved of is the dream. We try because we hope. Because we desire. Because belonging is a human need.
What if we could hack our minds and emotions somehow and arrive at a very concrete understanding, removing all dissonance, in which we thoroughly understand that we are already acceptable and approved of as we are at this moment?
Treat this as a thought experiment. Engage in it as if it were simply that–an experiment.
How would you live your life if you believed to the point of certainty that you are acceptable and approved of? Now.
“What would change in terms of my behavior, how I interacted with others, what I accepted from others, and what I allowed and disallowed in my life if I felt accepted?”
I’ll go first.
- I would stop trying to please everyone. Why try to please everyone if I already have the very thing my people pleasing behavior is supposed to give me? I need to re-examine my motivations (I have done this and continue to do this).
- I could be more assertive because being a stronger self-advocate would not detract from my own personal acceptability. If I am approved of as I am today, then standing up for my own worth–which is inherent–is a requirement then. Not an option (This is hard for me, but I am really working on it).
- I would raise my standards in terms of behaviors I tolerate from people. I would stop saying, “Well, it’s okay that s/he __________. I’m sure s/he didn’t mean to _________. They have had a hard life and don’t know better.” As someone close to me has said, “If someone is careless with your heart, then you need to decide if they are worth having in your life.” If you are acceptable and approved of right now, then why continue to have relationships with people who treat you as if you are not? Am I trying to earn acceptance? Am I trying to gain approval from myself, others, or even society at large? This is a question worth asking often.
- I would feel much freer to be myself with others as well as be generous. Knowing that you are acceptable liberates you. You are free to be generous with compliments, released from self-consciousness, and opened to new experiences. This has been one of the best experiences of my life thus far. When my mind finally stopped engaging in comparisons and constant self-assessments, I experienced a far greater capacity to relax and lean into the genuine experience of knowing other people–even if it was merely a five-minute social exchange. I was also inoculated against offense. I stopped taking things personally which increased my general quality of life and ability to be genuinely compassionate.
How does hope play into this?
Looking back on the last decade of my life, I can see that what I hoped for I already possessed. I wanted to feel accepted, but I didn’t. I wanted to feel approved of, but I did not. I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere, but I really did not. I felt small, invisible, worthless, and ontologically insignificant. Last night, my oldest daughter said to me, “You look happy. You finally don’t look like you’re waiting to die.” I was shocked. When did I ever look like I was waiting to die? That is one helluva statement to make. I asked her to explain. She said that I looked like I was just grinding it out. Trying to make it through until I could just be done with living. I couldn’t deny it. I was stuck in an abusive marriage while trying to raise my kids. I kept saying, “I hope he changes.”
He never did.
But, I did.
This is what I mean by false and dangerous hope. When you defer your own happiness and well-being by putting it in the hands of someone else, you doom yourself. There is a time to be gray about issues, but there is also a time to be black-and-white. You cannot make anyone change, but you are the only one who can guarantee that your circumstances change by changing yourself. You can be your own catalyst for change by creating the life you want, and I propose that one of the first things to change is your mind. Since we are talking about making small changes that matter, I propose engaging in thought experiments. The beauty of a thought experiment is that you can actually get a glimpse of what your reality might look like when you apply thoughtful change to your present circumstances.
Hope first. Do next.
“I hope I change,” becomes “I will change,” becomes “I changed.”
Suddenly, your life is very different, and that’s the point.