If one doesn’t immediately come to mind, you’re probably scanning your life for your latest bad habit.
Is it the late-night, TV-watching snacks? Or the TV watching itself?
The addictive drugs or alcohol you’ve struggled with over the years?
Maybe it’s more like a vice, like coffee. Or your phone.
As you wade through the pile of destructive habits, I’ll wager there’s one that’s worse. A killer that lurks beneath the other habits, and one you may not have even labeled a habit:
The habit of despair.
Despair. Yup. Despite its bitter flavor, it is a particularly compelling feeling that likes to convince you that hope is futile, and that you are doomed. When things are bad, especially for long stretches, despair waits with open arms to coddle and lull you with cruel untruths: “Things will never change. I’ll always feel this way. I’ll never have what I want” . . .
Here are some childhood origins of the habit of despair: Exposure to physical or emotional trauma; devastating loss; abuse; inconsistency; neglect, and lack of being seen, acknowledged or appreciated for who you really are.
Here are some circumstances that have, over the years, evoked despair in me personally. Maybe you relate: Political corruption; the unfathomable persistence of cruelty, discrimination and injustice; being single for long stretches of time; being unable to earn enough money from inspired work to survive — even after investing thousands of hours and dollars to make it so, and so on.
See if you can isolate where and when despair became habit for you. See if you can detect what triggers despair in your life now, and like a default setting, you fall back on it in certain situations.
Remember: things don’t have to be perfect. Your life may not have all the pieces in place. You may not be able to activate all of the agendas that would make the world, your workplace, or relationship an ideal place to be. There will be pain and disappointment in life, but despair is different: it distorts temporary feelings into permanent facts and makes hope seem childish. When you take a stand against despair, big shifts happen. Suddenly, unforeseen pathways replace what seemed insurmountable. You somehow know what to accept and what to fight, and when.
When despair shows up, convincing you there’s no way out, that you are chained to an endless bleak stretch of suffering, catch it by its throat and choke it with your love. Squeeze the life out of it by imagining just how much more powerful you are than it. Remind yourself that feelings are temporary, and that you are capable of so much when you put your mind and heart to it. Trust me. If you scan your life for proof of your power, it’s there in spades. You’ve brightened someone’s day. Accomplished a milestone. Overcame a handicap. Gotten through hell and back. And if you’ve done something powerful once, in one area of your life, you can do it again.
If despair isn’t a habit for you, you’ve probably been confused and maybe repelled by others who seem stuck there. But if you experience despair frequently, then I hope this post inspires you to lead yourself out of those dark, sticky woods. If you can’t find your way out of despair’s grip, invite a person (or several) who loves you to let loose a bright spotlight on those moldy beliefs and reveal the truth of what you’re made of. They know what you’re capable of. Repeat as necessary.
Take on your secret habit — despair — and reclaim hope. Breaking habits is not easy, but the rewards are endless. You have the resources to do it. Your wellbeing – and the world – depends on it.
For more on how to shift habits, read 6 Essential Guidelines for Breaking HabitsBreaking habits is not easy, but the rewards are endless. Click To Tweet
Despair and feeling desperate have not, I am glad to say, been part of my experience, even secretly. Oh sure, I’ve had some moments of being discouraged, even disappointed, but despair was not given or allowed any space because for some reasons I am exploring further and deeper I knew there was always hope for something better. Whether in work, relationships, or life the habits of mind left no room nor time for despair even if it lurked on the horizon. Even in the face of corruption, injustice, cruelty and discrimination I have been an activist to try and make things better and work like hell to right what’s wrong. Was it resiiience? No, that’s too soft. At times it righteous indignation and anger turned into positive action. It’s just part of who I am and what I do.
Thanks for sharing your experience. It is a wonderful teaching.
I have had moments of despair in my life. I love your idea of characterizing it as nothing more than a habit if one indulges in it frequently. I think that so much shame surrounds any so-called bad habit, just as pride often surrounds a so-called good habit. And I agree that once you come to understand that all are simply habits, despair loses its power, and we see that it’s as fleeting as any pleasurable emotion. Then we can step away from shaming ourselves for the thoughts and actions that trigger despair and shaming the thoughts and actions that despair often triggers. Also, I appreciated what you wrote above near the end: “If despair isn’t a habit for you, you’ve probably been confused and maybe repelled by others who seem stuck there.” I was thinking about something along these lines the other day. If there’s something we have overcome, it’s remarkable to me how hard it can be to tolerate seeing another person experience that very thing which we found a way to overcome. It’s as if we see/feel the pain all over again and we can’t bear for the other person to go through it and we just want the person to wake up and see that it doesn’t have to be like that. We may even feel angry that s/he doesn’t seem to ‘get it’ at first, and that’s where I think the sense of repulsion that you hit on comes in. To me, the intolerance of what we perceive to be weakness in another would be another habit to explore and understand — would you consider sharing your thoughts on it? I recently came across the work of the Empathy Museum which share soundbites from people about difficult moments in their lives. I think that our moments of despair are a gift in hindsight because that’s what helps us to connect and have compassion for others. I think its valuable to remember those moments not to indulge the feelings again, but to see if there’s a way that we can hold space for the despair of others without encouraging them to indulge it further and without judging them for the experience.
Often when I read your deep and well written responses to my posts, I think, she needs to write a blog! You have so many interesting angles. I, too, relate to the repulsion of someone going through something I went through and, though I am deeply empathic, it can be very challenging to tolerate and find my empathy. A mystery. I’ll check out the Empathy Museum – sounds amazing. Thanks as always for your response!
Hello Blair, I didn’t see this sooner, because initially I forgot to mark the box to get the notification. But I had a feeling that you might have replied and I had this tab open and finally coming back around to say thank you. Regarding the blog, I surely appreciate the thought! I had a blog for a while that covered various musings (and it’s still up), and then I took a hiatus from it as I explored what felt right for me in terms of how to go about it. In the meanwhile, I’ve been writing a lot, but not publishing other than in text files and napkins galore. 🙂 Maybe your thought above is a little nudge for me to consider sharing more broadly again. Until then, please know that I’m grateful for having the opportunity to share here.