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How to respond to HOPELESSNESS

Most people who are hopeless are likely to reject encouragement from others who try to tell them that "things are not so bad."

In fact, such encouragement may create even more distance and isolation. When families observe a loved one overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness or perhaps a sad emptiness, it can be very hard to figure out how to respond. Families can end up feeling scared and helpless when facing a loved one who is hopeless.

Dr. Christine Dunkley developed a set of behavioral strategies for DBT therapists to respond to hopelessness. One of them I liked it so much that I wanted to share it with families: "Painting Word Pictures." This has a bit of the art of storytelling and it requires some creativity as well as understanding dialectics. If you have someone who is feeling hopeless, I hope you will try it!

Dr. Dunkley describes Painting Word Pictures in 4 steps:

  1. Identify through conversation or guesswork what this hopeless person might like in the future.

  2. Choose something that is as mundane as possible. (meeting up with a friend, playing with children or pets, going to a work, etc.) Don’t go for extreme examples, such as, “I can see you winning a million-dollar lottery.”

  3. Describe it in real-time as if seeing it in a crystal ball.

  4. Describe some error or difficulty that you are watching in that real-time crystal ball and notice how they overcome it or just let it go and move past it. (This makes it more engaging and more believable.)

As an example you might say to your adolescent daughter: "Well I'm looking in my crystal ball and I see you have a job that pays pretty good and you are just getting home from the gym and walking into your new apartment! You're in good shape here and you are wearing some really cool yoga pants. You have a shopping bag and you set it on the countertop in your kitchen. What a beautiful kitchen you have!

"I hear your phone ringing. It is a friend who, uh-oh, she is really angry because you forgot to call her back when you said you would. You apologize profusely but she says it's the third time it happened so don't bother calling again and she hangs up. Aaawwww... You look really hurt and confused!

"Now the doorbell rings. Wow. It's some your new neighbors and they have homemade food and presents to welcome you to your new apartment. They look very friendly and they are all your age and they seem to be happy that you moved in. Wow, I see you later that night... and one of them knows your friend who hung up on you and said she did the same thing to her. It looks like you like your neighbors and they are so nice."

Another example of Painting Word Pictures if you know a young man who is suffering from hopelessness: "You know, I have this crystal ball here," cupping hands together, "and I can see you in ten years from now. You are at a desk at work. This is not some cubicle, you have a nice office. I can see you in this office, but there is something wrong. Oh my God. You picked up your coffee cup and just dribbled coffee on your white shirt. You are trying to clean it up but it's not working.

Now I see someone at the door of your office. He wants your advice. He says you know more about this situation that anyone else. He says everyone looks up to you because of your knowledge in this area. He explains the problem to you and you can't believe how simple the solution is. It really was no big deal. But this guy is so grateful for your suggestions and he seems to be envious of you! He says, I guess that's why they pay you the big bucks as he walks out the door."

Painting Word Pictures is not going to make everything all better. It may even be hard for your loved one to believe these stories. It's okay. Even if they say that they don't believe in crystal balls or that they just can't believe the story, they might not feel as bad as they reflect upon the possibility of a future life. You might even ask them if they can suspend their disbelief for just a few minutes even if they don't really believe it.

One of Dr. Dunkley's own examples might be useful for a depressed woman who has a young daughter: “Just a minute, is that you? Your hair is different. Looks like you are in a café waiting for someone. Oh my goodness, is that your daughter all grown up? Oooh, she’s got the new boyfriend with her; she’s brought you a magazine and two toilet rolls “on special offer” apparently. Oops, you’ve forgotten to put the money in the parking meter! Oh no, you’re going to have to rush out. No wait, the boyfriend’s going for you. Aw, he’s quite nice actually. He’s trying to impress you. Chloe’s asking if you like him. You’re smiling…”

If you are not a natural born storyteller, Painting Word Pictures can be planned out in advance. Take the time to sit down and jot down a story. Try it out on your loved one when they are expressing a lot of hopelessness. Keep in mind that you are just planting seeds. Manage their disbelief dialectically: it's not necessary to believe the story to feel a little relief.

Take care of yourself. Hopelessness might seem contagious sometimes. Get the support that you need. Hopefully, one day, your loved one can plant their own seeds for a future that is not entirely hopeless.

Corrine Stoewsand, Ph.D.

Corrine is offering a 12-week DBT Family Workshop, starting on March 18 for persons who have a family member or loved one with symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Read more about Behavioural Strategies for Addressing Hopelessness (part 1 and part 2) by Christine Dunkley at

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