What is Creative Hopelessness in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
When I was a younger man in my early twenties, I believed it was wrong to express anger. I thought it was a sign that you were losing control and that losing control was a weakness.
If I felt angry about something, I’d pretend I was OK. I avoided asking for help or support and tried hard to be easygoing. I wouldn’t talk about that if I felt sad, scared or ashamed.
What impact do you think that had on me?
What would it have been like for my friends and family?
Each of us learns patterns over how we deal with our emotions. Your experiences teach you how to cope. For example, if you were severely bullied at school, you adapt, possibly by keeping people at arm’s length. On the one hand, it would make you feel safer, and on the other hand, you’d subject yourself to loneliness.
Our minds develop rules designed to keep us safe and protect us from harm. Sometimes, rules work well and have little negative consequence. For example, you should always brush your teeth before bed and look both ways before crossing the road.
However, rule-following doesn’t always work because it can prevent you from responding to the nuances of the context. Take learning to be a therapist – tutors and supervisors could teach you how to be a therapist by giving you a set of rules to follow. These rules might look something like this:
- When a person seems depressed, you must get them to do behavioural activation
- Rumination makes depression worse, so start therapy by teaching them cognitive defusion
- Avoidance keeps problems going, so you must help your client always to accept their feelings
Do you recognise some of these rules?
I don’t think these rules are inherently good or bad. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is rooted in a philosophy called Functional Contextualism, which means you need to examine the context to determine if a rule is valid.
Because we are verbal beings, we live a lot in our heads. We get caught up with our thoughts, which can drive unhelpful behaviours. Creative Hopelessness is examining what you do, why you do it and what it leads to inside a specific context.
What do we mean by context?
Think of it as the environment in which your experiences take place. It can be where you are and who you are with, for example, close friends or people you don’t know.
Your context or environment also includes your private experiences, i.e. your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Your learning history influences what you think and feel, so it’s helpful to identify the rules and self-stories that shape your actions.
Creative Hopelessness is a contextual way of exploring functional analysis. In behavioural analysis, you use an ABC chart to capture the behaviours that cause problems. When working with a client, you discover the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come before the action. ACT calls these private events the Antecedents, showing one part of the context in which behaviours occur.
The ‘c’ stands for consequences – what happens after you perform a behaviour. Outcomes also form part of the context because they can influence whether the behaviour gets repeated in the future.
When do you complete a functional analysis?
You often do it at the start of therapy, and it doesn’t stop there. Despite early discoveries that specific behaviour patterns don’t work, people often continue to get stuck in the same loops.
Just think about some unhealthy or unhelpful patterns of behaviour you do. How long have you been trying to change them?
Creative Hopelessness is a helpful tool that helps you to notice when you are going round and round the loop. Instead of getting into the cycle with your client, you can invite them to choose – they can stay in the cycle or step off.
How do you do Creative Hopelessness?
There are different ways of intervening with a client’s dialogue in the therapy room, and experiential methods are often the most powerful. To begin with, try these five questions:
- Who and what is essential in your life? Looking back on your twenty-year experience, what would you have liked to have done with your life? [values clarification]
- What thoughts and feelings make it difficult to build these habits? [cognitive fusion]
- What do you do to control, push away, or eliminate this distress or discomfort? [experiential avoidance]
- What costs have you experienced as a result of these coping strategies? [consequences of behaviours]
- How well do they work? This question shines a light on the intention of your actions so that you can track their impact. It is a way of introducing experiential learning that is context-sensitive.
Creative hopelessness is essential to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy work because it reminds you and your client that understanding what you do is less important than why you do it. Together, you learn to assess the workability of your client’s actions.
Try this exercise first with your challenges. Pick a habit you’d like to reduce or establish. Use that experience as a platform for using it with a client.
I am grateful to learn that hiding my anger and other feelings didn’t work. I learned that avoidance was hopeless. My anger or shame wasn’t the problem; my avoidance was the problem.
In other words, it’s not the problem that is the problem; the solutions are the problem.