Some time ago, I was working with a woman in USA who has a private business in which she is very engaged, creative and responsible, and potentially very successful. Still, things were going downhill, primarily because of her relationships with her employees – she was too permissive and lacked boundaries, which the employees readily (and sometimes very manipulatively) abused. We worked with her feelings of guilt, inappropriate responsibility, and fear of others’ reactions to her decisions. After all that was addressed, something else came up as an equally important, perhaps the key problem. It was hope. She kept hoping her employees will finally come around to appreciate and understand her, and start investing effort into their jobs. Of course, there was a similar unfulfilled hope she was carrying from her early family. Some of her particularly manipulative employees probably recognized and fed that hope. In her honor, this article.
Why is it so difficult to recognize when hope is unhealthy?
Most people who work on self-improvement want to resolve unpleasant emotions: fear, shame, guilt, anger… This is expected and natural. Yet, sometimes a “positive” emotion can actually be a “negative” one. How? If it urges us to ignore facts, experience and common sense, and to make unthoughtful, unbalanced choices.
Unrealistic hope is such an emotion and sometimes it can create more damage than unpleasant emotions (excluding perhaps violent rage). Unpleasant emotions such as fear and shame urge us to have more self-restraint, which can result in missing some opportunities. But we often fight them because they are unpleasant. On the other hand, hope can motivate us to make unwise, unrealistic decisions – and it’s very pleasant and seductive.
Hope makes the world go around. Hope motivated people who risked (or sacrificed) their own lives for progress, everybody who in spite of fierce resistance led (or dragged) humanity forward. But in the other hand, in many silent and not so obvious ways, in many unwritten lives, unhealthy hope was a double-edged sword.
Just like we avoid unpleasant emotions, we also tend to accept, follow and increase the pleasant ones. Our bodies follow a fairly simple instinct: unpleasant = bad, pleasant = good. Hope is even more than pleasant; it can give us strength when we need it, meaning when things look bleak – hope is one of our primary motivators, even primary needs in life.
Still, just as unpleasant emotions are not necessarily wrong (sadness, for example, can lead us to find perhaps undiscovered potential for love, or more compassion for others), pleasant emotions might lead us to ignore objective reality or long term consequences.
Infatuation is the most obvious example and is often intertwined with unrealistic hope. Most of us have had a chance to experience the power and intensity of such a combination, how it can make people ignore reason, idealize the mundane, and defend the inexcusable. Hope together with infatuation can make people suffer obvious abuse for years. There are other relationships, too, which hope can make us prolong much further than it makes sense: often family relationships, but also some business relationships (as many people spontaneously project their childhood issues into their business environment, like in the example above).
Manipulative people in marketing and politics (which is mostly marketing anyway) know the power of hope very well. Marketing could actually quite well be summarized as selling hope. If the hope for something important can be triggered in sufficiently attractive ways, it can make even smart people repeat similar mistakes, ignoring that maybe-Einstein’s quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. In politics, hope put into wrong people can have very destructive consequences not only on national, but on global level.
If we make a mistake based on hope, we are unlikely to receive compassion. Victims of crime or even misfortune are often labeled as stupid, irresponsible and similar by people who like to blame victims – while usually the only mistake of those victims was that they chose hope over caution and red flags. It’s important to be kind and supportive to ourselves even when people try to put us down for such mistakes. But as social beings, we have a need for others’ feedback, and it might not be easy to disregard it. You can increase your resilience to mocking and labeling by building a good relationship with yourself, primarily through making friends with your own emotions.
Childish hope and what to do with it
Where does such a power of hope to override sense come from? This happens when hope is rooted in childhood memories, or we could call it childish hope. Not only unpleasant emotions are often childish, “positive” emotions can be, too. (Read about how to recognize childish emotions in this article.)
Childhood hope which motivates unbalanced decisions is often subtly related to some kind of self-esteem problem and unfulfilled needs: we might hope that we’ll receive something we never had as children in a similar situation or with a similar person (such as approval or understanding), prove something we couldn’t as children, or repair some injustice or chaos we experienced as children. Again, this is most obvious in love relationship, but certainly not limited to them.
Once you are aware of all this, you can approach your childish hope like any other childish emotion: with compassion and love, but also with the awareness of the objective reality. You can recognize the needs hidden behind hope and fulfill those needs in healthier ways. You can employ your creativity to find ways to create what you want without paying a painful price for it.
Finally, how can you know when hope might be healthy and adult, and when to listen to its advice? It’s usually when hope is not mixed with a sense of urgency and fear you will miss something. When you are easily able to consider objective circumstances and a wide range of possible decisions and outcomes, rather than feeling a need to ignore them. Similarly like healthy love, when it’s not rooted in need and sense of lack, but in joy and fulfillment. You can achieve this if you first focus inside, on creating a good relationship with yourself, and only then on what you want outside of yourself.