Making Art to Process Emotions: Hopelessness + Hope
Part 5: Wonky Spirals
💌 NOTE: This is Part 5 of a 5-part series. Read more with Part 1 (intro), Part 2 (anger), Part 3 (fear), or Part 4 (sadness).
Over the course of this series, I’ve covered three emotions: Anger, Fear, and Sadness. We’ve seen that these emotions are natural, important, and even beneficial—so long as we are able to process and cope with them.
But the question remains: why are we sometimes NOT able to cope with our emotions?
Sometimes our emotions are just too intense, too real, too all-encompassing. Isolated bursts of annoyance can snowball into a full-blown anger problem. Everyday worries can balloon into debilitating anxiety. And moments of sadness can ooze into aching depression.
We know the emotions themselves are not the issue. So why do we struggle to cope with them so much? What makes an emotion healthy vs harmful? When do emotions become dangerous?
Hopelessness: How We Feel It
I now believe there’s a key turning point that determines whether an emotion has become dangerous—when we begin to believe that things are hopeless.
It’s natural to feel angry when we are slighted. It’s normal to feel afraid when we are threatened. And it’s expected to feel sad after a loss. But if we begin to feel hopeless—if we believe there is no way out and no end to how we are feeling—that is when an emotion threatens to steamroll our lives.
Hopelessness appears when we’re not able to cope with our emotions. When we’re not able to voice our side of an injustice, feel safe from a threat, or accept changes after a loss. We fall deeper and deeper into the feeling, at some point getting so deeply stuck, we just can’t imagine a way out.
According to Brené Brown,
“Hopelessness arises out of a combination of negative life events and negative thought patterns, particularly self-blame and the perceived inability to change our circumstances. … When extreme hopelessness seeps into all the corners of our lives and combines with extreme sadness, we feel despair.”
When an emotion sinks down into hopelessness, it becomes more intense, more persistent, and more pervasive. Perhaps our sadness was kindled following a grandmother’s death. But if we are unable to cope, hopelessness ignites and we are now sad about seemingly everything ever and nothing at all. We’re no longer able to pinpoint why we are sad. All we know is that we are very, very, sad and it feels we will always be this way.
Hopelessness then causes our emotions to interfere with our ability to live our daily lives. Even the most simple of tasks, like taking a shower, begin to feel too much. It takes too much energy. It’s not worth the trouble. We feel alone, apathetic, lethargic, powerless, and stuck.
And unfortunately, in hopeless moments like that, it is intensely difficult to sit down to draw, even when we know it would help us. We are missing a key element. Most people think we need happiness to negate sadness, fear, or anger—they search and search for happiness. But we can’t process an emotion by feeling another emotion. What we actually need is hope.
Hope: How We Feel It
The Britannica Dictionary defines hope as:
“the feeling of wanting something to happen and thinking that it could happen”.
When we have hope we have something to look forward to. We are able to dream and imagine possibilities and pathways forward, even in the face of challenges. But according to emotion researchers, hope is not an emotion—it’s not something that just happens to us. Hope is a way of thinking and something we can cultivate ourselves.
According to researchers C. R. Snyder and Brené Brown, hope is,
“…a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.”
The concept that hope is a mindset we can develop is in itself hopeful because emotions often barge into our mind subconsciously—we don’t choose to be angry, afraid, or sad.
But a mindset is something we can actively build ourselves. Hope as a way of thinking is within our control and something we can train our minds to do.
Building a hopeful mindset requires a tolerance for disappointment, perseverance, and the belief that we can handle challenges.
It may seem paradoxical, but our struggle is actually a prerequisite to building up our tolerance, perseverance, and belief in ourselves. I can see in my own life that the more I’ve struggled, the more resilience I’ve developed. And so, we develop hope, not in spite of, but because of our struggles. We learn how to hope throughout our lives with every challenge we encounter.
We know that hope helps us struggle, struggle helps us hope, and drawing helps us process emotions. But when we feel hopeless, those insights seem untrue and sitting down to draw feels impossibly hard.
So how do we tap back into hope as artists? Where do we begin when even drawing feels hopeless?