If there is one emotion that I associate with the experience of chronic anxiety more than any other it is despair. Just writing the word makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure there is anything more life-sucking than this single emotion.

One of the most insidious aspects of feeling despair is that it can, if left to its own devices, destroy motivation. Motivation to make any effort to change things, motivation to see things differently, motivation to take action even when it feels pointless. There’s the killer part – that despair makes everything seem pointless. It FEELS real.

This might make despair the most dangerous of the emotions we experience. Most of us can see through our other feelings, at least some of the time. If we’re wildly happy we don’t necessarily expect that wild happiness will go on forever. If we’re sad or fighting the blues we don’t necessarily expect the blues to never go away.

But when despair moves in it feels like it is coming to stay. One of my clients describes it as the world going grey. Another says it looks like the lights have lost power in the room. I know for me it was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness – like none of it mattered, whatever I tried to tell myself.

But I was wrong. And so are my coaching clients! Because nothing happens to the lights, the world doesn’t lose color and hopelessness isn’t real. That’s true despite how things feel…

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F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appearing Real)

I have to confess that this little acronym used to really piss me off. I hated the word “false”. The one thing my fear didn’t feel to me was false. I was paralyzed by my fears more often than not, and it was certainly real enough to keep me awake at night worrying over all that might happen in the future.

What I wasn’t hearing in this phrase was the word “appearing”. I didn’t grasp that my feelings didn’t necessarily reflect reality. And that was no-where more true for me than when it came to despair.

I never learned to question my feelings. And that last sentence could be considered the heart of today’s blog post. I simply assumed that when I felt a feeling it was something I should respond to as real. It never crossed my mind to ask if that particular feeling was valid or, more accurately, if the reason I was feeling that feeling in the first place was valid.

That’s because I had never learned that feelings start with thinking. I didn’t see feelings as weathervanes following the wind of my thinking. I saw feelings as creatures in their own right, independent things that I had no control over and was helpless to control when they did their thing.

That seems odd now to me, but it was how I thought back then. I thought that because that’s how the people around me also saw their feelings, and that’s how I learned to see feelings/emotions.

But they were wrong, and so was I. Thank the heavens. Let me repeat a statement I made a couple of paragraphs ago: it never crossed my mind to ask if a particular feeling (especially despair) was even valid in the first place.

This is completely out-of-the-box thinking for most people. It is a natural mistake. Feelings are in some ways very, very primitive parts of us, part of our heritage as creatures of this planet. Feelings were very, very important to motivation back before we had thinking to carry some of that burden.

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And if feelings were about motivating us, and they have been around longer than our big, impressive brains, then, well, they will FEEL important, useful, real. Otherwise they wouldn’t be much good for motivating…

Add to this basic physical/emotional truth about emotions the fact that we are, most of us, terribly ignorant of this fact in the first place, and now we’re in trouble when it comes to emotions. Let’s make it even tougher – let’s also have people be ignorant of the notion that feelings are usually CAUSED by thinking – and now we’re really clueless when it comes to how we react to emotions.

I have reviewed some of this material a number of times in this blog. I am driving it again in this post because nowhere is this more important to understand than when we’re talking about despair. We who fight anxiety, to whatever degree we’re fighting it, MUST learn that despair really is false expectations appearing (or really feeling) real.

You Really Can’t Predict the Future

Despair is the child of depression. And depression comes when anxiety (which says crap, this is scary, we better get out of here) and its sister reaction, anger (which says crap, this is scary, we can’t get away so we’d better put up a fight) decide that neither running or fighting will do any good.

In other words depression says hope is gone. Despair is the natural feeling we experience in the face of depression. This doesn’t however mean that we have a lock on truth, reality or the future, HOWEVER we feel.

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And again I have to blame, at least in part, our terrible ignorance of the origin of feelings (coming from thoughts) and our tendency to assume that if we feel something it must be true.

You’ve done it, right? You’ve said to yourself man, this is pointless, I’m never going to beat anxiety, or I’m never going to be any better off financially than I am now, or I’m always going to be alone, or whatever thing you’ve been thinking (and therefore feeling despair, hopelessness, etc.) Then you begin acting as if you had heard it straight from God…

When all that you’re really depending on is your feelings and, well, how they FEEL to you. They FEEL real, solid, true. Except that they are just feelings. That’s all they are.

Yes, we say when confronted with this thinking, but I really DO know. I’ve always had bad luck with relationships, or I didn’t get to go to college so I’ll never make any real money, or I’ve always fought depression and it will never get better… etc.

I did some of that. I remember the months and years (and even decades) I gave away to those convictions of utterly real-feeling certainties.

I gave up on opportunities, walked away from jobs, didn’t take the risk in asking someone out that I wanted to get to know better, avoided the move to a new location because my life sucked and it would never change… all because I took my feelings as gospel truth.

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Feelings Don’t Have to Rule our World

If I was granted to chance to do one thing to make a difference in the world this would be it: to help people understand what Albert Ellis said so long ago and I’m busy yapping about in this blog post. Feelings are not real. They are feelings. They come from thinking. They are reactions, not truth.

This means we have to start questioning both the validity of our feelings AND their origin. We have to start developing the habit of putting a spotlight on that sense of despair, hopelessness and black mood. Why are we feeling this way? No, it didn’t come “out of the blue.” It came from one or more thoughts we had. We didn’t have to be aware of those thoughts – but we CAN become aware of them, with some work and practice.

A terrible number of people are afraid of the feelings and the physical sensations that are caused by Flight or Fight. They will do almost anything to avoid them – medicate them, bury them, push them away, get lost in TV, sleep the day away – anything.

We don’t have to run from our feelings. We don’t have to be tortured by them either. Despair is simply a feeling that came from some thinking. I’m not saying that many of us are NOT dealing with difficult or even terrible circumstances. Many of us are – divorce, lack of money, job challenges, relationship problems, difficult to horrible family histories, physical hurdles – you name it.

But that STILL doesn’t mean that we have to be slaves to our feelings. Problems can be very serious. But they remain problems. And we will NEVER see improvement in our problems if we sit down and give up based on our feelings.

Feelings want to be your servant – not your master. They are something we can manage and even come to control – if we’ll tackle the thinking that generates them in the first place. Despair is a powerful feeling – but it is only a feeling.

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